Here’s a thing:
I was watching Season 2 of The Crown and while I still enjoyed it with its well directed, well shot, well acted, goodness, I also kinda felt like I was wasting my time a bit.
The story of season 2 starts where we left of last season with the impending Suez crisis and the Royal marriage on a bit of a shaky leg. That part of the season is engaging. Then that all gets resolved by the half-way mark of the season and we’re left with Prince Charles’ unhappy upbringing at his dad’s old military school, a situation in Ghana, Princess Margret’s scandalous scandals, and a bunch of kids being born. I might have dozed off in the second half. It didn’t help that, for historical purposes, they had to replace the magnificently played larger-than-life-Winston Churchill with Harold McMillan and Anthony Eden, and while their inability to fill the former’s shoes is a big plot point and leads to their failure, it makes for a bore of a viewing experience.
Point is, the second half is less engaging than the first. And that’s fine, that certainly is life. But here we might already get the main problem with structure of The Crown following the events of real life throughout the decades. Never mind the fact that they can’t stick around till the Queen dies in real life, most of royal centered events just aren’t terribly exciting. What we remember, and what is significant, has at this stage really been covered, with maybe one or two scandals per decade still ahead until we inevitably come to the elephant in the room called Diana. And while that will certainly make for some kinda twisted but still interesting drama from a hoo-man perspective, it highlights one big problem with biopics:
Real Life Does Not Have a Dramatic Arc
For every constitutional crisis, for every King dying and replaced by a successor, there is a reason why Queen Elisabeth II’s life has been described by newscasters as “chugging along”. Sure, there might be some interesting landscapes here or there, but unless you live an action hero life and die young, what’s the point of covering an entire lifetime?
T.E. Lawrence lived an interesting life, he traveled the Middle East even before WW1, but he’s most remembered for his exploits in the war itself. He died only a few years after the war, having spent the meantime as a mechanic. The movie ended where it needed to end. It didn’t go on for thirty more minutes about his life in the Air Force. Similarly, Patton didn’t start with his education, then WW1, then forty minutes about the interwar years at the Olympics and Tank School. No, we went for the meaty bits of the story.
Similarly, The Crown already covered a lot of the interesting elements of British Royal Family life, with a bit of a void about to hit until the 80s and the early 90s, and then what? How do you tell the story of a monarchy that, for the most part, is kinda boring?
Same is true for other biographical stories. Lives aren’t arranged in three-act-structures. Unless you take snapshots of a life that do have elements of that, certain stories and vigniettes you want to tell, you will mostly be left with filler and dramatic dead-ends.
Condensing a life’s story down into a two hour structure is therefore futile. Many still try, because many of the things a lot of historical figures were noteworthy for happened over the course of a lifetime. Where, for instance, would you end a Horatio Nelson movie? With his victory at the Nile? Certainly not, because then you’d leave out his horrid affair at home and his glorious final battle at Trafalgar. If you however include everything you have exactly the problem of not getting enough time to address everything.
The best biopics are therefore vignettes of one part of the story. The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt or The Queen with Helen Mirren come to mind as they manage to be condensed character studies within a shorter time frame, telling a vignette story, a snapshot from the life.
If you spend too much time on painting the picture rather than thinking about the actual story you will eventually satisfy no one in your audience and only heighten the chance of you making a mistake. Let’s hope The Crown doesn’t come to that end very soon.