Films, musicals, TV dramas: Why are we still obsessed with Princess Diana?

·6-min read

Watch: 'I hope she's watching': Kristen Stewart hopes Diana would be happy with biopic

Next year, it will be a quarter century since the death of Princess Diana. Since then, her boys have grown up, and now have families of their own and social media has radically altered the way we interact with celebrities.

The world has moved on - but our collective obsession with the troubled Princess remains fixed in place. This year, she would have celebrated her 60th birthday in July; and alongside the unveiling of her statue at Kensington Palace, which briefly brought her feuding sons back together, there has been a cultural take-over by all things Diana. 

The film Spencer was released last week, with star Kristen Stewart heavily tipped for an Oscar for her sensitive performance. The story focuses on the last Christmas that Diana spent married to Charles, at Sandringham in 1992, and follows her emotional journey as she comes to her life-changing decision.

Kristen Stewart plays Diana at a pivotal moment in her life (AP)
Kristen Stewart plays Diana at a pivotal moment in her life (AP)

The award-winning Netflix series The Crown introduced their version of Diana in series 4. Played by Emma Corrin, the teenage Diana was shown meeting Charles, marrying him and gradually coming to realise that, as she famously said, "there were three of us in the marriage so...it was rather lonely at times."

She is shown raging over Charles' adulterous relationship with Camilla, played by Emerald Fennell, and the series doesn't hold back from depicting her bulimia. The upcoming series 5, which swaps Olivia Colman for Imelda Staunton as the Queen, will introduce Elizabeth Debicki, as Diana n her 30s, coming to terms with the end of her marriage.

Read more: On This Day: The death of Princess Diana, a campaigner to the very end

Several films have already been made about the late Princess, including Diana, made in 2013 and starring Naomi Watts. Based on the book Diana: Her Last Love, by Kate Snell, the film focussed on her relationship with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan.

It was roundly mocked for its Mills and Boon-style script and received a pounding from critics, scoring just 8% on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Naomi Watts arriving for the Diana premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square, London.
Naomi Watts starred as Diana in 2013, but it didn't go down well. (Getty Images)

Now Netflix is also running the filmed version of the Broadway show Diana: The Musical, which has left viewers both amused and baffled.

Peter Bradshaw, film critic of The Guardian, called it "entirely gobsmacking and jawdropping" when he reviewed it earlier this month, adding, "not since the Cats movie have I literally shouted from my seat: “What? What? WHAT?...If it was deliberate satire it would be genius, but it’s not."

Bradshaw decribes is as " a Rocky Horror Picture Show of cluelessness."

Other critics have described it as "a demented, jaw-dropping abomination" and "the worst thing to happen to live entertainment since Covid." (independent.ie).

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 01: Ambiance at a Town & Country viewing party for The Netflix production of
Some viewers are holding Diana: The Musical parties and watching along together. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

So far, so camp. But executive producers Matt Robins and Emma Cooper are keen to tell a fresh story in their new docuseries, Diana, which prioritises her own story over the public perception. 

The series began this week, focussing on Diana's childhood, and looking at her relationship with her mother, Frances Shand Kydd.

Emma Corrin as Diana in The Crown. (Netflix)
Emma Corrin drew plaudits for her work playing Diana in The Crown. (Netflix)

"My feeling is that we're in a moment where—thanks to technology and archival materials—we are able to look back on iconic people, iconic women in particular, with a new lens. Diana is certainly part of that," Said Matt Robbins about the new series. 

"She's somebody who was adored, worshipped, talked about at the time, but perhaps not fully understood."

Even now, Diana is revered primarily as a fashion icon and ideal mother, with both daughters in law recently paying silent tribute by carrying versions of her favourite handbags, and her sons regularly invoking her in interviews.

Read more: Diana and Sarah Ferguson would have 'thrown granny parties' with bouncy castles

But the rest of us didn't know her beyond her public face - so why are we still so enchanted by this lost princess whose life became a very dark fairytale?

"Diana has a grip on the national psyche because there is part of her life that every person feels a connection to," says hypnotherapist Vic Paterson

"Younger women can feel a connection to the fairytale princess, fashionable and sexy. Older women can feel a connection to parenting, marriage breakdown and re-invention," she goes on.

Elizabeth Debicki as Diana and Dominic West as Charles in the upcoming series 5 of The Crown.
Elizabeth Debicki as Diana and Dominic West as Charles in the upcoming series 5 of The Crown.

"Men can see her as an ideal partner, or as a reflection of a damaged woman, or an unobtainable fantasy figure depending on what point of her life they look at. 

"Diana lived and died before the ubiquity of social media, and as such, she is still unknown enough that we project whatever we need onto her, and never have reality disrupt our projection."

Psychologist Lee Chambers agrees that her apparent openness was key to Diana's enduring appeal. 

"One of the things that really stands out about Princess Diana was how relatable she was to the ordinary person on the street, despite her elevated position," he says. "Her hands-on approach as a mother is something that resonates with many parents, especially given her sons are now prominent in the public eye," he adds.

"She was also refreshing honest, and going through challenges in the public eye, including divorce, again grounded her in the eyes of those watching that she wasn't in a perfect royal happily ever after story, but in a real-life 'adversity doesn't discriminate' story. 

FILE PHOTO - Princess Diana is surrounded by paparazzi as she arrives
at the English National Ballet in London, August 28, 1996.  PP04010012
 AS
The real Diana - still the centre of attention, 24 years after her tragic death. (AS)

"When you add this to her striking fashion moments and her well-documented charity work, she felt like she was just a little bit higher up than you, but close enough to be someone you could have a meal and a chat with."

One of the greatest drivers of our fascination, he adds, is that "her life ended so suddenly, with such little closure and so many questions surrounding it."

It's hardly surprising that her rollercoaster, spot-lit life is a gift to dramatists and actors - but will we get tired of the many depictions?

On current showing, unlikely. Kristen Stewart recently told an interviewer,

"Anything I watched her in, whether it was an interview, or even in a still photograph, it always feels unpredictable. Like you don't know what's going to happen.

"And it's because she has this vulnerability and this raw emotion that she cannot conceal."

Watch: Princess Diana's most amazing gowns of all time. 

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