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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: How ‘Spencer’ tells a fable based on a true tragedy

November 19, 2021
5 min read time

In December 1991, Princess Diana spent three days at the Sandringham estate to celebrate Christmas with her royal family. The film Spencer takes a look into this Christmas holiday, focusing on Diana’s mental state and how she navigates the traditions and expectations of life under the crown.

There’s no question that the filmmakers took a lot of creative liberties with this film — it’s noted at the very beginning that the movie is a fable from a true story — but that doesn’t take away that this is a biopic taken from a real situation and with information provided by those close to Diana during this time. 

Spencer was written by Steven Knight and directed by Pablo Larraín. The film stars Kristen Stewart as Diana, and Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, and Jack Farthing.

Here are five screenwriting takeaways from Spencer:

1. A fable from a true tragedy

These are the first words at the beginning of the film. It’s an interesting choice as the filmmaker is making an active decision to avoid saying "based on a true story." What does it mean, though? Is everything the audience is about to witness completely made up? Or is it taking creative license surrounding a portion of the life of Diana Spencer?

With someone as famous as Diana, it’s easy to research and create a world that people can determine is false. So, even if this is a fable, it must still maintain truth or risk alienating the audience. Therefore, there is a lot of truth in this fable — comparable to truths within other biopics like Shakespeare in Love or Vice. The filmmakers take what happened behind closed doors and turn it into the compelling narrative.

Writers can see where they can take creative license even when their stories are based on real people and events. What’s important is not losing the story in research or forgoing research to tell a story. It’s a balancing act that writers must undertake to ensure validity without sacrificing story.

2. The vicarious life

Perhaps one reason that people love celebrity culture and the British royalty is because it’s a life that we can live vicariously. For Spencer, Larraín puts the audience into the world of the royals, but not the glamorous one that causes people to click on a link to see photos.

While it’s compelling to write about the alluring lives of famous people, writers can see in Spencer how the focus on a single aspect can yield a lot of conflict and interest — in this case Diana’s struggles with finding her place in the royal family even after being married to Prince Charles for 10 years.

The filmmakers also give the audience a glimpse behind the scenes, such as in the beginning of the film when we see how the estate plans for the coming of the royal family, including the military ensuring its safety and then the arrival of the kitchen staff with sealed crates.

3. Diana’s arc

For the majority of Spencer it’s a struggle to figure out Diana’s arc. Most of the time, the viewer watches as this woman grapples with mental illness, depression, anxiety, and hallucinations. The world around her seemingly continues with almost no willingness to address her issues, at least not those who should care. She finds solace in the head chef (Harris) and her assistant, Maggie (Hawkins), who seem to champion her and help her.

Diana rarely seems to muster anything remotely considered a smile unless she is around her two children, in which the audience sees joy and genuine happiness.

And while Diana wants to escape and even makes attempts to do so, there is hardly the complete willingness to do it. Yet, there is an arc, albeit slight. Spencer catches Diana at the moments before her split with Charles so the viewer is getting a glance at her lowest point. The writer can also look at this life as a whole knowing that there is a full backstory with plenty of information about Diana before this time. Therefore, the storyteller must be aware of the life leading up to this snapshot.

4. The ghosts in our characters’ lives

Sometimes ghosts are not real in someone’s life, they are simply the past. Other times, there are literally ghosts, such as in A Christmas Carol. Spencer offers both, and quite a bit.

If writers are supposed to torture their characters, Knight really torments his. There are plenty of ghosts that haunt Diana’s life while at the Sandringham estate, some more imagined than others, and all eager to keep knocking her down again and again.

Some of the burdens that Diana carries are simply traditions that seem to slowly suffocate her, such as the method in which one is supposed to eat at the dinner table or weighing yourself upon arrival and departure. Other ghosts are her position within royalty, which haunts her in the way of Anne Boleyn or her thinking she’s speaking with Maggie when she’s not even there (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler).

Finally, the estate is close to where Diana once lived and so she is tortured by the ghosts of her own past, of a house she can no longer enter, or a scarecrow that brings back fond memories; the kind of memories she no longer has.

5. Writing for one

Diana spends the majority of the film on her own. Whether it’s traveling to the estate, by herself in the bathroom, or entering a vacant kitchen to snack on dessert, the movie is focused on Diana. That also means that the writer was creating moments that had little to no dialogue and had to be expressed through action.

Even the scenes where there are other characters, such as the Christmas Eve dinner scene, she doesn’t speak but rather must express increasing anxiety, discomfort, and a wishful imagination. Writers can see how Knight and Larraín created these scenes and consider what was on the page that inspired Stewart to act the way she does. In a movie with so much centered around visual storytelling, it’s still important to think of what was written before it evolved into the completed film.

Spencer is now playing in theaters.

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