On April 12, 2023, Netflix released the movie Queen Cleopatra and received harsh criticism. The problems stemmed from altered facts to make the story more entertaining. Online posts from the actress who played Cleopatra amplified the situation. The heart of the problem is that Netflix released the movie in the documentary category. There are lawsuits by the Egyptian government because they poorly represented their beloved former leader.
We have all seen movies or read books that spun the original story into something unrecognizable. I recall the 2009 film Inglourious Basterds raised several eyebrows with its wildly different ending to WWII. It was a fun, goofy film that I got a laugh out of. Why? It’s a parody film. However, other moviegoers were not impressed with the radical departure.
I do not have any opinions about Queen Cleopatra because I did not watch it or research the controversy. I’m not too fond of it when people form opinions and publicly comment on something they have not directly experienced. If I were to guess, I do not think Netflix intended their film to attack Egyptian culture, but the result upset many people. Sometimes in my life, I did something stupid, even though people around me recommended a different course of action. I think this may have occurred during the production.
Instead of discussing the conflict surrounding the Netflix film, I have another topic in mind. My Immortality book series also has the character Cleopatra. I set my story in the preset, and my concept is that she used a life-extending procedure to survive. Given the present controversy, I thought it would be interesting to discuss my choices.
I picked Cleopatra because she is powerful, beautiful, historically significant, and a celebrated figure that readers would recognize. I also picked her because the plot required a known ruler of the ancient world. In that area, Cleopatra is at the top of the pyramid. Ha, I made a pun.
Yet, I knew there might be pitfalls because there will always be. Going into the process, I knew that the records of this period were poor, and additional facts are discovered. Plus, the popular view of Cleopatra (highlighted by the popular 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film) differs wildly from boring facts. Yet, I did not think people would care too much about my character choice because Cleopatra has been dead for a long time, and people use historical figures for many projects without issue. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? No problems there.
The real problem with the Netflix film is that it hit a specific sore spot because they released it as a documentary. The great people of Egypt have pride in their historical figures and do not appreciate when they are “accurately” tarnished. This pushback made me reconsider how readers would react to my book.
I treated the character Cleopatra as beautiful, intelligent, and strong. Yet she was in vain and out of touch with present society. When the facts fit, I used them, but when my plot demanded something different, I wrote, “History recorded X, but Y actually occurred.”
How did I get around the fact that she passed away a long time ago? I explained that there was a revolt in Rome. She substituted a dead body for herself and escaped. Cleopatra invented a life-extending procedure and has continued using it to the present day.
Writers have used historical figures many times, and it is my experience that readers accept tasteful transformations. This positive reaction is what I am hoping for, but what if this is not the case? The Netflix film reaction gave me a lot to think about, and I certainly would understand a harsh response to my book if I trashed Cleopatra.
What is my high-level view? I do not think my work tarnished Cleopatra’s reputation because I ensured the historical facts were accurate. What about being out of touch? All leaders are out of touch. Want proof? Click on the latest news and see what the politicians are up to. Today, when I wrote this, they are enacting a law in California to tax residents leaving the state. Umm? Come live in California. We will not screw you. Honest.
What about vanity? All characters must have flaws, or readers will get bored, but I did not entirely make up that flaw. Some historical records show Cleopatra was vain; the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film highlighted this trait. I applied this flaw sparingly, and the result rounded out the character.
What do I feel the total result of my book means to readers? To answer such a question, I can pretend to be Cleopatra, reading my book in Heaven. She would probably get a kick out of my portrayal. Cleopatra’s power over people would remain intact, and her sharp mind would inspire readers. If she read other books in Heaven, she would understand how characters develop and appreciate that I had tastefully applied negative traits.
What would an Egyptian citizen think of my book? I think they would feel the same way. I treated their historical figure with dignity and positively contributed to her legacy. In the best case, my book’s minor Wikipedia footnote will be in the Cleopatra entry.
What if I am incorrect, and the people of Egypt hate my portrayal? Some might argue that any publicity is good publicity. I would not, and an adverse reaction would certainly hurt my feelings. The weak excuse of “I tried my best to portray Cleopatra positively” would not help the situation, even if it is true.
Would I understand an adverse reaction? Until the Netflix film came out, absolutely not. As proof, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter did not result in a lawsuit or public uprising. Also, nobody would be foolish enough to release such a wildly inaccurate film as a documentary.
Yet, now I think differently. If I were to write a book today, I would not pick Cleopatra as a character because of the controversy. I am too small of a fish to take that risk. How about an immortal Abraham Lincoln? Umm, actually… He is a character in my next book. He is not immortal, but I changed a bit of history. Did you know Abraham Lincoln went into outer space? Yeah, just a bit.

You’re the best -Bill
January 17, 2024
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