Even in grade school, I’d noticed that history books would sometimes take a different approach to this or that historical incident than autobiographies of individuals who’d participated in the actual incidents. And I noticed that in the entertainment world people often discussed the changes that get made between books and movies based on the books. For many years I simply accepted these various kinds of changes—these revisions—as more or less random expressions of different personalities reacting to the complexities of the world around us.
The first time I began to think about revisions more deeply was after I read Bram Stoker’s great novel, “Dracula.” Of the endless vampire movies I’d seen, I was struck by the fact that whether the films were made in Europe, Britain or America, whether they were big budget or low, highbrow or low, the filmmakers seemed to pick very similar things to change and very similar things to retain when they adapted Stoker’s vampire story as a film. At that point, however, I didn’t really have a clue about what kind of dynamics might be shaping these strange similarities in revisions.
About the time I was fifteen or so, however, Susan Brownmiller wrote her amazing feminist study of violence against women. When I read her brief discussion of Gilles de Rais, I realized revisions really are a part of our entire world, and I began to get a handle on at least some of the psychological and social forces at work that drive reality revisionism.
Here is Brownmiller on Gilles de Rais:
...Another Chivalric fifteenth-century figure whose personal life-style was so truly shocking that history gave him a new identity and modified image is Gilles de Rais, the original Bluebeard. A French nobleman and soldier extraordinaire who served as Joan of Arc’s lieutenant on the field of battle, in his later life Gilles indulged a fondness for small boys to extravagant proportions. He abducted, raped and murdered between forty and one hundred (estimates vary) peasant youths at his Brittany castle. After a notorious trial he was executed in 1440. In his final confession Gilles admitted to having been influenced by the life of Caligula and other Caesars who “sported with children and took singular pleasure in martyring them.” The most amazing part of the Gilles de Rais story is that the legend of Bluebeard’s Castle that we know today has metamorphosed from a terrifying account of a sex-murderer of small boys to a glorified fantasy of a devilish rake who killed seven wives for their “curiosity.” It is almost as if the truth of Bluebeard’s atrocities was too frightening to men to survive in the popular imagination—but turned about so that Bluebeard’s victims were acceptably female, the horror was sufficiently diminished (but not, of course, to women). Charles Perrault, who included the heterosexual version in his tales of Mother Goose, probably deserves the credit for the turnabout of the Bluebeard legend, which had its most recent incarnation in the form of a Richard Burton movie widely advertised with pictures of seven pretty, young women, each in the throes of a different, terrible and violent death.
“Against Our Will”