Inspired by true events

The call for fiction labels on historical dramas says more about us than it does the programs

Recently, Netflix felt the need to respond to calls for a “fiction warning” to be added to its popular series The Crown. According to the BBC, “the streaming giant said the series has always been billed as a drama.” Therefore, Netflix stated it has “no plans, and see no need, to add a disclaimer” to the program.

The Crown is hardly the only historical drama Netflix and other entertainment companies have produced over the years. Each has taken liberties with historical events to keep us glued to the screen.

Take Netflix’s series on the Medici family of 15th century Florence. After watching that particular program, I was moved to find a good biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici in order to learn more.

Upon reading it I was better able to identify which of the events depicted in the television series were exaggerated, drawn out over months or years rather than the days or weeks an hour long television program make them appear, and sometimes even chronologically out of order. However, it was not necessary to read the biography in order to understand that the producers of historical dramas did all those things in the first place.

In spite of all the creative license taken in their Medici series, no one to my knowledge is demanding Netflix warn viewers that its historical drama inspired by their life be labeled fiction. That the Medici in question have been dead for more than 500 years while many of the members of the royal family depicted in The Crown are still very much alive shouldn’t matter if what we are concerned about here is to what extent the program depicts events accurately.

However, I am less concerned with Netflix’s refusal to warn us that their historical dramas aren’t completely accurate than I am with what the demand for such warnings says about us in the first place. A society of well educated critical thinkers shouldn’t need to be told how much salt to take their historical dramas with. Storytelling, even the non-fiction variety, has never been free of bias, exaggeration, or lapses of human memory. That so few of us apparently apply this understanding to programs like The Crown is disconcerting.

Even documentaries must leave a great deal out in order to fit in all the information their creators deem important. Must we also read a warning at the beginning of these programs informing us that its creators chose to minimize or ignore certain facts some viewers may consider of interest in order to communicate the story as effectively as possible? Have we become so ignorant of history, to say nothing of the creative process, that we can no longer recognize that every account no matter how credible the source or well researched the work is still incomplete?

That history is subject to interpretation is not to say the accounts we are exposed to are devoid of value and should be treated like just another movie or novel. The further back in time we go the more blanks historians, authors, playwrights and screenwriters must fill with speculation. Whether their purpose is to teach history, entertain, inspire our moral or creative imagination or some combination of these determines how those blanks get filled. We should pay attention to the context in which the story is being told as much as we should the facts of the story itself.

When it comes to dramas depicting recent events in the lives of contemporary personalities like the royal family, the blanks don’t exist because there are no witnesses around to help us fill them but, in large part, because the people in question want them there. Inscrutability is one of the characteristics of the monarchy that keeps it going in spite of everything.

If Queen Elizabeth II wanted us to know what went on behind closed doors, she would behave more like a reality television star and less like the center of a carefully choreographed production in which all the main characters appear to be walking on eggshells. When all the people see is your public persona, nobody, least of all the royal family, should be surprised (or demand a warning message) when the private side is the subject of speculation, artistic or otherwise.

All that said, what a good historical drama should do is inspire some healthy curiosity regarding the people and events being depicted. That it generally doesn’t is an indication of just how intellectually lazy we have become.

The Crown does that reasonably well, if not in every episode then in many. Episodes have featured the so-called “Great Smog” of 1952, as well as the Aberfan coal waste disaster of 1966 that killed 144 people including 116 children. These are real events in recent British history that many, especially those living outside the United Kingdom, would not be aware happened at all were it not for historical dramas like The Crown. Instead of featuring warnings at the beginning of such programs advising viewers that these historical dramas aren’t true, perhaps Netflix should be providing resources at the end of the program viewers can use to learn more, even if most of us sadly aren’t inclined to use them.

It is because we live in a culture that values history, science, and even news less and less that we are debating things like fiction labels on historical dramas that we should have learned how to analyze critically in our youth. A curious well educated public skilled in critical thinking wouldn’t need Netflix, Amazon Prime, or any other company to remind them that entertainment isn’t an unimpeachable source of truth, either of the historical, scientific or philosophical variety. Ultimately, our lack of critical thinking and curiosity when it comes to programs like The Crown is on us not the media companies that produce them.

US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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