Out With the New, In with the Old: What Makes a Gripping Period Piece?

Celestine Sutter ’27 (Features Associate) in Arts | April 19, 2024

          Whether you’re browsing through a library or BookTok, you are bound to come across the term “period piece” at some point, but what does it mean? First and foremost, a period piece is defined as a work strongly reminiscent of a certain historical period, as opposed to historical fiction, which centers around a more specific historical event. As seen from America’s obsession with Bridgerton, there is no question that period pieces remain an important facet of popular culture. 

         The execution of a period piece typically falls under two categories: aesthetic and accurate. The first type takes a more romantic approach to anachronistic media, or, media from an earlier time period. With decadent balls and bookish heroines overcoming societal norms, some period pieces—often set in Victorian England—sacrifice a degree of historical accuracy to maintain an idyllic atmosphere. Yet, we must not discount the cultural value of readapting Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. As seen with The Notebook and Downton Abbey, romance-centered period pieces are not only picturesque but successful. But what makes these so perfect for binge-watching? The modernized plots curated to be more relatable to contemporary audiences make these pieces feel relevant and entertaining in the present day. Romantically centered period pieces transport the viewer or reader to an idealized time and place, which further amplifies the escapist quality of fiction. 

         Alternatively, period pieces with an emphasis on historical accuracy are also influential and widely appreciated. Here, the distinction between historical fiction and period pieces becomes more nebulous. The key difference is that a period piece’s plot can be shifted to another era only with minor changes, yet a historical fiction relies on the events and zeitgeist of the time period. For instance, The Godfather takes place in the late ’40s and maintains the overall integrity of the time with a bold plot. Thus, one can deduce that “accurate” period pieces are intended to be taken more seriously—you might even learn a little.
I find, however, historical accuracy to be an added bonus and not an essential factor in the perfect period piece. Chances are, if Kiera Knightly plays an underestimated woman who happens to find love (against her better judgment, of course), I’m going to enjoy it even if the costumes are not quite right or if the social behaviors of the time are slightly misrepresented. A captivating plot will most likely fill the gaps that small accuracy errors make, as long as the era is not grossly falsified. All in all, if a campy period piece instills a desire in consumers to research a time period, the work will leave a lasting impact while maintaining its digestibility. Since historical fiction and period pieces are so closely related, why not just relish a decadently flawed period piece (within reason)? 

         Moreover, numerous strikingly successful period pieces of value have premiered recently. The Holdovers, set in 1970, received five Oscar nominations this past year. Furthermore, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women has been acclaimed for its costume design, raking in an Oscar and BAFTA award. Enola Holmes on Netflix is a light-hearted, enchanting mystery, made only the more felicitous with English accents and action-packed drama. And of course, adaptations of  Jane Austen’s novels will forever reign over the realm of period pieces. 

         Regardless of whether the work bends history or rigidly adheres to it, period pieces will never go out of style. Many resort to media revolving around a “simpler time” to escape the present. Regardless if a period piece is set in the 1880s or the 1980s, its timeframe and historical accuracy do not change the fact that a historical setting makes a book, show, or movie that much more interesting.