LONDON — Nearly 25 years after her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, remains a fixture in British culture and on screens both sides of the pond.
Her life is often remembered as tragic: an unhappy marriage to Prince Charles, a complex private life hounded by paparazzi, a shocking death in a car crash at the age of 36. But she was also, truly, beloved, earning the moniker “the people’s princess” for her charity work and candor.
This complexity has inspired countless television and film adaptations of her life. The latest, in theaters Friday, is “Spencer.” Starring Kristen Stewart as Diana and directed by Pablo Larraín, the film takes place over one Christmas holiday with the royal family, as Diana’s marriage (and possibly her mental health) unravel.
Each Diana production — made in every decade since she became a public figure — takes a different perspective on the princess. Here’s a list of six varied examples, all available to watch online.
‘Diana: Her True Story’ (1993)
In the early 1990s, U.S. television networks scrambled to make small-screen movies depicting Charles and Diana’s much-publicized unhappy marriage.
Andrew Morton’s explosive biography “Diana: Her True Story” was published in 1992, and a year later NBC aired a movie adaptation of the book, starring Serena Scott Thomas as Diana and David Threlfall as Charles.
This is a soapy rendering of Diana’s marriage, but the plot generally sticks to the story that “The Crown” later explored with more nuance, and the differences between the couple are evident from the start. Charles is explicit that he doesn’t see love as a prerequisite for marriage, seeing it as a “partnership.” Scott Thomas’s Diana, meanwhile, believes that her role is to support her husband and that, with time, she can make Charles love her.
Scott Thomas doesn’t quite embody Diana’s looks or mannerisms, but she does capture the personable nature that made her so popular. Her portrayal of the princess is sympathetic and she frequently reacts to Charles’s mistreatment, screaming at him after she finds a photograph of Camilla on their honeymoon and throwing herself down the stairs while pregnant with her first child. Sticking to revelations in Morton’s book, Diana’s struggle with an eating disorder is also depicted. (Stream via Amazon Prime Video; rent or buy on Amazon.)
‘Diana: The Musical’ (2021)
“Diana: The Musical,” written by Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, had its Broadway run swiftly shuttered because of the pandemic. Earlier this year a filmed version landed on Netflix.
Starting with her initial courtship of Prince Charles, the two-hour musical flies through notable events in Diana’s life at a dizzying pace. There are numbers on her paparazzi intrusion (with lyrics like “Ain’t nothin’ like the hunt, Ain’t nothin’ like the thrill. Find the right bird, Then go in for the kill”) and contrasting Diana’s common touch with the public with the royal family’s stuffiness (“All right, I’m no intellect,” she sings while watching a cello performance with Charles. “But maybe there’s a discotheque, where the prince could hear some Prince and we’d all get funkadelic.”)
This version of Diana (played by Jeanna de Waal) is particularly one-dimensional. There isn’t much of an opportunity to dwell on her emotions, or provide insight on her mental state, and the filmed musical was not well received. “This is a Rocky Horror Picture Show of cluelessness and misjudged Judy Garlandification,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. (Stream on Netflix.)
‘King Charles III’ (2017)
Based on the play of the same name by Mike Bartlett, “King Charles III” is set following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and sees Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) grappling with the death of his mother and his transition to king.
In the vein of a Shakespearean tragedy, the ghost of Diana (Katie Brayben) appears several times in the made-for-TV movie. Always kept distant from other characters and wearing white, she reassures a stubborn Charles (“You think I didn’t love you. It’s not true”) and a pained William, upset at his rebellious father (“You’re now the man I never lived to see”).
The ghost of Diana sparked a British tabloid storm, particularly when it was set to be broadcast soon after Prince Harry spoke about the impact losing his mother had on his mental health. Bartlett defended her inclusion: “It’s a genuine investigation of what it is to be that family and in that role in the country,” he told the TV magazine Radio Times. “Diana is part of that.” (Rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes.)
‘The Crown’ (2020)
The posters for the fourth season of “The Crown” marked the show’s arrival in the 1980s by sandwiching the face of the queen (now played by Olivia Colman) between two new characters: Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Diana (a newcomer, Emma Corrin).
We meet Diana as a teenager, and while Corrin perfectly captures the future princess’s look and subtle mannerisms, the show also emphasizes the down-to-earth quality that made Diana so popular with the public through scenes of her roller skating through the palace and going out dancing with friends.
We see her struggling with an eating disorder, and with feeling isolated from Charles and the rest of his family, as well as with the complicated social rules around interacting with royalty.
Corrin received a Golden Globe for her portrayal, and as is typical on “The Crown,” the role of Diana will be taken over by a new actress, Elizabeth Debicki, for the show’s fifth season.
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“I feel so happy to have done the arc of her life that I did, but for me it feels like a very closed chapter. I went into it knowing I wouldn’t continue,” Corrin told The New York Times. (Stream on Netflix.)
Starring Naomi Watts as Diana, this film by the Oscar-winning director Oliver Hirschbiegel is set over the last two years of Diana’s life, when she was “the most famous woman in the world.” This period includes her divorce from Charles and her subsequent relationships with the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) and the filmmaker Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar).
The film focuses on Diana’s charity work and desire to live a “normal” life, but she is depicted to be increasingly isolated, upset that Khan does not want to make their relationship public. “I have never once been accepted by a family. Not my own, not the one I married into,” she tells him.
In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Khan said he was unhappy with his and Diana’s portrayal, saying the film was a result of “Diana’s friends talking about a relationship that they didn’t know much about, and some of my relatives who didn’t know much about it either. It is all based on hypotheses and gossip.”
In the years since Diana’s death, the British tabloid press has speculated wildly about the official account of the traffic accident that killed her, fueling conspiracy theories. This culture is captured in a short film by the Uruguayan contemporary artist Martin Sastre, in which Diana (Denise Watson) didn’t die in Paris, and instead is living undercover in a neighborhood of Montevideo in Uruguay.
The short, which was shown at the Venice Biennale, shows Diana embraced by the local community after helping to improve their living conditions and teaching them yoga. She is also shown, finally, as living a “normal” life, shopping without having to resort to a disguise and openly expressing her love with a local resident. Most of all, she is depicted as being happy and at peace.
After the media discovers her whereabouts, a local is interviewed about what life was like before Diana arrived in the neighborhood: “No one, no cops, no ambulances. They used to let us die. But after she appeared, everything changed.”
(Watch on Martin Sastre’s website.)