How The Great Puts a Modern Spin on a Classic Tale of Power and Greed

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult are both nominated for a Golden Globe following the success of their Hulu series The Great, a witty show about Catherine the Great.

By Cydney Contreras Feb 26, 2021 4:00 PMTags
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If you're looking for an elegant and timeless show about the rise of Catherine the Great, then Hulu's The Great probably isn't the show for you. Fans of the period piece are better suited watching a PBS Masterpiece Classic, rather than Tony McNamara's crass comedy-drama.

And that's totally fine with the Aussie screenwriter, who's admittedly not a fan period dramas in the slightest. In February 2019, he told Deadline, "I used to think, 'If I have to watch people tie their shoes with ribbons, I want to put a gun to my head.'"

Still, his work on The Favourite earned him a nod for Best Original Screenplay at the 91st Academy Awards, and now, his Hulu series is up for Best Comedy at the 2021 Golden Globes. 

While one would expect that a show inspired by historical events would be written by a history buff, or, at the very least, someone with immense knowledge on that subject, McNamara is neither of those. 

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2021 Golden Globes Nominations: All the Surprises

He told Deadline he only started writing about Catherine after watching "15 minutes of something on TV about her," before digging deeper into her life. 

From there, McNamara and the team of writers approached Catherine's story from a modern-day perspective. They rid themselves of any preconceived notions of the time, forgetting about formalities, thus laying the groundwork for the truly hilarious and witty show. 

McNamara explained to Deadline, "I had to think, if I wanted to watch this, how would it have to be written? It would have to be really funny, contemporary and dark, and to feel fast and furious."

Hulu

As for historical accuracy, that was a matter of least importance in McNamara's mind.

"Even though I knew I wasn't going to be a slave to the historical detail—quite the opposite—we knew a lot," he told Observer. "I knew there were a few things in her life I was strict about and then within we created our own world. I knew what her husband was really like and he wasn't a very good antagonist so I changed him a bit to make him a better antagonist."

He continued, "As long as I felt like we were telling the essence of who she was and her story then the historical details [didn't matter]. Go read a book or watch a documentary, you know? It's not a history lesson, it's a show. Which is what we used to say on The Favourite too."

Quite frankly, this was for the best. Nicholas Hoult's portrayal of Peter the Great is half the fun of watching the show, and it seems the Hollywood Foreign Press Association agreed, as he is nominated for Best Actor in a Comedy. 

Ollie Upton/Hulu

Regarding Elle Fanning's intelligent and good-natured Catherine, McNamara set out to create a character that girls could look up to. "I had a young daughter, and I was very interested in who she could look up to; which characters in history could inspire her," he explained to Deadline.

He and the writers crafted a Catherine that was every bit as regal as the history books depict her, while also making her a foul-mouthed teenager on a journey of self-discovery. And yes, that means she is sexually active. 

As McNamara points out to Observer, the history books only show the nice parts of what happened, so who's to say Catherine wasn't shagging her lover with reckless abandon? 

"There's this idea because history got written down that we know what happened. We really don't. Now it would be a bit different because there's media, but back then we relied on written records and paintings. But they looked a certain way in portraits because they went to get their portraits done looking a certain way," McNamara said. "That doesn't mean they looked that way every day. They're just human beings. We were thinking about how you would be as a person in those experiences."

Hulu/Gareth Gatrell

Moreover, Fanning, who's also up for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, told Entertainment Weekly those sex scenes were important to telling the figure's life story. She explained, "I think sex is also a real big part of the real Catherine the Great's life. She was notoriously kind of beyond her time in that way. She was very open and free and loved sex, so that's obviously something that I wanted to touch upon."

After all, Catherine's sex life sets the groundwork for season two, which Fanning recently teased this February. On Instagram she shared a photo of herself as a pregnant Catherine, writing, "cooking up something special for season 2."

When the show last left off, the young Catherine was ready to attempt to remove Peter from the throne for a second time, even as they expected their first child together. But the writers of The Great have proven they enjoy a surprise twist, so anything goes in season two. As McNamara told EW, the next season will be "the same kind of show, but hopefully surprising in a slightly different way."

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