If you haven’t heard of Thor: The Dark World, you probably don’t watch television, and you’re one of the few people who missed Marvel’s Avengers when it topped the box office last year. But while the Marvel film might have top the charts, it’s not the only Viking-inspired film to hit screens big and small. It is, however, probably the film least expected to resemble anything from history. Vikingdom, a Malaysian film that was released in the U.S. October 4, has faced some controversy about whether it’s truly based on Viking mythology, and the hit scripted mini-series on the History Channel, Vikings, was both praised and derided for its fictional elements. How true to history does any Viking inspired film or series need to be?
Filmmaker Yusry Halim came under fire from a Nordic mythology expert, Karl Seigfried, for claiming that his new film Vikingdom was based on Nordic mythology. The film features Thor—traditional protector of humanity—as the antagonist, a concept that Seigfried feels is offensive to modern practitioners of Ástarú, the Old Norse religion. Yusry responded that the film is fantasy, and that—like their Western counterparts—the filmmakers have taken creative license. He noted that the video game God of War features Greek god Zeus as an antagonist, but felt that Western filmmakers are expected to take creative license, while Asian filmmakers are criticized for it.
Worse, Yusry felt his arguments about the film’s merits had been misquoted and mistranslated by media outlets, which added fuel to Seigfried’s fire. In a YouTube video, reported in the Yahoo! News article, “Yusry releases ‘Vikingdom’ video statement,” posted September 27, 2013, Yusry offered further explanation: “One [article] mentioned that I said that the Westerners can’t really [prove] that the Vikings existed, which is a misquote. I might live in this small part of the world in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but over here, we too have the History Channel… Admittedly I don’t know as much about Vikings as Dr. Seigfried does and I’ve never claimed to be a Viking expert. This is the same as how Steven Spielberg can’t claim himself to be a palaeontologist or dinosaur expert just because he directed Jurassic Park.” Whether the controversy will help or hinder the film, which is the first-ever Malaysian film to be released theatrically in the United States, has yet to be seen.
History Channel Vikings
Funny that Yusry should mention the History Channel, given that its production of Vikings, a scripted mini-series, also came under fire for not being historically accurate. The show was never promoted as being based on real history, but instead along the vein of HBO’s The Tudors, which, like Vikings, was created and written by Michael Hirst. With the main character, Ragnar, pulled from history, Vikings is full of not just battle, blood, and gore, but speculation on what might have been on the mind of a real Viking. “This is the show’s real strength, the way it effortlessly ushers us into Ragnar’s life and carefully considers its characters, giving them a depth that transcends all the violent stuff (which is, by the way, marvelously shot),” Washington Post critic Hank Stuever wrote in his review, “History’s Vikings provides gore and more,” March 3, 2013. Stuever compared the mini-series to The Sopranos, HBO’s Rome, and Game of Thrones.
So far, so good. But this is the History Channel, after all. What about the details? LiveScience contributor Monty Dobson of Central Michigan University, who noted in “Obsessed with the good and the bad of ‘Vikings’” how irritated his academic peers were with the program, pointed out a number of flaws with the show—most of all the costuming, which “is a bit more seedy 70’s leather bar than early medieval Scandinavia.” But overall, Dobson felt the show’s greatest virtue was that it might get viewers more interested in real history. “I suppose I am less bothered by these factual lapses than some of my colleagues because I get that it’s fiction. It is not a conference paper or journal article and let’s face it, if it were no one would watch.”
Thor: The Dark World
Although Seigfried has critiqued Marvel’s Thor on his blog as it has been presented on paper and screen, there are few critics who expect the comic book feature to have any real resemblance to Viking mythology. But given the popularity of previous installments, viewers of Thor: The Dark World are unlikely to be concerned, so long as it delivers the same kind of action and adventure as the earlier films. And savvy watchers know to keep their eyes open for exclusive television previews during Marvel’s other current project: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC.
Do you expect films to respect the history they reference? Tell us in the comments.