Depictions of Legal or Historical Figures in Fiction

I have not seen Lincoln yet–it feels too much like work– but I may reconsider after reading something yesterday.  An excellent paper about James Wilson by Nicholas Pedersen (published in 2010) points out that one reason his modern reputation is poor is that he was depicted (inaccurately) as a loser in the musical 1776.  I must admit that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie, so it’s not something that I remembered.  Still, it’s worth thinking about.

I’m kind of wondering who else might fall into this category of “popular culture has treated them badly.”  Richard III might be a good example, though I don’t know enough about the War of the Roses to say.  When it comes to Americans, William Jennings Bryan comes to mind.  Most people who watch Inherit the Wind know that it is a thinly veiled portrayal of Bryan and the Scopes Trial, though they don’t typically know that its not an accurate version. Any other nominees?

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10 Responses

  1. Aaron says:

    Clint Eastwoods’ J. Edgar was widely criticized.

  2. Joe says:

    He was portrayed as a loser in 1776, but I question how much that affected his general reputation. Anyways, John Dickerson is portrayed as an ass in that movie too, so maybe that’s an example.

  3. mls says:

    Like Joe, I am skeptical of this theory, but just in case I will get to work on a musical adaptation of Pauline Maier’s Ratification, starring Craig Ferguson as a lovable James Wilson.

  4. Joe says:

    Our own Shag can play Ben Franklin.

  5. Shag from Brookline says:

    Joe, only if Ben’s Bar is reopened. (Wire eyeglasses were used as a symbol for Ben’s Bar.) When the weather is nice, we could sit at a table in the patio near Ben’s statue, view the rear of King’s Chapel and the rear of the adjacent burial ground and discuss why Ben really, really left Boston for Philadelphia.

  6. Steve Lubet says:

    Max Baer was portrayed as an arrogant villain in Cinderella Man, but he was actually a pretty lighthearted — even clownish — guy, who went on to appear in cinema comedies.

  7. Shag from Brookline says:

    As a follow up to #5, Jeffrey P. Kahn’s NYTimes essay “How Beer Gave Us Civilization” (3/15/13) includes this:

    “As the ever rational Ben Franklin supposedly said, ‘Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’”

    Query: did God also want us to pay taxes and eventually die?

  8. Joe says:

    Well, going by the Bible, the answer to #7 appears to be “yes.” See, e.g., Jesus’ “render to Caesar” comment by use of a Roman coin used to pay taxes as a prop & the limited life span set forth in Genesis, apparently later on to help people out so they can reach a more pleasant afterlife. At least, for some people it would be better off (see, e.g., Revelations, an early work of sci fi).

  9. Shag from Brookline says:

    Is Easter the exception that proves the “rule”?

  10. Thomas Gibbons NZ says:

    It’s not from popular culture, but what about Langdell? He seems to get a bad rap most of the time…