LOS ANGELES – This Thanksgiving, both National Geographic and PBS are planning to retell the story of Thanksgiving with TV specials that promise to portray historically-accurate and less pleasant versions of the pilgrims than are typically seen on TV.
Ric Burns, director of “The Pilgrims,” said Thanksgiving cartoons have colored how many Americans think of the story of Thanksgiving and that needed to change.
“Every Thanksgiving we think we are revisiting a moment in American history — and we are — but we don’t actually remember anything that really happened,” he explained. “The cartoon bubble in our mind is so hazy around the edges — we don’t really know what came before and we don’t really know what came after. We are in this disembodied Plymouth Rock limbo, and there they are with their bonnets and they are having a hard time but they are surviving and they have this wonderful harvest feast.”
Ryan McCormick, of Goldman McCormick PR, explained why Hollywood might be motivated to ditch the traditional Thanksgiving portrayals this year.
"National Geographic & PBS offering new perspectives on Thanksgiving may not so much be driven by a moral imperative to present the truth but, by the incentive to draw bigger ratings,” he said. “Americans may be seeking an alternative to watching sports or news highlights from Black Friday riots. Family-friendly Thanksgiving programming with a spice of edginess could be a huge success.”
Executive producers for “Saints and Strangers” on National Geographic Gina Matthew and Grant Scharbo insist their TV film will surprise viewers.
“It begins on the Mayflower and covers the first two years — our settlers side of the story and the Native American side of the story as well,” Matthews said. “I think one of the things we are so excited about, is that it’s the story people think they know, but they don’t really.”
Scharbo said the real story of Thanksgiving, not the simplified version, is important for Americans.
“There are still lessons to be learned in the true story. It was a horrific voyage over — 66 days stuck in a cargo hold, the Mayflower wasn’t even meant to carry passengers,” he said. “I think it’s important that the story not be simplified so much just for the sake of teaching it to children. I think it’s important to keep in mind they were the first immigrants in this nation, so it’s obviously a reverse where we are now and I think that’s what makes it relevant today. It is an immigration story.”
Matthews added that their film is important for reminding viewers what we really have to be thankful for.
“…They risked everything, half of them were dead in the first winter but they persevered because they had a belief and they had a desire to build this country and to risk it all.”
Part one of “Saints and Strangers” aired Sunday on National Geographic. Part two airs Monday, November 23. “The Pilgrims” airs November 24 on PBS.