What is a period film, or period drama? Period films are often called by different names, like period dramas, costume dramas, historical films and heritage films. Used in the context of film and television, an easy definition is that a historical period drama is a work of art set in, or reminiscent of, an earlier time period.
That time period may be general, like the 18th century, our centered around a specific date, and may span multiple eras.
Many quality period dramas are filmed in stunning locations in England like Derbyshire and the Cotswolds, but they may also be produced outside of Britain, and be about any place. A great many period dramas have been adapted from classic works of literature; books from Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Bronte, Louisa May Alcott have all been made into historical films.
In The Period Films List and in our discussions and reviews, Willow and Thatch divides period films into two main categories: Period Dramas and Factual Period Films. All the period films on Willow and Thatch are broken down by era (Dark and Middle Ages, Tudor and Stuart Eras, Georgian and Regency Eras, Victorian Era, Edwardian Era, First World War, Interwar, Second World War, Post-war) and by theme.
Below are just some of the genres, terms used, and types and formats of film you’ll come across nested inside the more general moniker of “period films.” Style, setting, and characters are taken into consideration when film is fitted into a main genre, but genres may overlap.
Costume drama: A type of drama that is set in the past, and gives special attention to costumes and designs. Crossing over with many other genres, as a Drama it is a subjective piece and contains numerous consecutive scenes of characters portrayed to effect a serious narrative throughout the title. Costume refers to a style of dress, including garments, accessories, and hairstyle, especially as characteristic of a particular country, period, or people. For articles about the costumes used in period dramas, see this section of Willow and Thatch.
Three years before Cranford became an Emmy-nominated success on Masterpiece, this four-part miniseries exposed American audiences to Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Not to be confused with the 1980s Civil War epic, North & South dramatizes England’s 19th century regional divide through the tale of a Southern do-gooder who moves to the North and falls for the taskmaster mill owner John Thornton (breakout Richard Armitage). Unlike many period dramas that luxuriate in polished surfaces and manicured drawing rooms, North & South focused on the gritty details of industrial England. – BBC America
Period piece: A general term indicating that the production features historical places, people, or events that may or not be crucial to the story. Because history is used as a backdrop to the story, it may be fictionalized to various degrees. The story itself may be regarded as “outside” history. This can include dramas, and biographies of real or fictional people.
Historical: An objective portrayal of real-life events of historical (of or concerning history; concerning past events) significance featuring real-life characters (allowing for some artistic license). For articles from historians and the historical consultants who work on the movies and TV series, see this section of Willow and Thatch.
Historical fiction: A story that takes place in the real world, with real world people, but with several fictionalized or dramatized elements. This is a genre of literature and some period films are adapted directly from historical fiction novels.
Anna Karenina was an epic production filmed over the course of 12 weeks on 100 different sets, across 240 scenes, with 83 speaking parts. Director Joe Wright immerses himself in visual and literary research, and takes his team along for the ride with everyone spending a lot of time researching and understanding the world that they are entering into to tell the story. Beyond character development and interacting with their fellow cast members, the actors were educated about Russian cultural life of the time through research presentations and discussions to help inform their understanding of the world their individual characters existed within. – Focus Features
Epic: Epic films tackle larger than life settings, often with a very large cast, to tell a story in the most dramatic and extravagant way possible. These are often historical pieces, sometimes told over long periods of time, covering subjects like battles, royalty, biblical tales, and mythical figures. Elaborate costumes and sets are often employed.
Family: Or family-friendly, this label indicates universally accepted viewing. The production may be aimed specifically for the education and/or entertainment of children or the entire family. Family movies often include teaching moments when characters deal with issues or situations familiar to kids. Christian and faith-based pieces are nested under the family-friendly label, but not all family-friendy pieces are faith-based. A section in The Period Films List is dedicated to the best movies set in another era to watch with the family, and there are also articles that you may enjoy, like 10 Victorian Era Family Christmas Movies.
Romance: A Romance period drama, film / television show, etc. contains numerous inter-related scenes of a character and their personal life with emphasis on emotional attachment or involvement with other characters, especially those characterized by a high level of purity and devotion. Look for articles like 30 Period Romances You Haven’t Seen.
Biography: The details of the life story of a real person, told by someone else. In a Biography, the depiction of activities and personality of a real person or persons could include some or all of their lifetime. Events in their life may be reenacted, or described in a documentary style. If re-enacted, they generally follow reasonably close to the factual record, within the limitations of dramatic necessity. Also called a Biopic.
Autobiography: Essentially the same as a biography, with the exception that the story is written by the person who is the subject of the story.
Memoir: Similar to autobiography, with the exception that it is told more “from memory”, i.e. it is how the person personally remembers and feels about their life or a stage in their life, more than the exact, recorded details of that period.
Documentary: A Documentary depicts a real-world event or person, told in a journalistic style (if told in a literary narrative style the result is often a docudrama). A movie may be shot in a “documentary style” without being an actual Documentary.
In Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes follows the upstairs and the downstairs of a fictional Yorkshire estate as it weathers such real-life events as the sinking of the Titanic and World War I. – BBC America
Docudrama: A program depicting some sort of historical or current news event, with specific changes or fabrications for legal, continuity or entertainment reasons. Depending on the quality of the feature and intended audience, these changes can minimally or completely change the story in relation to the actual events.
Reality: A purportedly unscripted show featuring non-actors interacting with each other or dealing with invented or contrived challenges, such as living in the 19th century on a farm. Produced in a similar fashion as the documentary film genre.
Thriller: The work will contain numerous sensational scenes or a narrative that is sensational or suspenseful. You can find examples of period thrillers in posts like 20 Chilling Period Dramas for Halloween.
Miniseries: A miniseries (also mini-series) is a television program that tells a story in a predetermined, limited number of episodes. A miniseries is distinguished from an ongoing television series, which do not usually have a predetermined number of episodes and may continue for several years. Before the term was coined in the USA in the early 1970s, the ongoing episodic form was always called a “serial”, just as a novel appearing in episodes in successive editions of magazines or newspapers is called a serial. In Britain, miniseries are often still referred to as serials. This genre includes the type of productions we see on PBS Masterpiece and from the BBC and ITV – think of the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. See the BBC Classic Drama Collection list and posts like Masterpiece Classics on Amazon Prime.
Television mini-series have always provided an opportunity for translating longer novels to the screen by allowing more time to flesh out details and subplots. This fact has certainly not been lost on 21st century TV producers. When the BBC did Dickens’s Bleak House in 2005, writer Andrew Davies’ eight-hour adaptation was shown in 15 weekly half-hour installments (except for the first, which was an hour). Many people said the result gave the show more of a soap-opera feeling, which some said was appropriate, as it recalled the serialized publications of the original book. – BBC America
Television movies: Also known as a TV film; television movie; TV movie; telefilm; telemovie; made-for-television film; direct-to-TV film; movie of the week; feature-length drama; single drama and original movie), a television movie is a feature-length motion picture that is produced for, and originally distributed by or to, a television network like PBS, BBC, and ITV, in contrast to theatrical films, which are made explicitly for initial showing in movie theaters or cinemas.