The past, according to the past: Total War: Three Kingdoms and adapting historical fiction

This blog has mostly concerned itself so far with the question of how to translate our understandings of the past into a piece of fiction to be consumed by a modern audience. We run into an entirely different problem, however, when we try to adapt a piece of fiction for modern audiences which is itself a work of historical fiction. The view of the past is, in a way, double-filtered: once by the original creator, and again by the current one. Should creators and adapters prioritise the best understanding modern historians have of the period being predicted, or should they adopt the conventions and understandings of that period held by the original author?

The example I’ll be using in this post is Total War: Three Kingdoms, Creative Assembly’s upcoming strategy game set in ancient China, adapting the 16th-century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Romance details the Three Kingdoms period of China, during which the Han Empire broke up into multiple warring states for around 100 years, and it takes multiple historical figures from the time and interprets them as heroic, villainous, admirable, or despicable according to the political mores and ideals of the Ming dynasty, when it was written.

Total War: Three Kingdoms draws on Chinese history, but also dramatic depictions of Chinese history. Does this make it less ‘historical’?

The historical gulf here is vast and bifurcated: over a thousand years of difference between the events depicted in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE and the 16th-century writing of the novel, and roughly four hundred years between the writing of the novel and the production of the video game. Creative Assembly is no stranger to large historical gulfs of this kind; their earliest-set Total War campaign is the Wrath of Sparta DLC for Rome 2, depicting the Peloponnesian War and beginning in 432 BCE.  However, there is a specific challenge in framing the game as an adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, rather than simply a historical game set during the period Romance depicts.

This challenge is most easily illustrated for a western audience by considering a different adaptation of a piece of historical fiction: BBC’s The Hollow Crown, specifically that series’ Henry V. The Hollow Crown is a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Major Tetralogy, comprising Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V; this last play concerns itself greatly with the prosecution of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The concepts of national identity in the early 15th century, when Henry V is set, were, although being defined by the conflict between England and France, still somewhat nebulous[1]. Shakespeare, however, writing in 1599 for a late-16th-century audience, confidently asserts an ‘English’ identity for the soldiers under Henry V, as well as the King and nobles.

This makes sense for a 16th-century play, as the strengthening of an ‘English’ identity was an important political project at the time[2]. The Hollow Crown, produced by the BBC for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012[3], frames itself in its mise-en-scene and costuming as a semi-accurate adaptation of a story about the Hundred Years’ War, filming in period castles, using period costumes, etc. However, being an adaptation of Shakespeare, it transmits Shakespeare’s construction of an ‘English’ identity that is somewhat anachronistic to the period it’s portraying. Further, it casts Paterson Joseph, a man of colour, as the Duke of York – injecting a modern concept of civic nationalism into Shakespeare’s interpretation of the Hundred Years’ War[4].  What we’re left with, then, is a strange mishmash: a historical event being filtered through a later gaze, which is in itself being commented upon by a modern production.

The Hollow Crown, like Shakespeare’s play, emphasises ‘English’ identity – but a 16th-century view of English identity that is far removed from the English identity intelligible in 1415. Should The Hollow Crown cleave to 15th-century attitudes, or 16th? Does this make it legitimate for the film to comment on modern changes to what constitutes ‘English’ identity? 

Is it correct to consider The Hollow Crown: Henry V, then, as a modern piece of historical fiction and assess it on that level? Or is it better to think of it as an adaptation of Shakespeare which happens to borrow the aesthetics of a historical period? Does the production’s use of a modern interpretation of medieval aesthetics mean it should be assessed as a portrayal of the medieval period? Or is it an imagination of how Shakespeare, if he lived in modern Britain and held modern British values, might have imagined the past?

The 2012 Cultural Olympiad also included Sacrilege, a bouncy castle based on Stonehenge, reinterpreting what was likely a religious ritual site as a children’s playground. Re-evaluating and examining Britain’s history (within approved limits) was a major point of the initiative.

This conflict can be even more complicated when it comes to Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As Hyuk-Chan Kwon notes in his essay in Playing with the Past[5], many modern video game adaptations of the novel, developed by Japanese studios for a predominantly Japanese market, are heavily influenced by the 20th-century rewriting of the Romance by Yoshikawa Eiji, which recasts the narrative through the genre tropes of samurai fiction, emphasising the feudal relationship between samurai and daimyo and thus the structure of a feudal society – a structure that did not necessarily exist in the warring states period of Chinese history and is not precisely depicted by the original Romance[6]. The structure of many of these games, casting the player as a feudal lord who must recruit heroes and conquer territory, with an emphasis on the relationship between warrior and overlord, reflects that cultural understanding of the work as much as it does the original Romance.

Many adaptations of the Romance are based on Japanese retellings – to the point where series based on the Romance are often highly similar in gameplay to series based on Japanese history, despite these being two very different periods.

When we consider Total War: Three Kingdoms, then, we are examining a game, developed by an English studio, portraying China’s 2nd and 3rd centuries through the lens of a 15th-century Chinese novel, awaiting release into a landscape of video game adaptations of that novel heavily influenced by a 20th-century Japanese rewriting of that novel. To say the game’s relationship with history is complex is an understatement. Creative Assembly have bridged this massive intertextual gulf in an interesting way, however.

Total War: Three Kingdoms can be played in two modes. First is ‘Romance’ mode, which draws inspiration from the Romance and reflects the larger-than-life characters in the novel and in the contemporary culture of Romance adaptations, emphasising duels between heroes who can decimate entire units of commoners, with equipment that is more ceremonial, stylised, or later period than what would be historically accurate, and so on. Second is ‘Records’ mode, in which many anachronistic or stylised elements are removed. Individual hero units are rendered as generals with personal bodyguards, units manoeuvre more slowly, and equipment is far more period-appropriate. Both modes’ campaign sections focus heavily on the political and personal relationships between characters, with loyalties, friendships, and rivalries developing based on player orders or sandbox circumstance. However, in ‘Romance’ mode, relationships and scripted events are based on the sequence of events in the novel, whereas in ‘Records’ mode those relationships and events are based on history. The core gameplay loops are essentially the same, but one mode is an adaptation of a massively culturally-significant work of fiction, and the other is in many ways an interrogation of that work of fiction with regards to its historical accuracy[7].

All of these examples raise important questions about adapting works of fiction. When we create works of fiction about the past, are we presenting the past as it was at the time, the past as it was understood at a later date, or the past as we understand it now? Can we disentangle modern understandings and presentations of the past from the cultural baggage that has grown up through prior presentations? Should we?

Adapting and analysing works of historical fiction which are themselves historical can shed interesting new insights on the period in which they were created; Henry V emphasises patriotism and national identity in an anachronistic way to show support for English military efforts in 1599 – but that same emphasis can be co-opted to construct a different narrative of national unity during a major sporting event[8]. A novel can be written to legitimate neo-Confucian ideology by examining the Three Kingdoms period and be reinterpreted as a legitimation of a constructed image of a feudal social structure. In looking at these works as products of their times as well as representations of past periods, we can understand their times – and reinterpret their values and concerns with our own.

Ultimately, historical fiction is not just about representing the past. It’s about using the past to speak to the present. Our historical fiction will be used by future historians to understand our views of our world, as well as our views of the past, just as past historical fiction has been used by us. If this blog has made you think about one thing, let it be this: how does this representation of history reflect the context and purpose of its own production? Total War: Three Kingdoms will reflect its context. Battlefield V will reflect its context. How they use visions of the past to articulate their views of the present, and to act within the constraints of their medium and genre, is, I feel, a more interesting – and probably more relevant – question than whether or not they are strictly ‘accurate’.

[1] There is debate among medievalists whether non-noble retainers and peasantry within Henry V’s would have considered themselves ‘English’ as an identity category, rather than identifying themselves with their region of origin (like ‘Lancashire’ or ‘London’) or the noble they served.

[2] Relating to an ongoing geopolitical conflict with the Spanish Empire, anxieties over the religious sway of the Church of England as opposed to the Catholic Church, and, in the play’s earliest forms, an immediate justification for (and, in Shakespeare’s subtle way, examination of) a military campaign in Ireland.

[3] An adjunct to an Olympic Games where an ethnically-diverse Team GB competed, and part of a government-driven narrative around the Games highlighting both the United Kingdom’s history and its diversity.

[4] And dovetailing with a practice of somewhat colour-blind casting in British theatre.

[5] A series of essays analysing the presentation of history found in contemporary video games; Bloomsbury, 2013, page 123.

[6] And is itself a revisionist construction of historical Japanese social relations authorised by a nationalist government in a time of war; Eiji’s rewriting was serialised in a newspaper from 1939-1941.

[7] Adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms which focus on historical accuracy and reinterrogate the novel’s casting of characters as heroes or villains based on the political and social mores of Ming China are common, so this isn’t a new thing, but it is interesting to find it in the same game as a more straightforward adaptation.

[8] Indeed, the use of sections of Henry V at English sporting events is almost as ubiquitous as the co-opting of its story beats for war movies.

One thought on “The past, according to the past: Total War: Three Kingdoms and adapting historical fiction”

  1. Really enjoyed this one, especially the Henry V example. Will have to rewatch The Hollow Crown. I suppose another example is Ian MacKellan in Richard III, which is a modern reinterpretation based on a 30s dictatorship, from Shakespeare’s Tudor apologist viewpoint which is based on Thomas More;s ‘History of Richard III which has very little to do with actual history and more (see what I did there?) to do with maintaining the Tudor ‘right’ to the throne.

    I will be interested to see how this game works when it comes out. I will be buying the book. I enjoyed The Water Margin, so would probably enjoy this.


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