The best books about history on screen

Rebecca Weeks Author Of History by HBO: Televising the American Past
By Rebecca Weeks

Who am I?

I am a film buff and history nerd who has brought her two passions together in the study of history on screen. So much of what we know is shaped by what we watch. It is crucial that we don’t dismiss historical TV shows and films as mere entertainment and instead work to understand how history is constructed and represented on screen. I have spent my postgraduate career exploring the screen’s unique capabilities for telling historical stories. I received my PhD from the University of Auckland and currently teach film studies at Media Design School, Aotearoa’s leading digital creativity tertiary provider. 


I wrote...

History by HBO: Televising the American Past

By Rebecca Weeks,

Book cover of History by HBO: Televising the American Past

What is my book about?

The television industry is changing, and with it, the small screen's potential to engage in debate and present valuable representations of American history. Founded in 1972, HBO has been at the forefront of these changes, leading the way for many networks, cable, and streaming services into the "post-network" era. History by HBO: Televising the American Past outlines how history is crafted on television and the diverse forms it can take. Weeks examines the capabilities of the long-form serial for engaging with historical stories, insisting that the shift away from the network model and toward narrowcasting has enabled challenging histories to thrive in home settings. Weeks provides four case studies of HBO series set during different periods of United States history: Band of Brothers, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, and Treme

The books I picked & why

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Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History

By Robert A. Rosenstone,

Book cover of Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History

Why this book?

Robert Rosenstone is the history on film guru and a big reason why I chose to pursue this line of research. Reading his work as an undergraduate was incredibly refreshing: not only was his writing was clear and accessible, but the book showed me that there was a different way to approach history. Rosenstone presents the reader with persuasive arguments about the ability of film to do history. His discussion of the films Glory and Mississippi Burning as examples of true and false invention particularly sparked my interest. Although Rosenstone has written and edited many books on the subject, Visions of the Past remains my favourite. 

Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History

By Robert A. Rosenstone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Visions of the Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Can filmed history measure up to written history? What happens to history when it is recorded in images, rather than words? Can images convey ideas and information that lie beyond words? Taking on these questions, Robert Rosenstone offers a direction in the relationship between history and film. Rosenstone moves beyond traditional approaches, which examine the history of film as art and industry, or view films as texts reflecting their specific cultural contexts. This essay collection makes a venture into the investigation of a concern: how a visual medium, subject to the conventions of drama and fiction, might be used as…


Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge

By Alison Landsberg,

Book cover of Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge

Why this book?

As indicated by the title, Landsberg’s book considers not just historical feature films, but alternative forms of screened history including TV serials, reality TV shows, and websites. Each chapter includes concise yet compelling case studies of texts such as Hotel Rwanda, Mad Men, and Frontier House. Unsurprisingly—given the focus of my own book—I was drawn to the section on dramatic TV shows and her discussion and definition of “historically conscious dramas.” Landsberg meticulously explains how audiences engage with the past through mass culture and, unlike many history on film scholars, pays considerable attention to the formal elements of filmmaking such as sound and editing.  

Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge

By Alison Landsberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Engaging the Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reading films, television dramas, reality shows, and virtual exhibits, among other popular texts, Engaging the Past examines the making and meaning of history for everyday viewers. Contemporary media can encourage complex interactions with the past that have far-reaching consequences for history and politics. Viewers experience these representations personally, cognitively, and bodily, but, as this book reveals, not just by identifying with the characters portrayed. Some of the works considered in this volume include the films Hotel Rwanda (2004), Good Night and Good Luck (2005), and Milk (2008); the television dramas Deadwood, Mad Men, and Rome; the reality shows Frontier House,…


Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision

By Natalie Zemon Davis,

Book cover of Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision

Why this book?

Natalie Davis is a renowned historian and with Slaves on Screen she makes a meaningful contribution to history on film scholarship. As Davis explains in the preface, she has a connection to film, having wanted to work in documentary before being drawn to academia. She also took on the role of historical consultant for the film The Return of Martin Guerre. From the outset you can see that she approaches history on film with a deep appreciation of the medium, acknowledging both its strengths and weaknesses. The book doesn’t sugar-coat some of the shortfalls of the films under discussion, yet it never loses sight of film’s potential for telling historical stories. Her prose is jargon-free and it’s easy to forget you’re reading an academic text.  

Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision

By Natalie Zemon Davis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slaves on Screen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The written word and what the eye can see are brought together in this fascinating foray into the depiction of resistance to slavery through the modern medium of film. Davis, whose book The Return of Martin Guerre was written while she served as consultant to the French film of the same name, now tackles the large issue of how the moving picture industry has portrayed slaves in five major motion pictures spanning four generations. The potential of film to narrate the historical past in an effective and meaningful way, with insistence on loyalty to the evidence, is assessed in five…


The History on Film Reader

By Marnie Hughes-Warrington (editor),

Book cover of The History on Film Reader

Why this book?

Hughes-Warrington has done an amazing job of creating a history on-film sampler that brings together must-read authors and articles on this subject. The book, published in 2009, introduces readers to the core debates and differing approaches that emerged in the first thirty years of history on film scholarship. The introduction by Hughes-Warrington effectively situates anyone new to the field, providing an engaging overview as well as context for the following chapters. The edited collection features key thinkers such as Robert Rosenstone, Natalie Zemon Davis, Hayden White, Robert Burgoyne, and Marcia Landy.

The History on Film Reader

By Marnie Hughes-Warrington (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The History on Film Reader as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Historical film studies is a burgeoning field, with a large and ever growing number of publications from across the globe. The History on Film Reader distils this mass of work, offering readers an introduction to just under thirty of the most critical and representative writings on the relationship between film and history. Films discussed include: Gladiator, Forrest Gump, Pan's Labyrinth, Titanic and Life is Beautiful.

Thematically structured, this Reader offers an overview of the varying ways scholars see film as contributing to our understanding of history, from their relationship with written histories, to their particular characteristics and their role in…


Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film

By Christine Sprengler,

Book cover of Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film

Why this book?

Sets, props, and costumes are not only part of the historical film’s allure but play an important role in the construction of the historical narrative; to ignore this element of screen history is criminal. Sprengler’s book gives “visual pastness” the attention it deserves, delving into the form and function of costumes in Far From Heaven and the cars in Sin City (to name just two examples). Sprengler approaches the topic through the lens of nostalgia, adding another layer to the examination of history on screen. As someone who is fascinated by 1950s history and the representation of the 1950s on screen, Sprengler’s focus on this decade is a bonus. 

Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film

By Christine Sprengler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Screening Nostalgia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"In this fascinating in-depth study of the impact of nostalgia on contemporary American cinema, Christine Sprengler unpicks the history of the concept and explores its significance in theory and practice. She offers a lucid analysis of the development of nostalgia in American society and culture, navigating a path through the key debates and aligning herself with recent attempts to recuperate its critical potential. This journey opens up the myriad permutations of nostalgia across visual and material culture and their interface with cinema, with the 1950s emerging as a privileged moment. Four case studies (Sin City, Far From Heaven, The Aviator…


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