Unlock the Historical Movie and TV Genre (Definition & Examples)

The historical movie and TV genre
'Spartacus'Credit: Universal Pictures
Go into the past with the historical movie and TV genre. 

We all know that Hollywood has a preference for ideas based on intellectual property that audiences recognize. Well, if you don't have access to famous books or other hot properties, you have to find things in the public domain. One of the easiest and most marketable things to use for film and TV ideas is a historical event. Major historical events and people are all free to use. You can adapt their lives or singular events, and turn them into hot properties. And all of these fall into the historical movie and TV genre. 

Today, we're going to unlock the historical genre in film and TV. We'll talk biopics, events, epics, and even alternative history. And I'll make sure you get definitions and examples for each of them. 

So let's jump into it! 

The historical movie and TV genre
'Gladiator'Credit: Universal Pictures

Unlock the Historical Movie and TV Genre (Definition & Examples)

Genres can be a tricky thing to unlock. There's a lot of nuance at play. There are many different kinds of historical movies, so I am going to go through them one by one and give you some specific definitions and examples. But first, let's talk about what classifies a movie in the historical genre. 

Historical Movie and TV Genre Definition

A historical film is a film or TV show that centers on past events set within a specific historical period.

This genre covers movies and TV shows like biopics, costume dramas, alternative history, and epics. There are two kinds of historical films and TV shows—the first deals with actual events and dramatizes them. The second picks a time period and makes things up inside that time frame. Each will bend those lines to put forth the best narrative. 

The historical movie and TV genre
'12 Years a Slave'Credit: Plan B

Historical Movie and TV Genre Examples

As I said up top, many examples fit into a wide array of different subcategories. Each of these categories has its own tropes and characters and storytelling devices. What's more, many of these categories mesh with each other. So you could have things like an epic biopic, or an alternative history. There is a lot for writers and directors to play with here. 

Let's diagram them together. 

The historical movie and TV genre
'Hamilton'Credit: Disney+

Biopics/Biography TV Shows 

A biographical film, or biopic for short (pronounced "bio-pick"), is a film that tells the story of the life of a non-fictional or historical person. Biopics use the central characters to show an important discovery, period in history, or dramatically relevant period within their lives to tell a contemporary lesson. 

You will often see TV and movies taking historical characters and dramatizing their life events to tell us a story. Examples include Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, Spielberg's Lincoln, the HBO limited series John Adams, and Netflix's Colin in Black and White

The historical movie and TV genre
'Elvis'Credit: Warner Bros.

Historical Event Movie and TV Shows

Movies and TV shows that center on a historical event pick one very specific point in time and then dramatize the events surrounding it.

Examples range from Ron Howard's Apollo 13 to Steven McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Both of those movies cover very different amounts of time, but both center on one point in the characters' lives.

When it comes to TV shows, we often see them work to extrapolate these events into larger stories. Think about a show like The Crown, which takes certain events in the Royals' lives and distills them down to character arcs. Or even Band of Brothers, which uses specific episodes to talk about life during World War II. 

historical film and tv genre
'Apollo 13'Credit: Dreamworks

Epic Movies and TV Shows 

One of the most famous subgenres of historical movies and TV shows is the epic. Epics are large-scale films and TV shows which use current technology, huge production values, and emphasize spectacle within large-scale battle scenes and action set-pieces to dramatize things from the past.

Those examples would include movies like Lawrence of ArabiaBraveheart, and Gettysburg along with HBO series like Chernobyl and even Netflix's The Borgias

The historical movie and TV genre
'Braveheart'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Historical Fiction Movies and TV 

What happens when someone makes something up that takes place in a specific historical time? Well, that's how you get the historical fiction subgenre. It's defined as the plot taking place in the past but is fictional.

Shows like The Great and Peaky Blinders take place in the past during real events but are mostly fiction. Movies like Gangs of New York and Forrest Gump all have actual parts of history in them but have fictional characters experiencing them as they happened.  

The historical movie and TV genre
'The Great'Credit: Hulu

Period Piece 

In the world of film and television, a period piece is a film, TV series, or miniseries that is set during an earlier part in history. Period pieces usually have high budgets and take extra effort to ensure the audience is transported into the past. 

This is another subgenre with a lot of crossover. For example, Stranger Things is a science fiction period piece. Or what about a movie like Dangerous Liaisons, which happens in the past but has a modern flair to it? Many period pieces also juxtapose against costume dramas, like Bridgerton, which also incorporates historical fiction and builds almost into a fantasy world. 

The historical movie and TV genre
'Peaky Blinders'Credit: Netflix

Alternative History 

Last but certainly not least is alternative history. This is where we follow the historical events of a certain time, but key elements are changed to switch the outcomes of those events.

Quentin Tarantino has this in his worldbuilding with movies like Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We also see the Apple TV series For All Mankind doing this when it comes to the Apollo moon missions. You could even bring Forrest Gump back here for showing real past events but tweaking his involvement.

This is a really interesting way to subvert audiences' expectations as well and make sure you keep them guessing. 

The historical movie and TV genre
'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'Credit: Sony Pictures

Summing Up the Historical Movie and TV Genre (Definition & Examples)

As you can see, there is a lot to unpack when it comes to this film and TV genre. When you look at all the examples and definitions, I hope you can find inspiration for your next project. These are really interesting ways into much bigger stories, and they have fun and exciting characters who are popular with modern audiences and draw a wide array of viewers to the screen. 

Let me know your favorites in the comments.      

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