20 Years After Diana’s Death, a Happier Ending Imagined


But back to our fairy tale: Diana, by then the stateside “People’s Princess,” travels abroad often for the Princess Diana Foundation, and to London often to see her sons. She presents the best documentary award at the Academy Awards to a film about land mines in Cambodia and Laos, and harmlessly flirts with a star-struck movie star at the Vanity Fair after-party.

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The new National Geographic book “Remembering Diana: a Life in Photographs.”

When in Los Angeles, she stays at the Hotel Bel-Air. But mostly she lives with Teddy Forstmann at his Fifth Avenue apartment and Southampton estate. She has a diamond engagement ring (a tasteful nine carats), and the $100 million prenup is signed, sealed and delivered. Diana is ours, again, if only for 208 pages.

Diana was famous before the internet, famous before millions of iPhones began to capture every sneeze of every celebrity pushing her cart in a Whole Foods parking lot. To observe her, the public relied on paparazzi, magazines and newspapers of varying quality, and television. Biographers, including the longtime editor Tina Brown, have documented how Diana tried to shape all this coverage by making herself selectively available and self-revelatory.

“She was the first global celebrity because she was authentic,” said Hilary Black, the editor of National Geographic’s new book “Remembering Diana: a Life in Photographs” (whose foreword was written by Ms. Brown). “Once she realized she could master the media, she took a feminist stance and told her story the way she wanted to tell it.”

Back in her day, that sometimes was called manipulating the press. Today it’s called branding.

In our so-called curated, fake news era, it is perhaps inevitable that fact and fiction would begin to mingle in books, movies and television. “The best of fiction has always tried to get at truth where journalism cannot,” said Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of the 2008 book “American Wife,” a novel that based the life of a fictional first lady on that of a real one, Laura Bush.

Ms. Sittenfeld is getting more practice at considering the conjoining of fact and fiction, ego and alter. Last year, Esquire commissioned her to write a short story from the voice and perspective of Hillary Clinton. In it, a fictional Mrs. Clinton reflects on her relationship with a fictional journalist who has covered her for years, at The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and finally The New York Times.

“I expect to be burned by the journalist,” the Clinton character tells the reader. “No matter how friendly our encounter, how personal, even, I will at best be irritated by what she writes.”

Once Ms. Sittenfeld got Hillary in her head, she couldn’t easily dispense with her. Now she is at work on a novel that will portray the life of Hillary Rodham after she decides to reject Bill Clinton’s final proposal of marriage.

Ms. Sittenfeld said she would not be interested in writing a novel that imagined that Mrs. Clinton was elected the 45th president of the United States. Despite the amount of press coverage devoted to Mrs. Clinton’s career, Ms. Sittenfeld believes, what most Americans know about her relates to her marriage. Wiping that slate clear is what she finds compelling as a novelist. (She asked her social media audience to suggest titles for this book. Her favorite response came on Facebook: “Sliding Pantsuits.”)

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Some exercises in reconsidering history are not so lighthearted. Last month, HBO announced that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the creators of “Game of Thrones,” would collaborate on a new project, “Confederate”: a modern-day drama based on a premise that slavery persists in the South after its successful secession from the Union during the Civil War.

The reaction was scathing. “This show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal. I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands,” Roxane Gay wrote in The New York Times.

April Reign, a onetime attorney in Washington, D.C., and hashtag activist who created the #OscarsSoWhite movement, joined with four others, including the film critic ReBecca Theodore, to galvanize internet opposition to the proposed series, with the hashtag #NoConfederate. “I wonder what has become of originality and creativity,” Ms. Reign said in a phone interview. “Why would we want to introduce more hypotheticals into a culture trying to grapple with what is fake and what is true? People are trying to force hypotheticals for their own profit.”

Alternate reality, though gaining prevalence today, is hardly new. The 2015 Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle,” based on a 1960s book, focuses on an America that has been divided into Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States after the Allies lose World War II. In the 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” which The New Yorker called “counterfactual,” Philip Roth wrote of an America in which Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi sympathizer, is elected president in 1940.

The genre provides writers with a valuable literary device to contemplate our culture, Monica Ali, a novelist, said in an email. Ms. Ali is the author of “Untold Story,” a 2011 book in which a princess, based on Diana, escapes her life in order to find ordinary pleasures in American suburban life.

“Novels aren’t ‘fake,’” Ms. Ali wrote in the email. “They’re fictional. Their purpose is not to deceive by making stuff up, it’s to illuminate by reaching for truths (about human nature) that aren’t about facts, but about the way we see the world and our place in it.”

Perhaps there is an element of wish fulfillment as well, at least for Ms. Clehane. “It was cathartic,” she said of writing “Imagining Diana,” a process that led her to surround herself in homemade “Diana mood boards” and to watch every piece of Diana footage she could find. (Ms. Clehane also published a nonfiction book about the princess, in 1998, called “Diana: The Secrets of her Style.”)

With the new book, Ms. Clehane wanted to show that Diana would have found happiness and overcome her insecurities. “I believe the love she felt for her sons would have pulled her back from whatever precipice she felt she was on,” she said as her eyes welled with tears.

Ms. Clehane won’t be denied her happy ending for Diana, even if Diana was.

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