One photo that lives in my head rent-free is a behind-the-scenes shot of Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzmann from Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. Dunst is dressed as Marie Antoinette, complete with a poofy ball gown, stunning face of makeup, and wig. Schwartzmann is sitting next to her in similarly formal attire, holding up a Macbook, while Kirsten has headphones in her ears.
Both are dressed up as 18th-century French nobility—and then there’s a Macbook. It’s a weirdly funny shot. Marie Antoinette remains one of my favorite films—the soundtrack is impeccable (featuring The Strokes, Siouxsie Sioux, and the Banshees), the pastel aesthetics are dreamy, and I’m generally a sucker for historical fiction films.
I read The Royal Diaries, a children’s historical fiction series, when I was in elementary school, which completely piqued my interest in royal history. Each book was written in the form of diary entries, focused on a different historic queen’s teenage years in relation to large-scale historical events. The queens ranged from Queen Victoria to Cleopatra to Grand Duchess Anastasia and more.
Though The Royal Diaries only focused on the queens’ teenhood and contained fictional dialogue, the books gave me a good foundation in learning about royal history when it came to the events and people mentioned.
In many contemporary historical royal fiction shows and movies, it often feels like there’s an emphasis on highlighting extravagance and luxury—not just sticking to what’s written in history books. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fascinated by the frilly gowns, sparkling jewelry, and fast-paced, dramatic, romantic storylines in these films and shows.
TV shows like Hulu’s The Great and The CW’s Reign are dramatized, fictionalized takes on the coming-of-age experiences of Catherine the Great and Mary, Queen of Scots, respectively. Reign creator Laurie McCarthy has maintained that the show should be approached as entertainment—not an accurate representation of history. Adelaide Kane, who plays Mary, has defended the show’s highly fictionalized elements, calling it creative license. Kane mentioned that when she was a teen (Reign’s target audience age), history definitely wasn’t at the forefront of her mind. Despite this, Kane prepared well for the role, doing heavy research and getting to know the life and personality of Mary, Queen of Scots.
“In each episode, we’ll educate people on what element of history helps our story,” McCarthy explained. McCarthy believes that though Reign is highly fictionalized, it still provides viewers with some background knowledge of royal history.
The Great, starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as Catherine the Great and Tsar Peter III, respectively, has been described by Hulu itself as “anti-historical”—even the title screen in the first episode says, “An occasional true story.” The Great’s first season shows Fanning arriving in Russia as a young German princess at age 19, and staging a coup the year after. In actuality, the real Catherine the Great arrived in Russia at age 14 as young Princess Sophie, got married at 16, and didn’t become Empress of Russia until she was 32.
It’s often a source of debate if Marie Antoinette callously said “let them eat cake” in response to learning that the French peasant population was struggling with famine and hunger during the French Revolution. Still, the phrase has floated across centuries.
Whether Marie Antoinette really said it or not, the infamous phrase’s sentiments have upheld her infamous reputation in history books as France’s inconsiderate and apathetic last queen until the monarchy’s abolition and her subsequent execution in 1793. “Let them eat cake,” fictionalized or not, represents someone who was unaware of and careless regarding the French population’s plights during the revolution.
But in Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the cake motif isn’t lost. There are scenes of Kirsten Dunst, sprawled on couches in a ruffled white gown, surrounded by an endless amount of carefully decorated cakes and pastries. The pink frosting matches the tulle of Dunst’s dress and her rhinestone heels. The scene plays up ideas of extravagance and luxury—pastel colors, feminine objects, and dream-like cinematography are often noted as constant themes across Coppola’s films, a testament to how she utilized her own creativity and personal style to tell Marie Antoinette’s story.
It’s fascinating to see how directors and showrunners creatively interpret different eras and historical figures. Many movies and shows depicting historical fiction play up factors like costumes and visual aesthetics more than the hard facts, the main premise and characters aside. In a way, it reminds me of fan fiction. In most if not all of these stories, the key characters remain while fans dream up fantastical interactions. Fan fiction about Harry Potter gave us Twilight, Twilight fan fiction gave us Fifty Shades of Grey, and so on. Even if royal historical fictional media has slip-ups and inaccuracies, it’s fiction for a reason.
When I decided to major in history in college, I chose to focus on building on my writing and reading skills while studying the historical figures I’d always loved. But sometimes it just gets boring shuffling through outdated history textbooks and grainy YouTube documentaries for research papers. To me, it can be more engaging to watch Sofia Coppola’s creative, colorful interpretation of Marie Antoinette, or Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer’s torrid affair as King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, than reading the straight facts. Really, whether or not these films are enjoyable despite their inaccuracies is entirely up to the viewer.
By Irine Le