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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Tony Curtis and Spartacus

Today I listened to a replay of an National Public Radio interview in 1991 with the late Tony Curtis. The actor, who passed away on September 29, was reminiscing about a strategy that director Stanley Kubrick used in adapting novelist Howard Fast’s Spartacus for the big screen.

Curtis, who played a young Sicilian slave in the drama about Rome’s Third Servile War, said Kubrick cast British actors for the Roman characters and American actors for the slaves to subconsciously evoke a sense of class and cultural differences between the two warring factions. The actor recalled that this was a trick often employed by Hollywood moguls who believed that Americans equated British accents and mannerisms with higher intelligence and superiority of class.

This casting choice is a variation on the mimetic theme that we’ve discussed previously. Historical novelists can never realistically recreate the language of ancient civilizations and keep the story accessible to modern readers. Instead, clever ones will subtly interject English words from the Victorian or other eras that sound archaic today, but are nevertheless still comprehensible. Doing so, they trick the reader’s eye and ear into suspending belief and entering what feels like an ancient mindset.