Biographical truth or the real heart of the story?

‘Dickinson’ is the Apple TV series 2019-2021 about American poet Emily Dickinson. The premise (taken from Anreeva & Pelski 2018) is that Dickinson takes place "during Emily Dickinson’s era with a modern sensibility and tone. It takes viewers into the world of Emily, audaciously exploring the constraints of society, gender, and family from the perspective of a budding writer who doesn’t fit in to her own time through her imaginative point of view. Dickinson is Emily’s coming-of-age story – one woman’s fight to get her voice heard."

The best word there is audaciously – the series makes direct use of Dickinson’s actual poetry throughout the series to theme the episodes and to add to a story about a complex poet. Biographies on Dickinson indicate she was an isolated, eccentric and (reading between the lines) anxious woman in a period of relatively large gender, race and class oppression. Little of her poetry was actually published through her life, and most information about her is based on her prolific letter writing. It is easy to see through the series that they have taken great liberties with both her character and her life…but is this a problem? The show itself heavily highlights the oppressive period she lived during and her struggles as a poet and a woman. Many of the themes and topics are ones that resonate with young women today – about finding self, about morality, about understanding life and love and friendship.

It would be interesting to explore this topic in more depth: is there value in taking liberties with a real person’s life and works if it still serves the message or purpose of their story? Can a fictional biography be as meaningful to the contemporary viewer as a real biography? Or is this a betrayal of a woman who suffered enough during her own time?

  • This definitely has the potential to be an interesting article. On thing that I think whoever writes this article should consider is the degree of centrality that Dickinson in particular would bear to the article as a whole. In other words, is this an article principally about the series that asks question about its onus to its historical protagonist, or is it a general inquiry about how fictionalized media should handle the representation of historical figures (using Dickinson as a case study)? Your choice of title implies the latter, but everything else you've written here points more so to the former. There are a lot of interesting films and series right now taking similar approaches to filtering period settings/characters through contemporary sensibilities: e.g. The Great (2020-) and The Death of Stalin (2017) both immediately come to mind, but we could arguably also expand this question into literary adaptations like The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019), Little Women (2019), Emma (2020), Cyrano (2021), and the entire filmography of Baz Luhrmann, since fidelity to a source-text can often be a similar argument to fidelity to the "real" life of a biographical subject. I wonder if the single-case study approach would necessarily do justice to the phenomenon as a whole, especially if that broader analytical goal were framed as the main intent of the article. Just my two cents. – ProtoCanon 2 years ago

Want to write about TV or other art forms?

Create writer account