Pop quiz time! Read these titles of movies too awesome to actually exist:
King Arthur vs Godzilla
Napoleon Bonaparte vs A Really Big Alligator
George Washington vs Dinosaurs
Teddy Roosevelt vs Bigfoot (Oh, wait: This actually exists!)
Amelia Earhart vs Killer Crabs
Jimmy Carter vs Killer Robots from Neptune
When you read each of those sentences, how did you imagine these famous people? Probably how they’re best remembered in pop culture, such as Napoleon in his field gear and bicorn hat, Washington in his presidential outfit, and Amelia Earhart in a flight jacket.
Now, read these next two sentences:
Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
When you imagined Mr. Lincoln in these movies, you probably visualized him in his 50’s while wearing his presidential outfit and famous top hat, correct? Anyone would, as these style of stories rely on using historical people when they’re at their most famous. However, trying to subvert the formula can lead to disappointment from our audiences.
If you were like me back in 2012, you probably heard of ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’ a big screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, and were very curious to see how such a silly premise would work.
If you were like me, you were probably disappointed to find that most of the movie didn’t feature Abe fighting off vampires in the White House, or on the battlefields of the Civil War for an hour and a half, but instead got an overly-serious film that followed Abe as a young adult learning his axe-chopping trade. While we do get a spectacular climax where President Lincoln does fight vampires on a train, by that point it’s too little, too late.
Disappointed at how such a silly idea turned into a big disappointment, I sought solace in The Asylum’s mockbuster, ‘Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.’
While the film’s storyline, effects, and acting are… not A grade material (save Bill Oberst Jr.’s performance as Mr. Lincoln), and the budget is only 1/1,000th the size of its big-screen counterpart, the one virtue that cannot be denied is that ‘Zombies’ gives the audience what we came to see: President Lincoln fighting the undead from beginning to end (save a brief prologue where little-kid Abe has to kill his undead mother).
As another example, if we were going to write a story about, say, Jesus defending Earth from invaders from Mars, audiences would expect to see Jesus in his 30’s, with his classic robe, sandals, long hair, beard, and mustache. They would want to see classic Jesus hopping into a UFO to blast off into outer space, not teenage Jesus or child Jesus.
As a final example, imagine that you’ve seen a trailer for a movie where every single US president, living or dead, teams up to save the world when Hell invades Earth, featuring a spectacular climax where Obama, Lincoln, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Fillmore, Nixon, and every other president shoot millions of machine gun rounds into Satan’s face. Sounds awesome, right? That’s what audiences would want to see. They wouldn’t want to see the presidents when they were kids or young adults: They would want to see them as they were in office.
The takeaway from all this? When using historical people in fiction, use them when they were at the peak of their fame and influence. Avoid following them as a child, a young adult, or any other age when they hadn’t accomplished their greatest feats (though Presidental Babies would be an… interesting way of bringing all the US’ presidents together). If you want some awesome examples of this, check out this gentleman’s Deviantart page for US presidents in action-packed, ‘What if?’ scenarios.