Murder at Harvard – the book and American Experience episode – are both distinctive for their use of varied perspective. The book alternates between first person (from the perspective of actual historical figures) and omniscient third-person narration. In doing so, it tells the story of Webster’s trial and implies that telling history is difficult and fraught with uncertainty. The film version alternates between omniscient third-person and first-person from the (meta-nonfictional?) perspective of the author. In doing so, this version tells the story about writing a history fraught with uncertainty. What is only implied in the book is explicitly stated in the film.
The film is much more successful because it is explicit. The metafictional narrative device of inserting the author into a fictional plot has been a well-worn (even cliche) tool of authors ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Richard Powers, and likely promises little to young authors. Yet this device was very effective in a nonfictional setting. It allowed Schama and the American Experience filmmakers to engaging (and even exciting) stage reenactments, yet pick apart those reenactments for their inherent flaws.
Our readings last week demonstrated that historical documentaries typically struggle with the philosophical implications of staged reenactments. We’ve also learned that these reenactments (even fully fictionalized history-based Hollywood films) can be educational when presented properly. Inserting the historian’s first-person voice, then, can allow historians to stage fictional reenactment and directly, consciously explain how that reenactment is constructed. Such techniques could make history both engaging, nuanced, and sophisticated.