Murder at Harvard

I liked the documentary Murder at Harvard.  I didn’t love it but it was entertaining.  I am not a huge fan of the reenactment.  I think it works sometimes but in this case I think it did take away from the seriousness of history.  It made it a bit hokey.  I am not a big fan of the type of conjecture that is presented in this documentary.  When Schama wonders the type of face he made when he was outside his door is ridiculous and really not important. 

The book has more info on the backgrounds of the individuals and other information.  This is not unusual when books are turned into film.  The book was a bit hard to read.  I have read a number of books about court cases and it seems to work best when the facts are presented in a way that does not bring up conjecture.  The author does tend to have his ideas about who the guilty party is but it is usually followed up by hard evidence.  But even books leave out facts in a case that

She may find not important but you do.

Two things seem to happen when history is presented in a less traditional format.  People who are more versed in academic history tend to protest against it.  They question its validity.  They ask what knowledge or education the author/presenter of the story has and how that affects the validity of the subject.  They question his sources to see if the sources are valid.  This is their job.  But history presented in les traditional formats does not mean it is bad history.

Less traditional formats tend to be more interesting for the mass culture.  The mass culture does not generally have the interest or knowledge to hear about history at the level of academia.  It comes off as boring and bland and sometimes it really is!  But this less traditional format makes the mass culture more interested.  In the interview with the makers of Murder at Harvard said that it would be great if their documentary caused people to become interested in history and went to the library.  The key is to keep historical integrity while making history interesting to mass culture.

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3 Responses
  1. jlapple says:

    I agree with your comment regarding less traditional formats for presentation of historical content. For me, unless the facts are grounded in a story format, I tend to get lost in the facts and disengage from the content. Through storytelling, history is taken to a new level, allowing the viewer to feel as though he or she is part of the event. In this regard, there is more connection with material both in the context of the time, and in relation to the present. This is important for breaking down the barriers of time and space that separate us from history and prevent us from exploring beyond the surface facts.

  2. sblaher says:

    I agree that for us as academic historians, that the documentary took away from the “seriousness” of the actual events. As academics it’s in our nature to turn away from anything that’s not complete fact and isn’t at least trying to remain objective. I disagree, however, that his question about the man’s facial expressions is “ridiculous and really not important.” While it’s not important for historical fact, it is important as far as understanding the emotions and motives of the character. One aspect that the general public tends to desire in reading about history is the human component. Most academic histories tend to overlook the human factor, the “why” of what people did, instead favoring the who, how and when. But the general public wants to know why. When reading someone’s facial expression, it’s often easier to see at least part of the “why.” Was he angry or upset or blase about the whole thing? This is how Schama tried to bring the interest of the audience (more likely to be the general population than academics) into the story. So while it may seem like nonsense to a historian, to the average joe it’s incredibly important.

  3. jhubai says:

    I actually agree with you about motive completely. It is a huge part of the story and the reason why people commit crime. You make an incredibly important point about the “why” of history. When I said I thought it was a hokey scene, I completely meant the literally trying to see his exact facial expression, not how he was feeling. We don’t even know what the guy looks like!