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How Tom Hanks makes History Interesting

The current issue of Time features Tom Hanks on the cover. They have anointed him as America’s Historian in Chief for producing From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, John Adams and The Pacific. The article then mentions his idea of making history interesting

What differentiates Hanks from the academic past masters is his conviction that the historical experience should be a very personal one. He harbors a pugnacious indignation against history as data gathering, preferring the work of popular historians like McCullough, Ambrose, Barbara Tuchman and Doris Kearns Goodwin. He wants viewers to identify with their ancestors, allowing them to ponder the prevalence of moral ambiguity, human willpower and plain dumb luck in shaping the past. And he wants to be transported back in time, with a Sousa band banging the drum loudly.

As Hanks’ star rose in the 1990s, he sought out new sources of what he calls “entertainable historical knowledge.” Leon Uris’ fact-anchored novels — Mila 18, Armageddon and Exodus — taught Hanks to feel history in a way no high school teacher ever did, but the entertainment level had to be hyperkinetic to hold his attention. It was the same with most academic histories. “The writing is often too dull to grab regular people by the lapel,” he says.

The way he found was to make it a mix of spectacle and drama, drawing on his own cultural influences.

His favorite book as a teen was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which he thought was far scarier than any Hitchcock psychodrama because it had actually happened to a particular family in Holcomb, Kans. “Capote’s horror,” Hanks says, “has stuck with me.” Capote called his work a nonfiction novel — informed by reporting but drawing on the techniques of fiction for its dramatic power. It’s a fair description of Hanks’ productions, in which historical events and figures are drawn together along fictionalized story arcs, and characters have the psychological interiority of characters in novels.[Tom Hanks on ‘Pacific’ HBO Series, World War II, History]

See Also: Making History Interesting

2 Responses to How Tom Hanks makes History Interesting

  1. niraj March 9, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    With exception of The Pacific, I have watched all Tom Hanks produced mini-series. They are all excellent, and none will disappoint you.

    Tom Hanks is correct on one score: history is much too important to be left to data gatherers, many of whom write dry, boring history. History is personal.

  2. Sam Stark June 24, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    Niraj is right, those mini series are really impressive, honestly didn’t expect them to be, so this was a really peasant surprise. His approach is closer to the people and since history isn’t the most interesting thing for many people, I hope even those may get interested in it a bit.

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