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Creating History: The Crown and the Death of Diana

Depictions of death in mass media are as old as the form itself. Death has always had a presence in the visual arts as an inextricable part of the human condition. In recent years, however, the proliferation of high-profile biopics and “true crime” have reignited controversy in public discourse about the ethics of depicting the deaths of real-life individuals in media. At the heart of this controversy is the fundamental loss of agency of the dead or dying persons. Death is an intimate and personal experience and individuals are rarely (if ever) able to give consent for their inclusion in media, leaving the depiction itself in the hands of the creators and their narrative interests. This controversy is especially acute in media that openly blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, as viewers can often take away the depiction as truth regardless of its veracity. 

One series in particular has found itself recently embroiled by this ethics controversy among media journalists and fans alike: The Crown. Peter Morgan’s lauded dramatization of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II has captivated audiences and created many a new royal fan—myself included. However, the recently released sixth and final season has raised debate over its depiction of real-life events and individuals. The first four episodes of the season, released weeks before the other six episodes, focus entirely on the last month of Princess Diana’s life in the summer of 1997, culminating in her tragic death in a car accident and the immediate aftermath. The first episode opens by contextualizing Diana’s recent separation and divorce from Charles, Prince of Wales, and depicts her emotional state and relationship with her children in its aftermath. The second episode shifts focus to the budding relationship between Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed, the son of Egyptian mogul and royal associate Mohamed Al-Fayed. The third episode comes to the night of Diana’s death, and depicts Dodi Al-Fayed as pressured by his father to propose to Diana so as to elevate his own status and “make him proud.” The accident itself comes after Diana, Dodi, their bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, and driver Henri Paul are harassed by paparazzi on motorcycles, forcing their car into a tunnel at high speed where the crash ultimately occurs undepicted. The final episode concerns the immediate reactions of the Royal Family and British public to the princess’s death, and the decision-making around her funeral. 

The four episodes, although they only cover a few weeks, contain many threading narratives concerning the death of the princess and her paramour. Some are rooted in established fact, but many are entirely or partially fictionalized –generating immediate controversy in public discourse. Dodi Al-Fayed is portrayed as making a marriage proposal to Diana on the night of her death, under pressure from his father to do so. This proposal and Mohamed’s scheming are portrayed as contributing directly to Diana’s untimely death at the hands of predatory paparazzi. The truth of that narrative is unsubstantiated, but The Crown shows them to play a significant role in Diana’s death. In addition, the depiction of the response of Diana’s family (in particular her children) to her death relied on artistic liberty and the recreation of private moments and conversations, imagining their trauma for all the world to see. 

Photo Credit: Terence Donovan/Camera Press/Redux

As The Crown is a historical drama series focusing on real events from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, fears were raised by the Royal Family, Diana’s family, and media journalists that unsuspecting viewers would watch the series and interpret its events as known truths. Netflix immediately responded to those fears by reiterating publicly that The Crown was a “fictional dramatization” inspired by true events, recreating closed-door conversations and personal moments as befits the creators’ narrative interests. However, this statement lays bare the heart of discussion over the ethics of depicting death: the creation of truth and manufacturing of history. Despite Netflix calling their series a fictional dramatization, the average viewer may regard the series and its depiction as verified fact, thereby giving Peter Morgan and the series’s creators the power to create truth in the minds of their audience. As many of the depicted events are either unknowable or private to their participants, a counter-narrative against what is shown in The Crown seems unlikely to emerge or reach the same media market saturation. By showing one narrative of Diana’s death and giving it high production value, authoritative pacing, and a wide audience reach, The Crown’s creators effectively create history—intentionally or not. 

The problematic nature of “creating history” in this manner runs parallel to the ethics of depicting real-life death. The truth of the horrific deaths of Princess Diana, Dodi Al-Fayed, and Henri Paul cannot be known to the world (the only survivor, Trevor Rees-Jones, has no memory of the incident). Its circumstances, including the rumored marriage proposal depicted by The Crown, are personal and ephemeral to history. Therefore, the individuals whose death is recreated cannot consent, verify, or take part in the depiction of their own death. Their agency over the deeply unique and individual experience of death is lost and it becomes reduced to a plot point in a narrative arc. Whose voices and experiences are included and excluded are at the discretion of the creators in order to fashion whatever theme or atmosphere they seek. This includes the narrative vilification and deification of certain people involved in the death as depicted. In The Crown, Mohamed Al-Fayed is essentially vilified for pressuring his son to date and later propose to Diana, to the detriment of all involved. This narrative choice relies on hearsay and artistic liberty, and is unsubstantiated and unverified, but creates a villain in Al-Fayed for his imagined role in precipitating the death of Princess Diana and his own son. Mohamed Al-Fayed is no longer alive and therefore cannot defend his own reputation, allowing for no counterweight to The Crown’s interpretation. Doubtlessly, responsibility for the accident has been attributed to Mohamed Al-Fayed in the minds of many viewers, and history has been re-fashioned as a result of this narrative choice. 

After examining this topic critically, I come away wondering whether it is even possible to ethically recreate a real-life death. Even if the average viewer knows what they are watching is a dramatization, do they bother to verify every fact shown on screen? And even if they did, is not a dramatic and entertaining reproduction more likely to stick in their memory than the often-boring truth? Even if the death is treated with utmost sensitivity, and the family consents to the recreation, the act itself of depiction can have ramifications far beyond simple entertainment. When one is effectively creating history, the power to bend audience perception to the will of the creators is simply too great. I am not here to call for a “ban” on the depiction of death (even if such a thing were possible), but to call for critical analysis of the ethics and consequences of doing so. For when one can never know what happened behind closed doors, the most convincing narrative becomes the truth itself.


James Weld is a junior in the SFS majoring in Culture & Politics and Minoring in French. Fun fact: his favorite character in The Crown dies after the first two episodes lol.


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