10 Portrayals of Princess Diana in Pop Culture—Ranked
Spencer isn't the first attempt to bring Princess Diana's story to the big screen. Here's how 10 other dramatizations portrayed "the People's Princess"—with varying degrees of success.
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The Diana dilemma
The new film Spencer is attracting critical accolades—and controversy—for its portrayal of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Actress Kristen Stewart, best-known for her role as Bella in the Twilight films, is earning Oscar buzz for her performance as Diana. Although Vanity Fair observes that “So much of Oscar success can be circumstantial,” for Stewart, “the circumstances might finally be right.”
A five-star review in the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph praised Spencer as an example of “thrillingly gutsy, seductive, uninhibited filmmaking,” but noted that “there is no risk whatsoever of [director] Pablo Larrain’s resplendently mad, sad and beautiful Spencer being mistaken for a historical fact.” When writing the screenplay for Spencer, screenwriter Steven Knight imagined a fictional holiday weekend at the Queen’s Sandringham estate in 1991 during the breakdown of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. Daily Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin wondered if Spencer would be the film to “break the curse,” as “the history of Princess Diana films is littered with flops and farragoes.”
Why is it so difficult to create a successful film—or play, novel or TV series—about Diana? Fictional portrayals of Diana often struggle to convey her real-life charisma while providing a fresh perspective on her life and death. The source material about her private life is itself full of contradictions. Diana famously worked with Andrew Morton on his controversial 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story and subsequent biographers have scrutinized the veracity of some of her statements. The milestones of Diana’s public life, however, are so well known that many people can remember exactly where they were when Diana married Charles in 1981 or when the news broke that Diana had died in a car accident in 1997.
Pop culture portrayals of Diana, from the worst to the best, all have something to say about Diana that goes beyond her famous life and tragic death, examining wider issues from the influence of the tabloid press on celebrity culture to the future of the monarchy. Here, we take a look back at the most significant, and discuss why some Diana-themed movies, novels and plays flopped, while others managed to connect with audiences searching for an authentic take on the famous Princess.
10. Diana, The Musical (2021)
A play with music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro
The life of a famous and controversial woman who died in her prime has inspired musical theatre before. Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed the life of Argentina’s First Lady Eva Peron into the 1978 musical Evita, with Madonna assuming the title role in a 1996 film adaptation. Diana’s life appeared to be perfectly suited for a similar tale of a charismatic young woman emerging from obscurity, marrying a famous man, connecting with the public, doing charity work, eclipsing her husband’s fame, then dying young. Diana, the Musical, however, did not enjoy Evita’s success.
Diana, The Musical was supposed to have its Broadway premiere in March 2020, but then COVID-19 struck. Determined to find an audience, the production was instead filmed in front of an empty auditorium and released on Netflix in October 2021. Audiences didn’t know what hit them.
The Guardian newspaper declared in a one-star review, “If it was deliberate satire, it would be genius, but it’s not.” Despite the incredulous reactions of both critics and audiences who assumed that a musical this bad must be a campy satire, lyricist Joe DiPietro defended the production in an interview with the BBC, stating “I never approached this as a campy show…To us, it’s really about an extraordinary and important woman of the last century who made a lasting impact.”
A clip widely shared on social media (with the comment, “I am reporting this to the international war crimes tribunal”) showed Jeanna de Waal as Diana at a classical music concert singing awkward rhymes such as “The Russian plays on and on/Like an endless telethon/How I wish that he were Elton John” before breaking into a bizarre dance sequence with Charles to the song “This is How Your People Dance.”
Believe it or not, Diana, The Musical is not the first fictional depiction of Charles and Diana’s marriage set to music. The music video for the 1983 song “Everyday I Write The Book” by Elvis Costello and The Attractions imagined the newly married Charles and Diana living a dull middle class life in which Charles desperately tries to impress his wife while a bored Diana watches silent movies on television.
9. Diana (2013)
A film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, written by Stephen Jeffreys
At first glance, the 2013 film Diana appeared to include the ingredients for commercial and critical success. Oscar nominated British actress Naomi Watts portrayed Diana and there were genuine efforts made to recreate Diana’s hairstyle and fashions. The screenplay was not another dramatization of the breakdown of the marriage of Charles and Diana (Charles is discussed but never appears in person). Instead, the film focused on Diana’s comparatively little-known affair with heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) and his role in Diana’s life during her last years. The story was inspired by Kate Snell’s 2001 biography, Diana: Her Last Love.
When the film premiered, however, it received almost universally negative reviews from critics and audiences. Diana was depicted literally running after Khan in the street and the script contained ridiculous dialogue (“If you can’t smell the fragrance, don’t come into the garden of love”). Just 8 per cent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a positive review.
Diana‘s failure had a lasting impact: eight years later, many actresses were reluctant to consider accepting the lead role in Spencer. Spencer screenwriter Stephen Knight explained to The Daily Telegraph, “We kept hearing that someone loved the part, but she was worried about what the response might be. There was a sense that ‘If even Naomi Watts couldn’t do it…’”
Despite the failure of the film, Diana’s affair with Dr. Khan served to inspire further fictional works. In Imagining Diana, a 2017 novel by Diane Clehane, Diana survives the 1997 car accident but is left disfigured, contemplating the impact of her new appearance on her status as the most photographed woman in the world. In the aftermath of the accident, she reconciles with Dr. Khan and later mentors her future daughter-in-law Catherine Middleton.
Don’t miss this photo gallery of young Princess Diana before she became a royal.
8. Diana: A Tribute to the People’s Princess (1998)
A TV movie written and directed by Gabrielle Beaumont
The global outpouring of grief following Diana’s death in 1997 spawned a new genre of Diana films: tribute pieces in which Diana was an innocent victim surrounded by unscrupulous people. Diana: A Tribute to the People’s Princess (released in the U.S. as Diana: The People’s Princess) was filmed quickly after Diana’s death, with Amy Seccombe in the lead role. The movie attempted to recreate the last year of her life, dramatizing well known moments and depicting her relationships with Hasnat Khan and then Dodi Fayed as well as her charity work, time spent with her sons and her struggle with paparazzi.
Critic Hal Erickson observed that the film was “seemingly dedicated to bestowing sainthood on Princess Di” and “manages to make her antagonists as unpleasant and unsympathetic as possible, with an inordinate amount of scorn heaped on Dodi [Fayed]’s former fiancée.” While a few audience reviews on the Internet Movie Database describe the film as “great” or “a fitting tribute,” most reviews are negative, summarizing it as “a pile of rubbish” and “a specimen of high camp in a TV film.”
There were other tributes to Diana in the form of both documentaries and fiction released in the months immediately following her death, and again around the 10th anniversary of her passing in 2007. One of the more notable anniversary productions was TLC’s Diana: Last Days of a Princess, which included more historical source material and insights from those who knew Diana. Starring Genevieve O’Reilly in the role of Diana, the scripted scenes with actors delivering fictional dialogue were interspersed with news footage and interviews.
In light of what we now know of Diana and her relationships in those final years, these glowing tribute films appear dated.
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7. Diana: A Spencer in Love, Diana: A Spencer in Turmoil and Diana: A Spencer Forever (2018)
A trilogy of novels written by Deb Stratas
Pop culture portrayals of Diana that follow a traditional biographical format, giving equal weight to all the events of her adult life, are rare—and rarely well reviewed. This trilogy of biographical novels by Ontario author Deb Stratas proves the exception to the rule, and has found a fan base amongst royal history enthusiasts and admirers of Diana with their positive tone and respect for historical accuracy.
Stratas’s novels stand out because she makes efforts to treat both Diana and Charles fairly, presenting them both as having good intentions at the start of their marriage. Her approach is that of both an admirer of Diana and a monarchist, writing, “I have really focused on the positive characteristics of everyone involved. I believe both Diana and Charles truly loved each other when they married, and this book is not intended to paint either one as either a villain or a victim.”
Despite the challenge of finding new perspectives on Diana to intrigue audiences already familiar with her story, more biographical novels about Diana and her marriage are scheduled for release in the coming year. In The People’s Princess, a novel by Flora Harding set for publication in 2022, a newly engaged Lady Diana Spencer finds comfort and solace by reading the diary of Queen Victoria’s cousin, Princess Charlotte of Wales, observing parallels with her own future as Princess of Wales.
Check out these little-known facts about Queen Victoria.
6. Freddy and Frederika (2005)
A novel written by Mark Halprin
One way to build suspense and dramatic momentum in a novel about Diana is to create an alternate history—a completely fictitious world in which Charles and Diana’s marital problems play out in a series of “what if…” scenarios. Mark Halprin’s satirical madcap adventure novel, Freddy and Frederika, imagines a royal couple, closely modeled on Charles and Diana, who are a public relations nightmare for the monarchy. To get them out of the United Kingdom, they are literally dropped from a plane into New Jersey on a secret mission to regain the American colonies for the United Kingdom.
As reviewer Sven Birkerts summarized in The New York Times, “During their yearlong sojourn they work for the Salvation Army, hop freights, serve as fire-watchers in the Western wilderness and, least probably, set themselves up as dentists in a small Nebraska town.” Reflecting the author’s conservative political views, these adventures allow the royal couple to learn the benefits of hard work and self reliance and even rediscover their feelings for one another in adversity. Critics of the time found the premise of the novel interesting and entertaining but noted that it was overlong with too many subplots and diversions into American politics.
There are other historical novels that imagine Charles and Diana living like commoners. In Sue Townsend’s 1992 novel and play, The Queen and I, which satirizes efforts to abolish the monarchy in the United Kingdom, the Queen has a nightmare in which the People’s Republican Party wins the 1992 general election. The House of Windsor is overthrown, and the former royal family is obliged to move into public housing. Charles and Diana proceed to have affairs with their neighbours while their sons view the move as a great adventure. These alternate history novels provide opportunities to not only satirize the monarchy and celebrity culture, but provide a new ending for readers who want to imagine how Diana’s life might have unfolded differently.
These rarely seen photos of Princess Diana are stunning.
5. King Charles III (2014)
A play written by Mike Bartlett, later adapted into a 2017 film of the same name
What will be the impact of Diana’s legacy on the future of the monarchy? One way to explore this theme is to imagine her ghost haunting Buckingham Palace. In King Charles III, Bartlett imagines a time in the not-so-distant future when Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has come to an end. An elderly Prince Charles succeeds to the throne and faces a constitutional crisis. Late at night in his study, King Charles hears a ghost in the palace. “Mother?” he asks aloud, but instead, an eternally young and beautiful Diana appears and speaks the words, “You think I didn’t love you. It’s not true.” She later appears to her son Prince William to tell him, “Now be glad, you’ll be the greatest king we ever had.”
Bartlett was strongly influenced by Shakespearean history plays in which ghosts appear to their living friends and family members. Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays Charles in the 2017 film, compared the presence of Diana’s ghost to her enduring image in the popular imagination long after her death, stating in an interview with PBS Masterpiece, “I think there was a picture of Princess Diana in the paper every day for at least ten years after she died.” The play is a bit dated today as Prince Harry is depicted as a bachelor prince in the United Kingdom rather than married to Meghan in the United States, but Diana’s family is still coming to terms with her legacy and the ghost in King Charles III symbolizes her impact on Charles, her sons and the monarchy.
Diana’s ghost has made other appearances in British literature. In Ali Smith’s award-winning 2002 novel, Hotel World, Diana is described as a “historic and royal ghost, ghost of a rose.” Echoing Pigott-Smith’s observation, the novel identifies the role of the press in keeping Diana’s memory alive, referring to “the ghost of Diana, Princess of Wales…again today on the page of this morning’s Daily Mail, still selling its copies by breathing her back to a life that’s slightly more dated each time.”
Read about what happened on Charles and Diana’s honeymoon.