The Queen on the Screen: the dangerous line between fact and fiction
This article considers the implications of creative works based on true events that digress from their real-life origin.
In recent years, there has been a surge of fictionalised tellings of the lives of real people: the musical Everybody's Talking About Jamie tells the real-life story of Jamie Campbell, a 16-year-old teenager who wanted to become a drag queen, whilst Twelve Years A Slave is a biographical period-drama film following the life of Solomon Northup, a free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington and taken into slavery. These are just two of the plethora of creative tellings of a real life person, event or experience, which often capture the unique essence of a person's or community's experiences and offer the audience an educational and informative insight into a time gone by for the audience.
It is inevitable and understandable that creatives use true events and experiences in their own work, whether this be film, TV, books, plays or songs, especially if the story has potential entertainment value. However, what happens when the truth of these stories becomes slightly obscured, and fiction takes over?
Perhaps, writers elaborate the truth to increase the appeal and entertainment value of their works, making them more sellable and thus increasing publication value. But what are the implications when these stories become embellished to such an extent that they stray a little too far from the truth?
Heather Morris' The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which tells the story of Lali Sokolov's experiences at Auschwitz concentration camp, was incredibly well received. Since its publication in January 2018, the novel sold over a million copies in the UK and over three million copies worldwide. The cover indicates it is “based on the powerful true story of love and survival”, which implies the story resembles the real events of Sokolov's life. Yet Morris' novel soon came under severe criticism for reconstructing the truth of the events that inspired the novel and was accused of being factually incorrect in places. A broadside of the Auschwitz Memorial claimed “the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements”.
The validity of the book has been undermined in light of the factual embellishments, and its authenticity was devalued due to its somewhat romanticised portrayal of a horrifyingly devastating event in world history. Amongst the many exposed factual errors are the camp number of Gisela Fuhrmannova, Sokolov’s wife, which is incorrect in the book, and the spelling of Sokolov's name, which Sokolov’s son Gary said was misspelled as 'Lale' rather than 'Lali'.
The book was published as being "based on a true story”, and so readers are led to believe the information in the book is true and reflective of real experiences. Sokolov was a real person, a person who suffered the tragic events of the Second World War, and despite having the privilege to read his story, we have been given at times a fictionalised and incorrect version. In this respect, has Morris done a great disservice to Sokolov and his experiences?
It is not just in books based on reality that we see a deviation from the facts and a promotion of fiction. The Crown, a Netflix phenomenon that dramatises the life of the Royal Family from Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, has gained an incredible reputation since its inception. Despite the claim that the show is a 'drama', the creators have clearly invested time and effort into creating a rich portrayal of the Royal Family so that it feels as real as possible for the viewers. Casting actors and actresses that closely resemble the real people, recreating famous events and outfits, and at times replicating the very words spoken by the Royals from interviews implies the show is committed to offering a experience closely connected to reality. Now in its fourth season, starring Emma Corin as Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher, the show has come under intense scrutiny for over-dramatising the facts and "stretching dramatic licence to the extreme".
In response to the rather disobliging portrayal of Prince Charles and his love triangle between then wife Diana Spencer and ex-lover Camilla Parker Bowles, ex-royal press secretary Dickie Arbiter claimed "It's just sensationalising, making Charles and Camilla out to be the villains"; Arbiter's suggestion implies the show has extended its dramatic license slightly too far. Prince Charles, the current heir to the throne, is certainly presented as a sort of villain, a selfish, unfeeling and cold husband, yet can we trust this as a reflection of the true events that occurred?
Take, for example, the scene in which Charles and Diana speak to the press upon their engagement. When asked if they are in love, Diana answers "of course", which Prince Charles follows with "whatever in love means", indicating his unconvincing and somewhat strained love for Diana. The scene is cut after Charles' dreadfully humiliating comment, but the real-life interview this scene was based upon does not end there: the real interviewer went on to offer an implication that to be in love the two must be 'very happy people', to which both Diana and Charles agreed; Charles arguably redeemed himself slightly by adopting a more loving manner and admitting his happiness. Yet this part of the interview is not shown in The Crown, as if the show wanted to portray Charles in a certain, unsympathetic, way, and constructed the scenes to do so. In a drama, this is acceptable, but how do we feel when the 'drama' is based on real people's lives, and conveys such a strong commitment to reflecting reality?
This is just one example of how the show has modified reality to suit their dramatic and, some may say, damning portrayal of the Royal Family, perhaps in order to increase the entertainment value of the show. Even though we understand that a 'drama' is often a fictionalised creation, when the subject matter is as vividly portrayed as it is in The Crown, how can we conclusively distinguish between what is drama and what is real?
Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary, fears "a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact" and urged Netflix to reiterate that the show was a drama. The 'drama' status feels problematic when it insinuates the facts of the Royal Family's lives have been embellished: the people portrayed in the drama are not fictional, nor are they are people who existed many centuries or even decades ago and thus are not alive to feel the consequence. Crucially, The Crown is concerned with the current Royal Family, and is dramatising rather recent events for the purpose of entertainment at the expense of the Royal's credibility and reputation. Some may say this increases its appeal, but there remains something uncomfortable in the way the show is constructed to comment on the Queen and her family, especially when fact and fiction are so blurred.
So what is the solution? When telling of the stories of real people in a creative form, maybe it should be indicated when fact has been embellished, in order to protect the authenticity of the agent's experiences, prevent the audience being misled and limit the confusion between fact and fiction. Perhaps Heather Morris' disclaimer at the beginning of her sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Cilka's Journey - telling the reader it is 'a work of fiction' is an indication that Morris has reacted to the criticism of her previous publication and made clear that, although based on a real person, her work has been entirely fictionalised. By comparison, Netflix are adamant that the audience of The Crown 'understand it’s a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events'. And yet, must we question whether it is truly as easy as they claim to determine the fictional elements of the drama? Perhaps the organisation may be taking for granted the fact that the audience will consciously and honestly distinguish between the Queen on the throne and the Queen on the screen, and not view the characters in the show as accurate reflections of the real people.