Is ‘artistic license’ becoming contentious?

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I was about two hours into the new series of Netflix’s The Crown when something struck me. Having formed a toothier grin than I expected, I began to have my suspicions that it may not be the real Queen Elizabeth II on my screen. After a fairly mentally-harrowing few hours of research, it transpired that The Crown is, in fact, not a documentary at all: it is a TV series and all of the royals are played by (don’t say it too loudly) actors. 

Facetiousness aside, this appears to be a distinction that far too many people are failing to make, which highlights a serious problem in how we receive and process information nowadays. series four of The Crown is undoubtedly playing a part in how a new generation perceives the royals and potentially how previous generations remember them. The fact that this is possible is the problem, not the show itself. 

In a 2019 interview, Josh O‘Connor, who plays Prince Charles, said that he did not “really associate it with playing a part in history”. This notion of association is an interesting one. When the actors are representing real people, the basic stage and screen principle of a suspension of disbelief appears to become positively an active and unerring belief in everything shown. Once one considers that The Crown has been written by a screenwriter and playwright, not a historian, it should instantly be obvious to take everything shown with a pinch of salt. Because he’s written a TV show on the topic, we think that he must be an expert, and should therefore defer to his authority on the subject instantly. 

This mixture of laziness and misplaced trust from audiences is allowing a new form of reality to form

It’s a similar problem that arose from the making of David Fincher‘s The Social Network, which has defined many people’s perception of Mark Zuckerberg. People assume that by virtue of writing anything based in reality, the writer must have authority on the subject. This mixture of laziness and misplaced trust from audiences is allowing a new form of reality to form, which common sense should make impossible. 

Peter Morgan, the show’s writer, has previously said that “sometimes you have to forsake accuracy, but you must never forsake truth”. This is the same concept as the wonderfully euphemistic ‘based on true events’. His biggest issue is how deeply based in reality some of it is, for example, verbatim recreation of well-publicised interviews. This demonstrates at least some loyalty to historical accuracy. 

It is the personality and actions of those involved behind closed doors which is clearly going to, and does, fall foul of fabrication. In scenes where those involved have very famously never spoken about their private lives, it should simply be clear that anything portrayed of those private lives is pure speculation.

The sticking point with The Crown is that many of the people involved are still front and centre within the public consciousness. Not only that, but their very status is under serious scrutiny. Of course, this becomes an ever greater issue as the series inches closer towards the present day. 

The sticking point with The Crown is that many of the people involved are still front and centre within the public consciousness

It is the contentiousness of the subject matter which raises such great concerns over The Crown. Support and funding of the royal family continues to be a much debated topic and those in favour of them are terrified by the potential ramifications of any negative depictions. Despite some obvious falsehoods, The Social Network is considered by many to be one of the great films of the 21st Century, because Mark Zuckerberg’s life is interesting rather than fiercely debated. Yet, anyone who is using a television show to contribute to their image of the royals and to the debate over the legitimacy of the Windsor dynasty really needs to reconsider how they are forming their opinions. 

Well, what to do about it now? I have to say, I lay responsibility at the foot of the viewer, as opposed to the writer. Perhaps a warning about the obvious artistic license used is necessary. But it should not have to be. If the ability to use artistic license is so contentious, then the arts really are closer to death than we thought. 

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