A Rose-Tinted Past

Adya SarinOctober 23, 2023Now and ThenFeatures

Humankind has always held a deep-seated interest in all forms of media exploring the human experience through the realms of literature and cinema, and there is no rival to the allure of a captivating retelling of history.

Whether it is through classic novels or modern-day dramatized films, these written and visual depictions of the past are sure to entertain and engage viewers of all ages and backgrounds. Yet, amidst this entertainment, a critical question arises about the idealization of the past in books and film. To what extent is our modern-day understanding of the past simply a version of the truth? Do these artistic mediums present a distorted, rose-tinted version of history? Research has found that visual media, such as film and photography, has the power to shape our memory of the past. However, these representations are often selective and idealized, which can distort our understanding of history.

The idealization of the past in books and film often arises from the inherent human inclination toward the passive consumption of information, that, in turn, leads filmmakers and writers to cater to these desires rather than challenge their viewers critically. The film depiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby serves as a prime representation of this "entertainment" that humans so greatly desire, with its depiction of the roaring '20s as a time of lavish parties and grandeur, blatantly ignoring the social and economic inequalities, the beginning of the Great Depression, the prevalent discrimination, and so many more aspects that made the time period not as glamorous as typically portrayed on screen. Only when examined on a deeper level can one truly understand the critique made by Fitzgerald on the darker side of the American Dream, while on the surface it remains a captivating, illusory, and romantic depiction of a time period that was often the opposite.

Similarly, contemporary television dramas, such as Shondaland’s Bridgerton, present the Regency Era as one filled with privilege and modern-day-equivalent plot lines, solely depicting this time period through the lens of High Society, and ignoring the misogyny and racism that so strongly prevailed at the time. This gives the viewers a rather distorted glimpse into what it was like to be part of it. It is important to recognize that British period dramas as a genre “frequently idealize the past and distance viewers from the reality of history and the genre often portrays a romanticized view of the past that is disconnected from the social and political realities of the time." All they do, ultimately, is cater to this human desire for entertainment while distancing us from uncomfortable truths.

Additionally, filmmakers and authors often choose to simplify complicated historical narratives, providing the consumer of this media a largely edited depiction of reality. This pattern appears rather predominantly in children's media. Take the on-screen television adaptation of the Little House on the Prairie as an example. Children are told of the wholesome, idyllic life on the serene and tranquil prairie, and they’re shown pictures of this beautiful, rustic daydream that is imprinted on their brains as an image of the past. But what of the struggles faced by pioneers, of starvation, of exhaustion, of discrimination? Of course, it made no sense to have such hardships depicted in a popular television show, but it’s the introduction of the distortion of the historical world at such a young age that results in one’s eventual understanding of the past through various forms of media. Additionally, movies including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful, and Jakob the Liar all present partially deconstructed and unrealistic versions of the Holocaust, giving in to this temptation of simplification for the sake of a plot. Historic critic Sophia Marshman contends that “the Holocaust has been brought to the attention of millions of people, yet in a softened and distorted guise.” Afterall, the problem with using feature films as historical evidence is that they tend to simplify and distill complex historical events and processes in order to tell a coherent and dramatic story.

Psychologically speaking, it is far easier for humans to understand the past if it’s presented in this simplified manner. A majority of movie-watchers are made up of the general population, who simply engage in media for relaxation. In 2014, 40% of US adults reported they watch two or more hours of television or movies a day to manage their stress levels, while 36% read. Since the primary purpose of movies and novels is to provide relief from contemporary challenges, media has become a sort of safe haven for its consumers. Why would we willingly engage in media displaying the struggles and hardships of others? We would much rather find ourselves caught in thrilling tales of the past, dramatized, but not realistic. Such is the case with the modern film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The story is set in the early 19th century in England, which is an era often depicted by the media as a time of manners, etiquette, and courtship, blurring over the harsh realities of the social and economic issues at the time.

Romanticizing the past and looking at it through these rose-tinted glasses is sure to have its implications on the present and the contemporary understanding of history as a whole. By glossing over inequalities and presenting a sanitized, edited version of the past, the media can downplay the various social, economic, and political inequalities that were present during specific historical periods. This in turn can perpetuate a false sense of equality, masking the struggles and injustices faced by marginalized groups in the past. Furthermore, romanticization of the past creates a false sense of nostalgia in those who haven't even experienced such time periods, undermining efforts for social progress and change in the modern way. Getting lost in a false history is not only severely dangerous but detrimental to the efforts made by so many communities who have fought hard to gain an equal voice. Presenting things as picture perfect further propagates beliefs of pre-set equality and justice.

Nevertheless, modern media has been experiencing a rise of historically accurate docudramas over the last few decades. Chernobyl (2019), a miniseries that depicts the events surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, gives the viewer a realistic and grounded portrayal of the disaster and its catastrophic aftermath. Additionally, Selma (2014) is a historical drama based on the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement. The film gives the viewer clear insight into the challenges faced by civil rights activists and the significance of the Voting Rights Act, presenting the realities of the rampant inequality at the time for what they were.

Although the past is presented through rose-tinted glasses in a majority of modern day media, this does not take away from the equally significant presentation of it as a time of hardship and struggle that the modern audience can learn from. Whether the past is solely idealized is a topic that is yet to be fully understood, but even glimmers of this romanticization can have dire effects on its audience. A question that arises as a result of this deconstruction of the presentation of history in the media is whether, in the future, our modern-day struggles will too be presented as something they are not. Will the pandemic be interpreted through the same rose-tinted glasses through which we scrutinize historical wars and economic crises? Not only is it essential to question the narratives we consume about the past, but to discuss the potential implications they may have on our understanding of the present.


“Most Common Stress Management Activities Among U.S. Adults in 2014.” Statista, February 4, 2015. https://www.statista.com/statistics/315715/ways-that-us-adults-manage-stress/.

Marshman, Sophia. “From the Margins to the Mainstream? Representations of the Holocaust in Popular Culture.” University of Glasgow. Accessed October 17, 2023. https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/Media_41177_smxx.pdf.

Rosenstone, Robert A. History on Film/Film on History. Longman/Pearson, 2006.

Adya is a 14-year-old student at the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. You can normally find her reading a book or dancing. One of her favorite pastimes is playing with animals (especially her cat).