At the risk of stating the obvious, what a French priest told a British newspaper about “The Crown” recreating the death of Princess Diana was, well, obvious.
“Their filming is commercially driven,” Father Yves-Marie Clochard-Bossuet told the Daily Mail, “and they are simply interested in attracting as many viewers as possible.”
Well, yes. Of course. Just like every other television program ever made, the goal is to attract as many viewers as possible.
And, in the estimation of Netflix executives and the series’ producers, recreating the car crash that killed Princess Diana and two others at the exact spot where it happened in Paris will attract more viewers/subscribers. They’re probably right about that.
That was filmed for Season 6, which is still in production. Season 5 starts streaming Wednesday, amid considerable criticism that it’s not entirely accurate. Which is hardly news — “The Crown” is a fictionalized drama, it’s not a documentary. It’s based on a true story, but if there’s a scene in which members of the royal family are talking to each other in private, that’s obviously fictional. As are scenes featuring the royals and members of their inner circle.
As for portraying the accident that killed Princess Diana, I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on this kind of thing. She died 25 years ago. Her sons — who were 12 and 15 at that time — are now 38 and 40. Will they be traumatized by “The Crown,” as some have suggested? That’s possible, but nobody will force them to watch it.
In the case of Diana’s death, “The Crown” is catching hell for being accurate. But it’s also being roundly criticized for being inaccurate — sometimes with scenes seemingly manufactured out of thin air. Season 5 features Prince Charles trying to elicit Prime Minister John Major’s (Jonny Lee Miller) support for convincing Queen Elizabeth II to abdicate so Charles can be king. The real Major says the scene is a “barrel-load of nonsense.
And Judi Dench — who has nothing to do with “The Crown” — attacked the series for being “willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism” and convince “a significant number of viewers, particularly overseas” that “its version of history as … wholly true.”
She’s credited with prompting Netflix to add a disclaimer that “The Crown” is “fictionalized dramatization” that is “inspired by true events.”
There’s some irony here in that Dench herself has portrayed two British queens in fictionalized roles — Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” and Victoria in both “Mrs. Brown” and “Victoria & Abdul.” But the former died in 1603 and the latter in 1901, so, apparently, the statute of limitations has expired on them.
Look, I’ve got no problem with adding a disclaimer, and neither should anyone at Netflix. It ought to be obvious to anyone who watches “The Crown” that it’s not a documentary, but you could leave that disclaimer on throughout every episode and there are still viewers who won’t get it. I mean, there are a lot of people who think that the conspiracy theories Oliver Stone spun in his 1991 movie “JFK” are real.
And let’s not pretend that the British royal family is unique in this. The suffering of many real people have been dramatized on television and in the movies, leaving loved ones to decide whether to watch. In recent weeks, some relatives of serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer have protested Netflix’s “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
Closer to home, Brenda Wright Lafferty’s sister complained that FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” didn’t accurately portray the woman killed, along with her baby, by her brothers in law. And that was only the latest Utah true crime fictionalized screen — a list that includes Gary Gilmore, Ted Bundy and the Hi Fi Killers. There were two miniseries based on the murder of Franklin Bradshaw, for which his daughter and grandson, Frances and Marc Schreuder, were convicted. And there have been several about the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart by Brian David Mitchell.
To be clear, filmmakers do not need the permission of victims or their families to produce movies about them. And the participation of victims or their families does not guarantee accuracy. “The Elizabeth Smart Story,” broadcast on CBS less than eight months after she escaped her captor and based on a book by her parents, excluded much of the story and manipulated many of the facts.
And if the Kennedys could survive umpteen recreations of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the fictionalized biographies of the president and three of his brothers (Joe, Bobby and Ted), his widow and other family members, it seems unlikely that “The Crown” will bring down the British monarchy.
I’m not immune to the argument that “The Crown” can be rough viewing for the royals, but they’re hardly the first to have unsavory events from the lives exploited onscreen.
Where were the protests when the sometimes laughably inaccurate film “Chappaquiddick” was released in 2018? A film that Ted Kennedy biographer Neal Gabler wrote, in a The New York Times op-ed, is filled with scenes that “cross from dramatic interpretation to outright character assassination.” It was left to Gabler to protest that “instead of excavating Kennedy for larger artistic aims, it eviscerates him for narrow voyeuristic ones.”
It’s the same criticism that’s being leveled at “The Crown” today.
For that matter, where were the protests about how hard “Chappaquiddick” was on the family of Mary Jo Kopechne? She drowned when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a tidal pond, and that death was recreated in the movie.
Is her family any less deserving of respect than the British royals? Of course not.
It’s not so much that I fault film and TV makers for fictionalizing real stories. We can check these things out for ourselves. I’ve gone online myself to learn if the Aberfan disaster was accurately portrayed in “The Crown” (unfortunately, it was) and read up on the Duke of Windsor — the former King Edward VIII — to find out if he was really a Nazi sympathizer (unfortunately, he was).
But I do agree with Dench. I do think it should be more clear that shows like “The Crown” are, to a large or small degree, fictional. Even if a lot of viewers will ignore the disclaimers.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.