Sunday, August 25, 2013

History’s ‘Vikings’ dispels misconceptions about legendary conquerors

(Published Aug. 26, PDI-Entertainment)
By Oliver M. Pulumbarit

“There’s a huge interest in Vikings at the moment … it seems that [they] are in the zeitgeist and everybody’s curious about their culture,” said “Vikings” creator, writer and executive producer Michael Hirst during a phone interview.

The scripted History Channel series partly aims to dispel the myths and misconceptions about Viking life by using their perspective, according to Hirst, whose previous writing credits include the period drama series “The Tudors” and the film “Elizabeth.”

“There were many prejudices I wanted overturned and challenged,” he said. “I wanted to show that Vikings had a deep, complex and interesting culture.”

Vikings sailed from their homelands in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) to raid distant coasts around 700 A.D. The nine-part series shows them as more than just conquerors and pillagers.

“Everyone thinks of them as terrible, terrifying raiders from the North who killed and plundered without conscience— that picture of them was painted by hostile witnesses,” Hirst revealed. “In other words, what we think we know about the Vikings came from the Christian monks, who wrote about them and who had every reason to attack their paganism and to exaggerate their faults.”

During his research, Hirst was “astonished” to discover their unique traits: “They were a much more democratic society than the Saxons, the Franks or other societies at the time. Their attitude toward women was positively enlightened. Women could divorce their husbands. They could own property. They fought beside their husbands, brothers and sons. They could rule!”

Casting the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok was difficult, but producers found the perfect actor in former underwear model and Australian celebrity Travis Fimmel.

“[Ragnar] is not a conventional hero,” Hirst clarified. “He’s an intelligent and thoughtful man. I wanted him to have that stillness and depth, which I feel is true to the Scandinavian character. We didn’t get anywhere. And one day, just as we were getting desperate, Travis sent a tape of himself that he made in his kitchen in Australia. He didn’t pretend he was a Viking. He didn’t overact. He read the scene absolutely intelligently … I’m proud of the choice we made.”

Describing the “Vikings” actors as a “truly wonderful cast of people,” he explained that they had to prepare extensively, and were given the option to know more about their roles.

“They had to learn to row … they had to work out. They had to train with weapons. Some of them already had an interest in Vikings, and some of them were Vikings. We cast quite a lot of Scandinavian actors. It’s nice to have the real thing. Immersing themselves in Viking culture was up to them. My research material and books are available in my office. They could grab what they needed. Some of them visited sites from the show, so there was real immersion.”

Hirst was given the freedom to elaborate on Ragnar’s exploits while reconciling them with historical research: “[History said,] ‘We trust you, but we understand it’s a drama as well. This is not a documentary.’”

(“Vikings” will air Sept. 29, 10 p.m. on History.)

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