Peter Morgan: Rewriting History

If Helen Mirren wins the Oscar for best actress and Forest Whitaker takes the prize for best actor, as is widely expected, they will both be saying thank you to the same man for the lines that got them the nod.

Peter Morgan, a 43-year-old Brit, is the hottest writer in Hollywood, nominated for the best screenplay Oscar for "The Queen," in which Mirren so powerfully captures the private struggles of Queen Elizabeth in the weeks following the death of Princes Diana.

Whitaker stars in Morgan's other hit, "The Last King Of Scotland," as murderous Ugandan ex-President Idi Amin.

Both movies have stoked controversy, as they rely on recent historical events and characters but feature invented scenes and dialogue.

Morgan's success has raised some serious questions: How far can you bend the truth? Will people believe all the words spoken onscreen were actually spoken -- and does that matter?

Morgan's two stories center on one of the most loved figures in history and of the most despised, and viewers have a serious stake in where the line between fact and fiction is drawn.

Diana, One Decade Later

Even 10 years on, the last images of Princess Diana remain vivid -- leaving the Ritz Hotel in Paris with Dodi Fayed for a car ride from which they would never return; the avalanche of flowers; the funeral watched on television, by, reportedly, billions of people.

It spurred an outpouring of emotion from everyone, it seemed, but the queen -- who for nearly six days after Diana's death remained silent.

How to tackle a subject with images and people already familiar around the world? "The Queen" employs archival footage of speeches and newscasts, and the actors re-create the actual speeches delivered by Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth following Diana's death.

But Morgan says he focused on the scenes that are "unminuted" -- the closed-door conversations not recorded or transcribed.

"You're just never gonna know what happens in the private audiences between the queen and the prime minister," he says. "So I used that as a rule of thumb: I thought, 'I want to go to all the places that are unminuted --bedrooms, Land Rovers, audience meetings -- because I'm a dramatist.'"

As the movie relays, the press and the public fumed at the British royalty for their response to Diana's death -- particularly their delayed return to London -- and Morgan's script has generated criticism that his portrayal of the queen is too sympathetic.

In his defense, he says he focused on the human being behind the figurehead.

"I wrote her not as the queen, I wrote her as Elizabeth Windsor," Morgan says. "If you look closely, I've written a cold, withdrawn, awkward, quite stubborn, quite uncharitable, in places [woman] who has difficulty connecting with her own siblings, her own children."

But focusing on those faults may well be why audiences found the queen sympathetic, Morgan says, because "people not being good at things is endearing."

Where to Draw the Line

In the pursuit of overarching truth, Morgan argues that it's acceptable to make up details, and it would be foolish to pursue total accuracy.

"I cannot be accurate because I don't know what happened," Morgan says. "I'd say this for a journalist, if you're quoting somebody … you're saying this came out of their mouth. The contract I think is different when you go to the cinema. You're going to the cinema and you know you're seeing fiction. You know you're seeing Helen Mirren and not the queen, you know you're seeing Michael Sheehan not Tony Blair."

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, says it is acceptable to blur the line between fact and fiction, provided audiences are aware of it.

"I think we think it's true-ish," Gitlin says. "True-ish is defensible when it's relatively easy for the viewers to know the limits of what we actually know. … This doesn't purport to be something it isn't, and therefore I'm prepared to give it some slack, especially because we have a brilliant actress who makes plausible that this is what the queen -- as well as we know her -- would go through under such circumstances."

Though Gitlin contends that "The Queen" works, he doesn't believe the same is true for all such historical films -- for example, Oliver Stone's controversial "JFK," which holds that President Kennedy was killed by a CIA plot.

"It flunks awfully and irredeemably," he says. "The devil is in the big falsification. … You're not permitted to chuck volumes of counterevidence for the sake of this piece of fairy-tale making."

Do I Look Fat in this Movie?

And what do the "real people" portrayed in the film think? It's no surprise that the queen and Prince Charles have remained mute. But in a recent interview, Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie, commented on her portrayal in the film.

"I thought Helen Mirren was fantastic. It was a wonderful performance," Blair said. "But of course, having been there myself, it wasn't always how I recall it. That's for sure. My husband is actually 6-feet tall, and Prince Charles is smaller, but in the film you have a rather small prime minister and a rather large Prince Charles. So that really irritated me!"

Blair was joking, of course, but Morgan says that her off-handed dismissal of her portrayal is typical for people presented in fiction.

"It's amazing when highly intelligent people … that's the first thing they say. We have had a response from the private secretary of the queen, and he was concerned that the person we cast was rather plumper than he is," Morgan says. "It seems great brains go to mush when they look at representations of themselves. … The only sensible thing is not to watch."

The prime minister himself, however, has told Morgan he has not seen "The Queen."

"I have a letter from Tony Blair. … He congratulated me on the Golden Globe," Morgan says. "He was generous enough to say, 'I haven't worked up the courage to see it yet, but if and when I have, let's get together and I'll tell you what you got right and wrong.'"

Morgan says he intends to write another movie with Tony Blair at the center -- one in which Blair comes to the United States and stars alongside American Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush. As a moment in "The Queen" foreshadows, perception of public officials will always ebb and flow, and that's one reason Morgan says he needs to make another Blair film.

"We left him on a high," he says. "We can't do that."

That would be inaccurate.