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File:John Smith real2 8566.jpg
"And needless to say, [John Smith] was a short, portly brown-head -- Not the golden-haired Adonis we see before us in the movie."

In a nutshell, this is the tendency to make Historical Domain Characters look much better in movies/comics than they actually did (or are reported to have been by the sources of their time), and/or to fit their looks to the standard of the culture the work is made for.

Even when sources state that someone was attractive, this was of course according to the standards of their contemporaries. Certain characteristics, such as clear skin, shiny hair and a certain evenness of the face are universally liked, as they show health. The assessment of all the rest (body type, skin color, facial features) though, varies with the vogue of the time and place. While some of the clothing people used to wear is seen as Gorgeous Period Dress, other fashion and hairstyle choices were also not exactly in line with current tastes.

Medieval Morons is as unrealistic as The Beautiful Elite, but the population of former times certainly lacked the comforts of modern technology and therefore, unless stated otherwise, it is safe to assume that the "hero" of one's story carried the marks of a harsh life without proper medicine and full of dangers and hard physical labour; and no toothpaste either - though it was only the advent of (cane) sugar that really led to bad teeth en masse.

One would think the advent of photography might curb this practice, but in the end we all just love looking at attractive people too much to let little things like actual history keep us from imagining them as gorgeous.This trope is of course one of the oldest ones there is. When no one knows how the historical person really looked like, all bets are off.

Compare Historical Hero Upgrade, Beauty Equals Goodness, Adaptational Attractiveness, Hollywood Homely, and Hotter and Sexier.

Examples of Historical Beauty Update include:


Several Media

  • Calamity Jane was often mistaken for a man, and not just because she often wore men's clothing. However, she's been played by Doris Day. Deadwood goes part of the way toward averting this, and even has Jane tell an anecdote about being mistaken for a man, but Robin Weigert is still far more attractive than the real thing. The Lucky Luke album Calamity Jane averts it all the way and then some.
  • Cleopatra was subject to this even in her own day. The legend of her beauty comes partially from Octavian's propaganda that Marc Antony had been bewitched by her. Over the years, Cleopatra is typically portrayed as each generation's version of their ideal beauty. She's sometimes even given a Race Lift, despite the fact that she was of Macedonian descent. However, portraits of her give her a noticeably large nose. Plutarch describes her as not particularly attractive, but with a beautiful voice and charming personality. Cicero also downplays her appearance, though he is a biased source.
  • Robespierre, though this definitely influenced by the sympathies of the artist or casting director. Portraits during his rise to power show him as quite attractive, while he gets less attractive during his downfall. When he's given the Historical Villain Upgrade, he's often shown as quite ugly. In the interest of making its point, the Sandman chapter titled "Thermidor" makes him appear decidedly overweight as well.
  • Saint-Just. Unfortunately, people tend to take Saint-Just's physical appearance (long-haired, young, fairly attractive, gold hoop earrings) and extrapolate his personality off of it. This makes him him into something of a hippie. Or, of course, they might exaggerate the original and also make him a gay Communist pedophile with rage issues.
  • Jane Austen.
    • For a recent edition of one of her books, one of the very few existing pictures finally made it to its traditional place over the back cover blurb. The picture is a pencil drawing, showing her with a somewhat critical/thoughtful expression and a cap, which was usually out-of-doors daywear in her period. On the "improved" one, she's barely recognizable, has the standard perfectly smooth face and no cap.
    • In Becoming Jane, she is portrayed by, of all people, Anne Hathaway.
    • Inverted in Old Harry's Game, though this could simply be because she's in Hell.
  • Mary Queen of Scots - at least, if her early portraits are to be believed, was quite beautiful when she first entered Scotland, but most depictions of her that are even halfway sympathetic portray her as still being pretty up until her execution, when in real life she had started to wear a wig and no doubt suffered from the lead-based makeup popular at the time.
  • Anne Boleyn also tends to get some judicious upgrading. While the famous reports of her gigantic mole and extra finger are now considered mostly disreputable, more reliable contemporary descriptions suggest that she was, at best, a mildly attractive woman with striking eyes. Her powerful personality seems to have been the real attraction.
  • Abraham Lincoln is generally treated with a variation of this. Though it is well-known from photographs what he looked like (i.e. ugly), and he self-deprecated his own looks[1], he lived before sound recording. Because he was wise and solemn and had gravitas, he is almost always portrayed as having a deep, reassuring voice. Contemporary accounts, however, report that his voice was unusually high-pitched and sharp. His poor looks and voice are hardly ever used in media deceptions outside of the rare documentary.
  • Richard III
    • Inverted with Richard III by William Shakespeare where the handsome Richard was turned into a palsied foul hunchback. But Shakespeare was writing the play for the royalty descended from those who defeated Richard.
    • Sharon Kay Penman's revisionist novel The Sunne in Splendour takes this route straight, with a rather Bishonen Richard. The truth is somewhere in between: Richard in real life was short, rather large-nosed, and had an odd little mouth, but he generally resembled, of all people, Stuart Townsend.
  • The Shinsengumi as a whole but especially Okita Souji who tends to be depicted as extremely Bishonen (so much that sometimes a female actor depicts him in live action). However contemporary accounts describe him as a tall, dark, and thin man with high cheekbones, a wide mouth, and a "flatfish" face.
  • Boudica, the British queen who rebelled against Roman rule, was noted for her imposing height and bearing, and, of course, her iconic red hair, but later depictions tend to place her very definitely in Hot Amazon territory. A rare exception is the eponymous 2003 British production (known as "Warrior Queen" in the United States), which starred the attractive but believable Alex Kingston.
  • Vronsky, the romantic hero of Anna Karenina, is depicted in the text as balding and with a mouthful of rotten teeth. Don't expect either of these characteristics to make it into any dramatization. Bad dental hygiene was commonplace in Russia (and most of Europe) at that time, so contemporary audiences would not have seen any Narm in this depiction of an accomplished seducer.
  • Recently, there was some controversy surrounding the Catholic church's decision to photoshop pictures of Saint Mary Mackillop to make her more "appealing" for merchandising reasons. She went from a "frumpy elderly nun" to a beautiful young woman with piercing dark eyes.
  • Jesus is probably one of best examples of this trope (though definitely not the oldest). Ignoring controversy over a historic Jesus , most Western depictions tend to favor a tall, slender borderline-Bishonen man with pale skin, long brown hair, deep soulful eyes (blue being surprisingly common), and a neat beard. Many other cultures and ethnic groups have likewise developed their own depictions (e.g. Hispanic Jesus, Black Jesus, Raptor Jesus)that tend to fit their own ideas of beauty and ethnicity. Hardly surprising when the person in question is literally worshiped as a deity. Any historic figure, however, would have had features more appropriate to a first century Middle Eastern Jew, e.g. swarthy skin, dark hair and eyes, and a beard would almost certainly be present. Assuming that biblical sources can be trusted the Gospel of Matthew states that when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane the soldiers were unable to tell Jesus apart from his disciples indicating that he probably had roughly average features and height (about 5'1"). Likewise in 1 Corinthians Paul both claims to have seen Jesus and states that long hair on a man is a disgrace. Short hair was likewise more typical of men in his particular place and time and given his ethnicity it was most likely tightly curled (though only his hairdresser knows for sure).
  • Amelia Earhart wasn't ugly, but she wasn't exactly ideal. She even had the nickname "Lady Lindy," partially because she looked like Charles Lindbergh. Expect her to be played only by stunningly beautiful actresses. After all, what's the point of being an accomplished female pilot if you aren't pretty?


Anime & Manga


Film

  • Iron Jawed Angels is a pretty emotionally intense retelling of the victorious last years of the Woman's Suffrage Movement. And, of course, many of the Suffragettes were very beautiful, but they certainly weren't that smokin' hot.
  • Elizabeth I of England is often portrayed by beautiful actresses, though in her youth she was praised as being unconventionally beautiful.
  • Elizabeth's sister Mary Tudor is often subject to inversions. She was said to be fairly pretty in her youth and average as she got older but adaptations often portray her as the ugly sister since any adaptation that has the two sisters will automatically have Elizabeth as the sympathetic one. She was portrayed as fat, too, in Elizabeth, whereas (at least until the cancer bloated her) the Real Life Mary was a rail-thin waif who made even the svelte Elizabeth look plump.
  • You don't really think the mother of Alexander the Great, Queen Olympias, really looked like Angelina Jolie, do you? In any case, historical record has her as a very pale redhead.
  • Debbie Reynolds as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Kathy Bates in Titanic was much closer to the genuine article, but still prettied up a bit.
  • Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl, and some would also claim the title character falls prey to this. It's hard to say, though, that Barbra Streisand is significantly more or less attractive than Fanny Brice.
  • Greta Garbo playing Queen Christina of Sweden. Contemporary paintings and descriptions presented the queen as fairly ugly and butch.
  • Red Cliff does this for several figures of the Three Kingdoms era in China. Both Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhuge Liang) and Chang Chen (Sun Quan) have been "spokesmodels" in addition to their careers as actors. On the other hand, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Xiao Qiao (Lin Chiling) are remembered as being attractive.
  • Claire Danes playing autistic Temple Grandin in the film of the same name. While they don't really look like, Danes was able to imitate Grandin's voice perfectly despite getting to meet her only once.
  • Valerie Plame isn't a bad-looking woman by any means but compared to Naomi Watts, well there just is no comparison.
  • Clint Eastwood's 1920s period piece Changeling had Christine Collins, a very ordinary-looking woman, played by Angelina Jolie.
  • In the German movie Jew Suss: Rise and Fall, not really ugly actor Moritz Bleibtreu plays Joseph Goebbels, of all people! It's possibly a case of the casting subverting Beauty Equals Goodness, since the real Goebbels was not that ugly-looking, it is just that many of the photographs of him show him either frowning or with distorted features while delivering one of his hate-filled speeches. Note that the actor who played his expy Garbitsch in The Great Dictator looked quite a bit more handsome than Hynkel (Hitler) or Herring (Goering).
  • They went through all the trouble of uglying up Charlize Theron for her role as Aileen Wuornos in Monster and then made her love interest a beautiful Catholic schoolgirl instead of a hefty butch lesbian pushing thirty.
  • The Runaways. Compare this to this.
  • Has happened many times with Johnny Depp: he's played George Jung in Blow, John Dillinger in Public Enemies, J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, Frederick Abberline in From Hell and Joseph D. Pistone in Donnie Brasco, all of whom were arguably somewhat less attractive than the man himself. However, he bears a reasonable actual resemblance to other people he's played, including Ed Wood, and he's also always up for making himself less attractive in roles, like when he accurately portrayed John Wilmot's horrible death from syphilis in The Libertine. He also wanted to have huge ears and a fake nose in Sleepy Hollow and a badly-reattached nose in Pirates of the Caribbean, but the studio execs said no in both cases, probably knowing why many people see his films in the first place.
    • Blow does something that could be described as unintentional lampshading of this trope: after Depp has played George Jung for two hours, the movie ends with a photo of the real Jung, who doesn't look like Johnny Depp and isn't conventionally attractive at all. Since most viewers probably didn't know what the real George Jung looked like before seeing the movie, this moment of contrast can be pretty jarring.
  • Amazing Grace, In which we have the short-even-by-the-standards-of-the-time, very near-sighted William Wilberforce, portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd.
  • From the movie Downfall: Compare the real Traudl Junge, with this one.
  • Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Here's a comparison.
  • The upcoming movie adaptation of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter does this with most of the characters if we go by the casting. The premise itself is already Rule of Cool combined with Historical Badass Upgrade, so it's abundantly clear that they were never aiming for accuracy here.
  • Colin Farrell as John Smith in The New World. At least they got his hair color right.


Literature

  • In-story example in The Wheel of Time: Nyneve is rather taken aback upon meeting Gaidal Cain, who, unlike his reincarnation partner Birgitte, is quite a bit uglier than the legends say.
  • In the earliest Arthurian legend, Lancelot describes himself as "the ill-made [i.e., ugly] knight." In modern times and possibly because Lancelot is The Ace, we tend to think of him as the ruggedly handsome lancer to Arthur's faithful portrayal as a Bishonen. T.H. White's The Once and Future King, however, takes it in the opposite direction and makes him almost hideously ape-like.
  • Michael Crichton's novel Timeline nicely plays with this trope in one chapter, in which the inventors of the time-traveling device present film footage of historical events, which they recorded in secret while being there. The first film shows Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in a nasal voice, which he is actually said to have had. The second film shows George Washington crossing the Delaware in the rain, sitting in a corner and wrapped in his mantle, rather than striking the painting's iconic pose.
  • A Soviet Sci-Fi novel Kovrigin’s chronicles ("A girl near a steep", "Девушка у обрыва") by Vadim Shefner contains an in-universe example. A man remarks how all the depictions of a famous scientist's girlfriend follow that trope (the scientist asked that his name not be honored through memorials and such, so the people resort to honoring her instead).
  • In J. T. Edson's Calamity Jane novels, Calamity is a stacked blonde who dresses in skintight buckskins. This is at odds with photographs of the historical Calamity Jane, who could charitably described as plain.
    • This trope also applies to Edson's version of the outlaw Belle Starr.
  • Stationery Voyagers does this to both Jesus and Nicholas of Myra. First, Nicholas goes from looking like this to looking like this. Badass Santa, for sure, and could easily be played by Gerard Butler. Jesus, as Minshus, is depicted as looking Jewish but with a Chinese ponytail, whose baby screams can summon ass-kicking angels and who can shoot someone down with strobe eyes and roundhouse kick demons when he feels like showing off.
  • Played with and discussed in Animorphs "Elfangor's Secret". The kids realize that the guy they're looking for in the middle of the Battle of Agincourt is going to be the guy who looks clean and has good teeth and no sores. They also talk about it after landing on the banks of the Delaware during the Washington crossing the Delaware scene.


Live-Action TV

  • In the third series of Blackadder, there's discussion about this in the episode "Duel and Duality". Baldrick suggests that he and Prince George can trade identities to avoid the Duke of Wellington's wrath. The Prince brings up the valid point that his portrait hangs on every wall, which is where Blackadder prompts Baldrick to quote his cousin Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough's butler's dogsbody:

 Baldrick: He's heard that all portraits look the same these days, 'cos they're painted to a romantic ideal, rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.

    • Of course, Prince George is arguably an example himself; in real life (and once in the show) he's described as being fat, while in Blackadder he's played by Hugh Laurie, who's anything but.
  • The John Adams miniseries slightly averts this trope. While many of the actors are all very good-looking by today's standards, their characters all eventually fall prey to disadvantages that many people had to deal with in the 18th century, such as lack of dental hygiene, skin care and modern medicine.
  • The Tudors is undisputed lord and master of this trope, with its parade of pouty-lipped sexpots in Gorgeous Period Dress. In later seasons, when Henry VIII would have been well into fatass mode[3], His Fictional Majesty looks just as he did when he met Anne Boleyn, except for the beard. Fortunately, the producers had already stated they had no intention of even inviting realism for tea.
    • Kate Beaton has fun with this.
    • Justified in Henry's case: gaining the weight required or wearing a fat suit large enough to be even close to realistic would have been rather detrimental to Jonathan Rhys Meyers' health.
  • Spiritual Successor The Borgias does a bit better averting this: most of the characters, if painted by Renaissance artists, wouldn't look too dissimilar from their real counterparts' portraits. There's a major offense, however, in the case of Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia: regardless of how attractive Irons himself is, he's still tall and slender and with a full head of hair where the real Rodrigo resembled a short, fat, bald bulldog of a man.
    • For the most part, that's chalked up to the fact that it's Jeremy freakin' Irons. If he wanted to play Lucrezia Borgia, they'd find a way to make it work.
  • Merlin has a lot of this trope, probably mostly because it's meant as a kids'/family series.
    • Highly debatable. Since it can't be known if any of these characters even existed at all, we can't be sure what they might have looked like.
    • The legendary Merlin was normally depicted as a shape-shifter with no true, stable form. He usually kept the frail old man's appearance while serving Arthur, but became a handsome youth to seduce maidens and at times isolated himself from humanity entirely by turning into a tree.
  • Semi-aversion: Julius Caesar was a rather striking-looking man in real life and Ciaran Hinds is a reasonably fair fit. That said, very few depictions (Rome included) give him his historically accurate thinning/receding hair in later life.
    • And then, of course, there's your friend and mine Mark Antony. He's been portrayed as everything from drop-dead gorgeous (I'm looking at you, James Purefoy) to a distinctly ugly man with... other attractions.
  • Even the actors aren't immune: Robin Williams himself got this treatment in Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy. In real life, Robin Williams is, shall we say, an acquired taste due to his unique appearance. However, in this Made for TV Movie, he's played by Chris Diamantopoulos, who makes a generically attractive Robin... and is Estrogen Brigade Bait in Real Life.
  • Little House On the Prairie: Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls. Landon was a lot better-looking than the person he portrayed on TV. Ingalls had a Santa Claus beard, but Landon was clean-shaven, even when he spent days or weeks without seeing a razor.
    • There was a miniseries in 2005, in which he was played by Cameron Bancroft, with Hollywood hair and Perma Stubble. And Erin Cottrell played Caroline, a woman raised to believe it was immodest to wear her hair in a way that didn't cover her ears, in sort of a case of Historical Coquettishness Upgrade. Even Jack the dog was better-looking than in the source material.
  • Highlander has varying degrees. The Dark Ages flashbacks don't appear too badly done -- there is some degree of dirtiness and shabbiness in them -- but other flashbacks probably have the characters too cleaned up and good-looking.
  • Forever Knight: justified that the vampires look good in their flashbacks, but human Nick gets into this trope before he is turned in the first episode flashback.


Theatre


Video Games


Webcomics

  • Subverted - or not, depending on your tastes - by the depiction of Sappho in Amazoness!. Ancient accounts described her as "small and dark", and the comic depicts her as very [4], very dark, and as a charming Butch Lesbian.


Web Original


Western Animation

  • John Smith seems to have shaved. And turned golden-haired. And gotten taller and considerably more buff for the Disney version of Pocahontas.
    • And Pocahontas herself upgraded to a totally hot and fully grown woman rather than the 12-year old she really was. To be honest, the age change was just about inevitable.
      • Not to mention that according to a contemporary depiction, she looked like this. Not bad, but not stunning.
  • Liberty's Kids did this to, more or less, every historical figure on the show.


Other

  • When the ten-dollar bill was upgraded, Alexander Hamilton, despite already being handsome by many measures, was still given a streamlined face lift.
  • This trope is by no means new. Paintings, statues, busts, etc. of royal and rich people were known to improve a person's appearance. One instance where it was especially common was during an arranged marriage. Many times, the betrothed wouldn't see each other until the day of the wedding, especially if there was great distance between them (like the children of two different kingdoms). The only way they would know what their future spouse would look like is through paintings, and artists were known to smooth out pockmarks and add and subtract a few inches.
    • Queen Elizabeth I used this to her advantage to make people think she was young, healthy and attractive even when she had smallpox scars, grew old and lost her hair and wore a wig.

 Baldrick: Well, my cousin Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough's butler's dogsbody, he says that he's heard that all portraits look the same these days, since they are painted to a romantic ideal, rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.

    • This trope didn't work out quite so well when Elizabeth's father Henry VIII was shopping for a fourth wife. The famous painter Holbein did a portrait of Anne, a minor Princess of Cleves, which made the most of what beauty she did possess... but as Henry discovered when they met in person, that wasn't much. Henry had his aide Cromwell beheaded for screwing the situation up so badly. They did marry, but by Anne's own account the marriage was never consummated and she eventually consented to his offer of an amicable divorce. Ironically, this was great for Anne -- outside of the lack of attraction, she and Henry got along really well as friends. She was allowed to remain in England for the rest of her (long) life, was good friends with both of her former stepdaughters, and Henry treated her like a sister, giving her expensive gifts and inviting her to all the events at court. AND she didn't get beheaded! Which shows how well she came ahead of the other wives. And cycling back to this page's trope, in the TV series 'The Tudors' she is played by Joss Stone.
  • The Physics building of Chalmers University of Technology (Göteborg, Sweden) is decorated with a dozen sculptures, depicting famous Swedish scientists from Celsius onward. All are shown as idealistically beautiful - except Svante Arrhenius, who was still alive when the building was erected. His statue looks like he actually looked. Reportedly, he was none too pleased with this.
  • Most Ancient Egyptian kings commissioned all their sculptures, tomb reliefs, and burial masks to depict them as youthful, attractive, and healthy[5]. Hatshepsut even required depictions to make her male. But thanks to mummification, forensic scientists can reconstruct what many of them actually looked like.
    • For example, Ramesses II lived to be a very old man (for the time) and was not in perfect health. Tutankhamun had an overbite, a slight cleft palate, and a club foot, and was probably not what we'd call handsome. Hatshepsut was, gasp!!, a woman. Don't expect contemporary artwork to depict them that way.
    • In an inversion Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father who tried unsuccessfully to replace the entire Egyptian religion with a new one, always had himself and his family depicted as pot-bellied androgyns with elongated, weird-looking faces. For years, Egyptologists wondered if it was artistic convention or hereditary deformity, until they identified his mummy and learned that no, he looked pretty average.

Notes

  1. "In my poor, lean lank face nobody has ever seen that any cabbages were sprouting."
  2. Of whom no known portrait exists, but by written accounts isn't nearly that pretty
  3. By the time he met Anne of Cleves, he had developed leg ulcers (nasty sores caused by high blood pressure and the strain of carrying his own weight), suggesting he was at least 400 pounds.
  4. at least compared to the 7' tall Amazons. At 4'7" she would only be about 5" shorter than the average 5'0" ancient Greek woman
  5. There were a few possible exceptions, such as Senwosret III
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