Don’t Expect ‘The Great’ to Be a History Lesson About the Russian Ruler

The Great - Elle Fanning
Ollie Upton/Hulu

“An occasionally true story” is a phrase we see at the start of this comedic 10-episode series following the 18th-century rise of defiant Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning, Maleficent), who overthrows her doltish husband, Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max), to become the longest-reigning female ruler of Russia.

Writers take some creative license as they depict how Catherine goes from romantic hopeful to ruthless leader. “The show,” says The Great executive producer Tony McNamara, cowriter of the acclaimed 2018 film The Favourite, “is clearly not a history lesson [but] more about the essence of this person.”

The changes in the ahead-of-her-time Catherine begin with her arranged union to Peter, who sees his bride only as a vessel to bear children. What’s a woman to do? “Her first response is to escape, but then she has a better idea: Why not kill him instead and run Russia?” McNamara says.

The series, shot in England and Italy, showcases how Catherine’s fierce leadership style emerges when “she encounters more of the brutal world that she’s entered and the [vicious] nature of the people around her,” says McNamara.

Elle Fanning Nicholas Hoult The Great Hulu

(Nick Wall/Hulu)

The Great, Series Premiere, Friday, May 15, Hulu