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AH On Screen: Wider Acceptance or Latest Fad?

#1
Didn't see a thread for discussion of AH on screen in general, as opposed to specific projects, so I thought I'd take a stab at it; if there is one, let me know and I'll move it there!

Though Alternate History has long had popularity in print, it seems only in the last 5-10 years (IMO, anyway) that this subgenre has really started to gain anything like popular appeal and recognition through movies and online/TV shows: SS-GB, Man in the High Castle, 11.22.63, Resistance, 1983, even comedic or dark examples like Watchmen and Inglourious Basterds, and family movies like The Good Dinosaur. Elements of "What If?" have of course been part of screen media for decades, in both the AH and traditional scenario fiction sense (Ex: Sliders, Star Trek TOS, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and of course video games like World in Conflict, Resistance: Fall of Man, Command & Conquer, Fallout, Wolfenstein, etc.), but explicitly AH shows and movies have, it seems, been almost nonexistent or relegated to independent projects that never received much fanfare--until recently. Some might argue that this is a long-delayed recognition and exploration of a great genre; others, that it's simply the latest fad. What are your thoughts?
 

Sulemain

Raise Your Fist, 95th!
Location
Coventry
#3
I think what's been good about it is that (with stuff like the "Soviet Moon Landing" show announced), it's moving beyond the "SOUTH/GERMANS WIN!" arche/stereotype.
I don't really want to sign up for Apple TV but that Soviet Moon Landing show (For All Mankind it's called) is very tempting.
 

Roberto El Rey

Unelected bureaucrat
Location
Reims
#4
My feelings on this are a bit mixed. On the one hand, it’d be great to live in a world where I don’t have to explain the entire concept of alternate history every time someone asks me what my hobbies are. On the other hand, if AH becomes just another widely-accepted genre of entertainment, then it probably won’t be long until forums like this one become even more flooded with 14-year-olds who clutter the message boards with awkward and sometimes-offensive political statements, vignettes obviously written for 9th grade creative writing classes, and half-baked TLs written with no research beyond Wikipedia articles.
 

napoleon IV

My Milkshakes Bring 30-50 Feral Hogs to the Yard
#5
My feelings on this are a bit mixed. On the one hand, it’d be great to live in a world where I don’t have to explain the entire concept of alternate history every time someone asks me what my hobbies are. On the other hand, if AH becomes just another widely-accepted genre of entertainment, then it probably won’t be long until forums like this one become even more flooded with 14-year-olds who clutter the message boards with awkward and sometimes-offensive political statements, vignettes obviously written for 9th grade creative writing classes, and half-baked TLs written with no research beyond Wikipedia articles.
I take the glass half-full approach. Yes, there will be a lot of shitty teenagers drawn to AH, but there will also be a lot of good writers who join. Plus, the shitty teens can be shaped into good writers and forum-goers by people like the ones on this forum.
 

Roberto El Rey

Unelected bureaucrat
Location
Reims
#6
I take the glass half-full approach. Yes, there will be a lot of shitty teenagers drawn to AH, but there will also be a lot of good writers who join. Plus, the shitty teens can be shaped into good writers and forum-goers by people like the ones on this forum.
Very true. Hell, I was a shitty teen when I first discovered AH.com and I like to thing I’ve evolved a bit since then. But then again, a wider acceptance of AH as a genre might attract people who aren’t actually interested in improving as AH writers or even learning about history, which might pose a bit of a problem.
 
#7
Very true. Hell, I was a shitty teen when I first discovered AH.com and I like to thing I’ve evolved a bit since then. But then again, a wider acceptance of AH as a genre might attract people who aren’t actually interested in improving as AH writers or even learning about history, which might pose a bit of a problem.
If they're not interested in learning or improving, they're liable to get very bored very quickly, and go off in a huff. Unless a lot join at much the same time, they'll find that they'll largely talking to a vacuum. I always try to explain any criticisms I have of writing; I'm aware that there are people who ask for comments when what they want is adulation, and I'm not that person. If they aren't interested in improving, they'll go away; if they are interested in improving, they'll probably get better.

vignettes obviously written for 9th grade creative writing classes,
This is a very personal att
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
Location
Nu Yawk
#9
I take the glass half-full approach. Yes, there will be a lot of shitty teenagers drawn to AH, but there will also be a lot of good writers who join. Plus, the shitty teens can be shaped into good writers and forum-goers by people like the ones on this forum.
I have even more of a glass-half-full approach. Part of it is like the science fiction boom after Star Wars-yes, the writers of more serious sci-fi had justification in grumbling about how it was being taken over by laser sword space operas, but just attracting so many people to the genre at all meant more people could and did look deeper.

But I also think that a large number of people coming in who think in terms of narratives would be very good. All the caveats about internet fiction apply, and Sturgeon definitely is still there. But even with that in mind, having lots of fresh people eager for alternate history who come in and start writing conventional stories with characters with no attachment whatsoever to the restrictive, flaw-amplifying "TL" format would be a very good thing.
 

Roberto El Rey

Unelected bureaucrat
Location
Reims
#10
This is a very personal att
...On myself as much as anyone else (see: every short story that I submitted to my high school literary magazine between ages 14 and 17)

I think it's the next few years that'll be the clincher- if the attempts to move beyond Nazis/Confederate victories are moderately successful, it'll come back again even if there's a lull. If not, it's probably just going to be a passing craze.
Agreed. I think the real test will be if AH movies and shows can successfully make it past AH scenarios that are immediately familiar to the target audience. While many of the examples listed in the original post eschew the Confedereich stuff, most of the scenarios are still fairly recent and obvious: what if JFK hadn’t been shot, what if Communism were still around (which I imagine is a common question asked on Polish boards), etc. I know this is wishful thinking, but if someone were to make a miniseries that takes a relatively obscure POD (e.g. what if the Spanish Armada hadn’t been sunk, what if Napoleon never came to power) and examines how life would be different now in a fairly realistic way, that might serve as the basis for an entirely new type of AH media that prioritizes plausibility almost as much as it prioritizes mass audience appeal. In a few years, we’ll probably be raving about a single movie or series that was so great it kickstarted AH as a respectable, independent subgenre, or—god forbid—cursing the creators of a series that was so bad it delegitimized AH as a genre for years to come.
 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
#12
Other upside is more AH on TV means more people looking for AH, means more sales of Sea Lion books, means more money and money can be exchanged for goods and services

Yes, there will be a lot of shitty teenagers drawn to AH, but there will also be a lot of good writers who join. Plus, the shitty teens can be shaped into good writers and forum-goers by people like the ones on this forum.
Exactly: the bulk of writers online were shitty teens at some point, writing Digimon Battle The Demon Headmaster fanfics of 1000 pages or whatever was their pet interest when they were teens.
 
#13
I know this is wishful thinking, but if someone were to make a miniseries that takes a relatively obscure POD (e.g. what if the Spanish Armada hadn’t been sunk, what if Napoleon never came to power) and examines how life would be different now in a fairly realistic way, that might serve as the basis for an entirely new type of AH media that prioritizes plausibility almost as much as it prioritizes mass audience appeal.
I actually spotted something dealing with an alternate Spanish Armada while browsing for AH screen examples; can't recall whether it was a TV episode or a movie in itself, but I believe it involved Philip II altering the timeline in the wake of the Armada's failure, and thus creating a longer-lasting Spanish Empire.
 

Jared

Voldemort Junior
Location
Over the rainbow
#14
But I also think that a large number of people coming in who think in terms of narratives would be very good. All the caveats about internet fiction apply, and Sturgeon definitely is still there. But even with that in mind, having lots of fresh people eager for alternate history who come in and start writing conventional stories with characters with no attachment whatsoever to the restrictive, flaw-amplifying "TL" format would be a very good thing.
It may be just me, but I would prefer that the timeline format live on. Sure, it can be done pretty badly much of the time, but that's true of any format. Sturgeon's Law applies to lots of things, timelines included. But the best-written timelines bring a perspective on an alternate world which is not easily duplicated by a narrative format.
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
Location
Nu Yawk
#16
It may be just me, but I would prefer that the timeline format live on. Sure, it can be done pretty badly much of the time, but that's true of any format. Sturgeon's Law applies to lots of things, timelines included. But the best-written timelines bring a perspective on an alternate world which is not easily duplicated by a narrative format.
I'd agree, in spite of all my criticism, that there are advantages to the timeline format. I wouldn't want it to disappear-in fact, having fewer new entrants be attracted to the TL format is something I'd feel that would actually be good for it. This may come across as being an elitist snob, but my feeling is that it's good for a subgenre if people go in because they truly think a work fits and not because of bandwagon jumping.

TLs work, IMO, when:

  • There's a lot of material in the background/worldbuilding that couldn't be adequately conveyed in a normal story without a lot of exposition gimmicks (ie, conference rooms).
  • The material has to be engaging enough-it has to feel (not necessarily be, but feel) right, be detailed, and be interesting.

Where I think the TL format stumbles a lot is...

  • Most importantly, the "floor" is lower than in a narrative (and this includes low-quality internet fiction). I've read much more than my share of less-than-ideally written books, so I feel comfortable saying this. This is what I meant by "flaw-amplifying". It's harder to go "oh, that's a plausibility issue but the story itself is better" when that exposition is the story.
  • When the material isn't engaging. If it's formulaic or hopelessly inaccurate or both.
  • The TL format may be hard to write well, but in terms of being able to be written at all, it's extremely easy. So it's easy to turn what should be an expression of detail (look at the endnotes in our own Drake's Drum, a mostly TL-styled work I did enjoy) into an avoidance of detail.
 

Skinny87

It Has Been ZERO Days Since I Mentioned John Major
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
#17
I think we might have strayed sonewhat from the point of the thread, guys

I have some thoughts that I'll hopefully be able to post tomorrow. But, briefly, I think the development of CGI to the extent that it can now be used relatively cheaply in T.V. series (such as High Castle) has allowed a lot more AH series to be developed because now there's the technology to realise the alternate world without resorting to camera trickery and expensive extras, or having to rely more on script exposition
 
#18
One concern I have with a wider AH screen presence (in the case of adaptations of printed works) is the same as with other book-to-movie projects: how closely the movie adheres to the original material, and how any acting or cinematography styles as well as (arguably) necessary updates add or detract from it. Ex: I recently finished the BBC adaptation of SS-GB, and while I felt the overall plot and many specific elements were kept intact, some of the character and event changes seemed unnecessary (such as the lead character Archer's overdone raspy voice, and some characters surviving or dying when/where they didn't in the story), or just intended to have happier outcomes that would appeal to a vague idea of "the audience." A former English prof once said to me that books which are pure plot can transfer fairly well to the screen (Ludlum's Bourne series was the example he used), and Deighton's novel did have that vibe for me, so I wasn't too upset at the changes; nevertheless, the above issues and the ending bothered me enough that I won't be adding it to my movie shelf.

On the other hand, an adaptation like Man in the High Castle strikes me as the latest attempt to milk a single, relatively short story far beyond all it's worth, pasting on numerous unnecessary characters and plot elements along with other alterations to stretch it out over as many seasons as possible. Some of that might be Ridley Scott's style (I don't hate it, but am very ambivalent/case-by-case about it), while the rest seems to be Amazon looking to cash in, ignoring quality for quantity/longevity. Some might say it's trying to tap into widespread doom-and-gloom attitudes among viewers (especially since 2016); while there may be some truth to that, it's not enough to make me watch them butcher a classic. :)
 

Ed Costello

meaningless Light
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Location
The Pool of Life
#19
One concern I have with a wider AH screen presence (in the case of adaptations of printed works) is the same as with other book-to-movie projects: how closely the movie adheres to the original material, and how any acting or cinematography styles as well as (arguably) necessary updates add or detract from it. Ex: I recently finished the BBC adaptation of SS-GB, and while I felt the overall plot and many specific elements were kept intact, some of the character and event changes seemed unnecessary (such as the lead character Archer's overdone raspy voice, and some characters surviving or dying when/where they didn't in the story), or just intended to have happier outcomes that would appeal to a vague idea of "the audience." A former English prof once said to me that books which are pure plot can transfer fairly well to the screen (Ludlum's Bourne series was the example he used), and Deighton's novel did have that vibe for me, so I wasn't too upset at the changes; nevertheless, the above issues and the ending bothered me enough that I won't be adding it to my movie shelf.
I do feel the SS-GB adaptation gets a bit of an unfair rap on this forum. It’s by no means perfect (Archer’s voice and that final scene are the ones that spring to mind, along with some of the pacing changes), but it also addresses some of the problems and faults of the book.

The climactic Bringle Sands scene, for instance: in the book it felt rushed, and even after reading it thrice I didn’t understand elements of it. Translated to the screen, it becomes crystal clear what happens. Likewise, the final scene between Hutu and Archer is far more potent, given neither of them have been subjected to the relentless wearing-down of their novel counterparts.

This is small change, however, compared to what I consider the actual strength of the TV version – namely, treating its female characters as actual people rather than cyphers for various aspects of Archer’s psyche. In the book, Sylvia is an unpleasant little shrew with no redeeming qualities, whose membership of the Resistance is less important than her attempts to coerce Archer into loving her; Barbara exists purely as a means for the author to deliver exposition and break his protagonist. Neither of them has any agency; neither even gets the dignity of an on-page death.* Changing their fates might mean less fidelity to the novel, but in my opinion it makes for a much better story.

*I have to admit, I had such an overwhelmingly negative reaction to Barbara’s death in the novel that it irrevocably ruined the entire novel for me. It was cruel, needless and arbitrary and I honestly don’t see how they could have stayed faithful to the novel and made it at all satisfying.
 
#20
The climactic Bringle Sands scene, for instance: in the book it felt rushed, and even after reading it thrice I didn’t understand elements of it. Translated to the screen, it becomes crystal clear what happens. Likewise, the final scene between Hutu and Archer is far more potent, given neither of them have been subjected to the relentless wearing-down of their novel counterparts.

This is small change, however, compared to what I consider the actual strength of the TV version – namely, treating its female characters as actual people rather than cyphers for various aspects of Archer’s psyche. In the book, Sylvia is an unpleasant little shrew with no redeeming qualities, whose membership of the Resistance is less important than her attempts to coerce Archer into loving her; Barbara exists purely as a means for the author to deliver exposition and break his protagonist. Neither of them has any agency; neither even gets the dignity of an on-page death.* Changing their fates might mean less fidelity to the novel, but in my opinion it makes for a much better story.
All very good points, and ones I admit I likely didn't notice the last time I read the book; it's been a while since I have, and though I know most of it by heart, a re-reading might point out the issues you raised. I also admit to liking how Harry Woods was portrayed (almost spot on to the image I had from the book, and without the possibly unnecessary final reveal from Kellerman), although the series kind of left his character thread hanging, IMO. Strict adherence to original material isn't always a good thing (If LOTR had been done that way, it would've been six movies, or three six-hour slogs :D ), but I feel that if major events, persons, or elements are changed in the name of "updating" the work, then it can't be a true adaptation. As ever, the balance between fidelity to the original work (AH and not) and expanding/changing to reach wider audiences is difficult to maintain, and I've often come down on one side or the other on a case-by-case basis.
 
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