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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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