BBC Culture

JFK’s assassination in film and fiction

About the author

Rebecca Laurence is the deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • The death of a president

    The assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 Nov, 1963 was an unprecedented event not just in the history of the US – but for its culture. Captured on Abraham Zapruder’s grainy, home-movie footage, the first family were pictured in both shining glamour – and then, following the shooting – in grisly horror. Many cultural historians mark the assassination as a turning point, one that represented an increased blurring between public and private life, and also a move, through the changing media landscape, from the printed word to the immediate, visceral image.

    In the wake of the public outpouring of grief that reverberated around the nation – and the world − countless artists were inspired by or sought to make sense of the assassination through their work. From poems and novels to films (both mainstream and avant-garde), not to mention the visual arts, conspiracy theories and non-fiction – the tragic events of 22 November have proven to be rich material for the creative mind. With the 50th anniversary, numerous new films and books have appeared, while future projects, such as Legacy of Secrecy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro – are rumoured to be on the horizon. BBC Culture takes a look at some of the films and fiction inspired by JFK’s assassination. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

  • Parkland

    Director Peter Landesman takes a broad view of the chaotic events of 22 November, viewed from the multiple perspectives of the ordinary people caught up in the tragedy – from doctors to secret servicemen to Lee Harvey Oswald’s family. Teen heartthrob Zac Efron plays a doctor at Dallas’ Parkland hospital, while Paul Giamatti is Abraham Zapruder. Released in 2013 to coincide with the anniversary, Parkland has received mixed reviews from the critics. (Exclusive Media Group)

  • JFK

    Oliver Stone’s 1991 film is the most famous interpretation of the assassination on the silver screen. Taken from the conspiracy theorist angle, it stars Kevin Costner as a district attorney who is sceptical of the FBI’s version of events, choosing to prove a more sinister plot was at work. Melding together original footage, fact and fiction, it was adapted from two books, Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs’ The Plot That Killed Kennedy. Though viewed by some detractors as hyperbolic, JFK was ultimately a critical as well as a commercial success – earning over $200m at the box office. (Warner Bros)

  • In the Line of Fire

    The early 1990s was a fertile period for JFK-inspired films, with Ruby (1992) coming after Oliver Stone’s epic. Wolfgang Petersen followed in 1993, with Clint Eastwood starring as Frank Horrigan, the sole active secret service agent who was on duty when President Kennedy was shot. John Malkovich plays the psychotic would-be assassin who toys with Horrigan’s demons as he attempts to kill a later president. (Columbia Pictures)

  • Since

    Andy Warhol was fascinated with the assassination’s combination of celebrity, glamour and tragedy – and the media’s manipulation of the events. After the shooting in 1963, he began making his Jackie series, which includes Sixteen Jackies, Red Jackie, and this 1966 double portrait of the grieving widow. In the same year, he produced a 67-minute film, called Since, referring to the time following the killing. The rarely-seen picture uses Warhol’s split-screen effects to reconstruct the incident from different perspectives. (Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/ Alamy)

  • Elegy for J.F.K.

    Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote this elegy, a vocal piece with three clarinets, in response to the assassination. At his request, WH Auden wrote the accompanying verse, which is a series of haikus, beginning “When a just man dies,/ Lamentation and praise,/ Sorrow and joy, are one.” The Chicago Symphony orchestra are performing the work this year, to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death. (REUTERS/The White House/Abbie Rowe/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Handout)

  • Wyatt Earp in Dallas: 1963

    As well as Auden’s elegy, a number of poets responded to the assassination – an anthology named Of Poetry and Power was released shortly after the president’s death. Steve McCabe’s long poem and accompanying drawings take the Wyatt Earp character out of the West and transfer him to Texas, in a surreal and imaginative blending of myths. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

  • Libra

    Don DeLillo spent three years working on Libra (1988), a fictional account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. The novel begins with Oswald’s childhood in the Bronx and weaves together complex narratives, asking if the hapless central character was a cover for an anti-Castro assassination plot. Ultimately DeLillo’s conclusion is far from concrete. He told the New York Times: “Will we ever know the truth? I don't know. But if some day evidence of a conspiracy does emerge, I expect it will be much more interesting and fantastic than the novel.'' (REUTERS/Dallas Police Department/Dallas Municipal Archives/University of North Texas/Handout)

  • 11/22/63

    Stephen King took time out from horror to produce this historical novel in 2011, from an idea that first came to him in the early 1970s. The book’s protagonist is a high school English teacher who discovers a time portal that can transport him back to the late 50s in order to be able to attempt to prevent JFK’s assassination. (PA Wire)

  • Voyage

    Stephen Baxter’s 1996 science-fiction novel documents a Mars mission as it would have been in an alternate reality – and that history diverges on 22 November, 1963. In this retelling of events, John F Kennedy survives the assassination attempt, while Jackie is killed. (AP Photo, file)