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Royals and revolutions

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  October 8, 2006 03:30 PM

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Like Chris Shea, I was surprised by the TV ad that takes the trouble to footnote Sofia Coppola's new movie, "Marie Antoinette," as "based on a true story." But when I mentioned it to a friend last week, she reminded me of another dumb-Americans tale, this one attached to 1994's "Madness of King George."

The film (with wonderful Helen Mirren as yet another English queen) was originally titled "The Madness of George III," the story went, but the distributors renamed it, worried that Yanks would think it was a sequel to two movies they'd never heard of.

False, says Snopes.com, debunker of urban legends. The Alan Bennett play on which the film was based was indeed "The Madness of George III," but the movie itself was always and everywhere "The Madness of King George."

But is it as "false" as Snopes's red-lettered verdict implies? The explanation goes on, a bit defensively:

Although Nicholas Hytner, the film's director, admitted that the claim is "not totally untrue," he also divulged that the most important factor was that "it was felt necessary to get the word King into the title." The change was not primarily motivated by a perceived need to cater to Americans' alleged gullibility or ignorance, but by a prudent recognition of cultural differences. . . . America has always been a nation without royalty, and thus using "King George" in the title established much more clearly to American audiences that this was a film about a monarch than "George III" would have.

By the end, the author of the entry is admitting "perhaps there is a little bit of truth to this one."

And Bennett himself, if he didn't come up with the "sequel" joke, liked it enough to use it. A 1999 report in Literature/Film Quarterly says that the story "is probably apocryphal -- though with typical slyness, the author himself claims it was true."

"This was a marketing decision," Bennett writes in the preface to the published version of the screenplay, "a survey having apparently shown that there were many moviegoers who came away from Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V wishing they had seen its four predecessors."

An insult to the audience, or just the awful truth? Ask the Hungarian Cultural Center, whose billboard in Times Square is pictured in today's New York Times. It might be an ad for an art film, this bleak photo with "1956 Hungary" lettered across a Soviet tank, and that's the point. The tagline: "Our revolution was not a movie."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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