Alternate Histories are concerned with different outcomes of historic events had some event in the past been changed. Examples might include the depiction of the world that might have come about had Germany won World War II, what might have happened if the dinosaurs did not die out or if the South won the American Civil War to name some of the most common treatments.
The Alternate History has a long (and often surprisingly playful) history in science-fiction literature but has not found much of a foothold on film and tv to date. This may well be due to the fact that it is a genre that requires much more of a conceptual challenge and awareness of history from its audience than most other science-fiction themes ie. you cannot always get the references if you don’t have some understanding of the era being diverged from.
Alternate Histories should be differentiated from the theme Alternate Timelines. Alternate Timelines concern themselves with personal stories – how the events of an individual’s life may have transpired differently had a crucial event been changed at some point or they made a different decision leading them on a different pathway. Also on this page we create the differentiation Alternate Realities, which are stories set the same world as this but where one small but significant detail has been changed.
Full-Blooded Alternate History Treatments
There are few genuine alternate histories on screens. A perfect example of the conceptual failure of the genre can be seen in tv’s Sliders (1995-2000) where the fascinating idea of a group of people travelling through a different alternate world each week merely ended up as a variant on Star Trek (1966-9)’s Society of the Week scenario and had the cast dismantling/escaping from straw dystopias and no effort made to explore the historic divergence of each. The number of genuine full-fledged alternate histories is few.
The first depiction of alternate history on the screen was (as far as one is aware) the The Twilight Zone episode The Parallel (1963) where a returning astronaut finds himself in a world that is near identical but for some essentials details – no President Kennedy and several historical figures are different.
Among alternate history fiction, one of the most popular themes is the scenario where the Nazis win World War II and this has similarly become the most popular treatment on film. The finest example of this sub-genre was It Happened Here (1965), a fascinating documentary-like depiction of England under Nazi rule. Other treatments of the Nazi Rule alternate history can be seen in Fatherland (1994) depicting a Nazi empire in the 1960s as SS officer Rutger Hauer uncovers evidence of the Holocaust; the mini-series SS-GB (2017), an excellent depiction of England under Nazi rule; and the tv series The Man in the High Castle (2015-9) showing a USA divided between Nazi and Japanese rule.
The Nazis Win scenario also appears to a lesser extent in other works like Philadelphia Experiment II (1993), The Triangle (2005), The 25th Reich (2012) and the Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever (1967). There was even a puppet film Jackboots on Whitehall (2010) about a Nazi invasion of England, while the anime Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1998) takes place in a post-War, Nazi-ruled Japan. The animated Freedom Fighters – The Ray (2018) was a superhero film set in a Nazi rule alternate history.
One of the strongest alternate history works is C.S.A: The Confederate States of America (2004), a mockumentary about the US if the South won the Civil War and we see how historical events would have transpired if slavery existed to this day. The tv mini-series The Plot Against America (2020) is set in an alternate 1940s where Charles Lindbergh becomes the US President, running on a platform of not drawing the US into World War II and then begins to introduce increasing Antisemitic policies.
White Man’s Burden (1995) postulates the idea of a US where Blacks are the majority race and Whites are a socially disadvantaged minority. Both the tv play Fable (1985) and the tv series Noughts + Crosses (2020- ) depict a present-day England where Blacks are a racial majority and whites a minority. Honky Holocaust (2014) is set in an alternate timeline where the Manson Family actually succeed in igniting their race war.
The Good Dinosaur (2013) depicts a world where the dinosaurs did not die out, while Super Mario Bros. (1993) visits an alternate timeline where dinosaurs have evolved into human form. The laughable A Sound of Thunder (2005) briefly visits an alternate timeline where apes and dinosaurs had evolved into a hybrid species following a time travel accident in the prehistoric past.
Other notable examples of alternate history include:-
- Quest for Love (1971) set in an alternate timeline where John F. Kennedy did not die and the Vietnam War did not occur
- A Rift in Time (1974), an episode of tv’s The Tomorrow People, concerning an alternate world where the Roman Empire has extended into the future
- First on the Moon (2005), a mockumentary about a fictional Soviet Moon landing in the 1930s
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015) set in an alternate 19th Century England where magic is real
- No Men Beyond This Point (2015), an hilarious mockumentary that depicts a present where women rule following falling male birth rates
- For All Mankind (2019- ), a tv series that takes place in a timeline where the Soviet Union ended up being first to the Moon
- Yesterday (2019), a romantic comedy where a man wakes in a world where The Beatles never existed and is able to pass their songs off as his own
A popular branch of alternate history is the theme of Steampunk concerning imagined technology that might have been built in the Victorian era. Most Steampunk works are not full-fledged alternate history in that they only concentrate on throwing some novel technological changes into the Victorian era and do not concern any wide-ranging social-political changes that might have resulted from these changes. One work that does is April and the Extraordinary World (2016) that has an ending that shows how history would have been different following its Steampunk world. A particularly notable effort was the anime The Empire of Corpses (2015), which imagines a very different 19th Century based on the widespread application of Frankenstein’s corpse resurrection science.
A number of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime seem to take place in alternate timelines, most notably the world of airships and German soldiery that takes place in Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), although no historical split point is ever mentioned. The anime The Wings of Honneamise (1987) appears to be taking place in an alternate world depicting the first space launch, as does The Sky Crawlers (2008) set in a present world where familiar brand names sit alongside clone children engaged in corporate wars. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) is an anime set in a Japan that has split between two countries, a Soviet-dominated north and America-friendly south.
One could also include here borderline cases like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time in America (2019), which both rewrite historical events – killing off the Nazi hierarchy and preventing the Tate killings by the Manson Family – in ways that can be considered alternate history (or at least show hinge points that would lead to huge implied historical changes).
Alternate History Via Time Travel
There is a whole sub-category of these works where alternate timelines emerge as the inadvertent result of time travel. A number of the above examples – Philadelphia Experiment II, A Sound of Thunder, The 25th Reich – depict the changes occurring as a result of time travel.
Probably the first filmed work to do so was the classic Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever (1967) where a deranged Dr McCoy travelling into the past inadvertently erases their present and Kirk and Spock must travel back to the Depression era where Kirk has to make the choice to allow a woman he loves to die in order to save the world he comes from. This briefly shows that her living would have created a pacifist movement that would have led to a Nazi Rule scenario.
The Stephen King adapted mini-series 11.22.63 (2016) has time traveller James Franco travelling through a portal back to the 1960s and deciding to prevent the Kennedy assassination. The end of the show briefly shows that this might have resulted in a nightmare world, although frustratingly avoids depicting the events that would have led there.
The possibilities of the alternate history due to time travel occurred in Back to the Future Part II (1989) where Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff travelling back from the future to the 1950s to give himself a almanac of sports results causes Biff to become the wealthiest man in the world and created a dark version of the present. The other Back to the Future films feature Marty returning to the present after his visits have affected minor changes to the timeline.
Timecop (1994) and Timecop: The Berlin Decision (2003) concern a temporal law enforcement agent set up to prevent criminals from meddling in the timeline. In the first of these, the hero keeps returning to different presents as he discovers everybody around him, including the temporal agency itself, has been edited out by the villain of the show. The sequel features the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler and prevent the Holocaust from happening. A similar agency to prevent changes to history also appears in the tv series Timeless (2016-8).
Alternate Realities and the Bizarre
The alternate reality is not so much an alternate history or an alternate timeline but the same world we have now but where one crucial detail has been changed. These are not stories that are concerned with depicting historical divergence points.
The most notable case of this was tv’s Sliders where the alternate timelines looked exactly similar to our own but were worlds where women or youth rule, where men become pregnant, intellect has become celebrity and so on.
The Invention of Lying (2009) was about a world where everybody tells the truth and one man discovers he has the ability to lie. Aaaaaaaah! (2015) is set in a world that operates on pre-verbal behaviour. Never Let Me Go (2010) takes place in an alternate version of the 1960s and 70s that had adopted medical advances that create an underclass of people that can be harvested for their organs.
One of the most amusing alternate worlds by implication was the one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), which offered up the view that cartoon characters are real and operate in a world where they are employed as actors by Hollywood and even had their own suburb that operated on cartoon physics. Bright (2017) and Onward (2020) take place in a present world where various magical creatures co-exist alongside humans and/or exist in a society identical to our own.
In more fanciful accounts, Perfect Creature (2006) concerns an alternate world where vampires have grown up alongside humans; while Fido (2006) concerns a version of history after a zombie outbreak in the 1950s.
The Lathe of Heaven (1980) concerns a man whose dreams alter the world around him every time he sleeps and how an ambitious psychologist tries to use this to change the world into a better place, seeking to eliminate racism and bring about world peace, only for this to have unexpected consequences.
In a completely bizarre category was Yahoo Serious’s gonzo comedy Young Einstein (1988) in which Albert Einstein grows up on an apple farm in Tasmania where he invents relativity along with surfing and rock music and then proceeds to romance Marie Curie; and Six-String Samurai (1998) set in a post-holocaust 1957 where Buddy Holly has become a samurai warrior. John Dies at the End (2012) briefly visits an alternate timeline that shows historic events enacted by human-animal hybrids.
Alternate Histories of Fictional Timelines
A popular trend that has grown in print science-fiction and fantasy is alternate histories to fictional timelines that imagine popular fictional characters in changed scenarios or if events had transpired differently. DC Comics has an entire imprint of comics Elseworlds that offers alternate takes on their superheroic canon and Marvel followed with their What If? line.
This trend has started to spill over onto film. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) imagines an alternate retelling of Jane Austen’s story in a Regency England with the addition of zombies. The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013) depicts an alternate version of World War I if H.G. Wells’s Martian invasion had occurred instead, while the animated War of the Worlds: Goliath (2012) shows various historical figures in the aftermath of the Martian War.
Both Watchmen (2009) and Watchmen (2019) gave us an alternate version of the world if superheroes had existed. Superman: Red Son (2020) was an adaptation of an actual Elseworlds title that shows how the world and 20th Century history would have changed if Superman had been born in the Soviet Union. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010) is set on an alternate Earth where familiar super-villains are the heroes and the superheroes are villains, while both Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013) and Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015) depict changed worlds with very different versions of the familiar superheroes, while the tv series The Flash (2014- ) seemed to begin each season with an altered timeline.
- It Happened Here (1965)
- White Man’s Burden (1995)
- C.S.A: The Confederate States of America (2004)
- The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013)
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015)
- No Men Beyond This Point (2015)
- SS-GB (2017)
- For All Mankind (tv series, 2019- )
- The Plot Against America (2020)
A full list of titles can be found here Alternate Histories