The Crown creator Peter Morgan readily admits that he makes stuff up. Sometimes events that happened a few months, or years, apart are shown to happen simultaneously (Harold Wilson firing Lord Mountbatten really took place in 1967, not 1965, like Netflix suggests). Sometimes events depicted in one place actually took place in another (Princess Diana and Prince Charles played with Prince William for photographers in New Zealand, not Australia). And sometimes conversations are had that were never really had at all. Take season four, episode one: A fictional Lord Mountbatten sternly writes to a fictional Prince Charles that he’s brought “ruin and disappointment” to the family by carrying on with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Later that day, he’s killed in an attack by the Irish Republican Army. Part of that storyline is true—Mountbatten was, indeed, assassinated by the IRA—but there’s no proof that such a stern letter ever existed. (Justifies Morgan: “I made up in my head—whether it’s right or wrong—what we know is that Mountbatten was really responsible for taking Charles to one side at precisely this point and saying, ‘Look, you know, enough already with playing the field. It’s time you got married and it’s time you provided an heir.'”)
The showrunner told The New York Times in 2019, that he assumes viewers understand that the show sensationalizes. “I think there’s a covenant of trust with the audience,” he says. “They understand a lot of it is conjecture.” But there’s one group that is reportedly not happy about this fascinating mix of fact and fiction: the royal family itself.
This week, The Times of London published an article with the headline “Royal dismay over ‘cruelty’ of The Crown.” In it, friends of Prince Charles criticize Morgan’s fictionalized letter between Mountbatten and the Prince. “That isn’t right or fair, particularly when so many of the things being depicted don’t represent the truth,” a source told the outlet. “This is trolling with a Hollywood budget.”
Furthermore, Prince William was said to be upset by the scenes that show Charles verbally abusing Diana. A source said he feels “his parents are being exploited and presented in a false, simplistic way to make money.”
Early seasons of The Crown took place 50, 60, 70 years ago. Many of the real-life figures that the characters were based on, such as Winston Churchill, Princess Margaret, and the Queen Mother, are no longer with us, having passed away in old age. But, as The Crown inches more toward modern day, it finds itself in tricky territory: how does one ethically dramatize the lives of the very much living?
23 years ago, a 36-year-old Diana was tragically killed in a car crash in Paris on August 31. Even her press-shy sons openly admit that it still haunts them. In an October 2019 ITV documentary, Prince Harry said it’s a “wound that festers.” Prince William recently admitted that when he became a father, his emotions about losing his mother came back “in leaps and bounds.” It doesn’t help that her untimely death is still shrouded in conspiracy theories often re-circulated every Labor Day. So as The Crown dives into the Diana years—as fascinating as they are for the audience—they are touching on a painful time for a family that’s still grappling with the aftershocks of immense grief. It’s one thing to vaguely read something in a tabloid. It’s another to see it completely, realistically reenacted and streamed to the world.
This isn’t to make The Crown a scapegoat for the royal pop-culture subgenre. Movies about Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana are a dime a dozen, as are unauthorized books and all sorts of fan fiction. But what’s different with The Crown is, well, how good it is. While no one is taking Lifetime’s Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance seriously, The Crown, with its critically acclaimed actors and sky-high production value, is so much more encompassing, immersive and, as a result, believable. Josh O’Connor sounds exactly like Prince Charles, Emma Corrin looks exactly like Princess Diana, and the Buckingham Palace set is so detailed it feels like it could be the real thing. Then there’s the fact that so much of it does closely mimic real-life events: The Crown has an astute team of researchers who dig up archival press clippings, interview transcripts, and even bring in eye-witnesses to the events they want to portray on the show. While yes, most watchers are aware that The Crown exaggerates, the show blends fact with fiction so seamlessly that it’s hard to extract what’s fabricated and what’s not without some serious post-binge research.
In January, Netflix revealed that 73 million households have watched The Crown since it premiered in 2016. Morgan is crafting a powerful narrative that will, for a global generation, be a preeminent part of their cultural canon. So what responsibility does he have when it comes to telling the living royal family’s story? How can one tastefully Hollywood-ify real people with recent traumas?
Perhaps it’s a burden that Morgan is already bearing. When The New York Times pressed him on factual accuracy and his postulations, he replied: “I’m absolutely fastidious about there being an underlying truth.”