'Creation:' A drama about the life of Charles Darwin

by Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education

The new movie _Creation (movie website, Adobe Flash 10 required IMDB Rotten Tomatoes), a British drama about of key moments in Darwin’s professional and personal life, just opened at the Toronto Film Festival and will soon be released in the UK. NCSE staff were invited to a pre-screening of the movie. Genie Scott’s review and commentary are below._

Update: Roger Ebert has posted some comments on his online journal (and I guess he’s quite the Darwin fan!).

I and NCSE staff were invited to view the new Jon Amiel movie, Creation, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly. I believe it to be a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public—for the good. The acting is strong, the visuals are wonderful, and it treats with loving care the Victorian details of the furnishings at Down house and other sites (such as Malvern), and the local church.

The movie takes place after Darwin has returned from the Beagle voyage, and has settled down with his wife, Emma. It concentrates on their relationship, on the growth of their family, and of course, on the production of his most famous scientific work, On the Origin of Species. It looks hard at Darwin’s growing disenchantment with Christianity, especially the concept of Providence, and how poorly it fits Darwin the naturalist’s knowledge of a very unpeaceable kingdom. Darwin’s frequent illness is portrayed with brutal honesty. Sometimes pale, nauseated, unable even to eat dinner with his family, much less work on his science, Darwin is shown suffering from vague symptoms which he attempts to cure with what we would recognize as quack treatments.

A centerpiece of the movie is the death of Annie, the Darwins’ beloved 10 year old daughter, and how it affected the relationship of Charles and Emma. Much of the movie takes place as flashbacks to when Annie was alive; much takes place after her death, when her father imagines conversations with her. In some reviews the later Annie is described as a ghost. Not really. Creation is not a ghost story. Rather, the filmmakers are taking dramatic license to make Darwin’s thoughts about her visible to us. Also given much attention is Darwin’s reluctance to set down his scientific ideas on evolution and natural selection for fear of upsetting the devout Emma, and society in general. Huxley and Hooker encourage him to publish, but Darwin procrastinates.

As someone with a stake in how the public understands evolution and its most famous proponent, the bottom line for me was that the science be presented accurately. The second was that the story of Darwin’s life be presented accurately.

I have no problems with the former: natural selection and evolution (common descent, expressed in the movie by the tree of life metaphor) are both presented accurately, and although the movie does not dwell a great deal on the actual science, the importance of science to Darwin was apparent. Darwin was accurately presented as a curious naturalist (engaging his kids in natural history—geology, beetles, nature walks—even scientifically studying his baby! etc). Darwin is seen as a careful scientist—lots of microscope work, lots of careful record-keeping of pigeons, barnacles, etc. It is also clear—which is historically accurate—that Darwin was held in high regard as a scientist by his colleagues. The scientific part was fine.

How about the historical part? I have just read Randal Keynes’s Annie’s Box, the book upon which the movie is based, refreshing my memory on the details of the period of Darwin’s life covered by the movie. Plus I already know a bit about Darwin’s time, given my odd line of work, and my former career as a university professor teaching evolution. I am satisfied with the historical presentation, though not fully in agreement with all of it. But that’s OK. This isn’t a documentary about Darwin, it’s a movie about Darwin. And there’s a difference. With the latter, you don’t expect absolute fealty to the historical record—though you don’t have to—and shouldn’t—accept wholesale violations.

I could nitpick on historical details (Annie was not the eldest child; Darwin’s visits to Malvern are not in correct sequence; Origin of Species was his 9th book, not his first; historians legitimately debate how important Annie’s death was to Darwin’s rejection of Christianity) but it’s a movie, not a documentary. A movie, as opposed to a documentary, goes for the spirit, not the letter: you can’t get bent out of shape because timelines are changed. Movies operate on emotions—as Randy Olson says, movies aren’t about the head, but the heart, the gut, and the crotch. If you want a historical documentary, don’t go to movies.

Yet much of Creation’s dialogue is taken directly from Darwin’s correspondence or that of his contemporaries. There is a TON of real history here: I loved the depiction of the quack water cures at Malvern, and Darwin did indeed have his servants build a water tower for him at Down so that he could “take the cure” between visits to the spa. The presentation of his relationship with Hooker, Darwin’s closest friend, who was adored by the Darwin children, was accurate and excellent. BTW, the actor playing Hooker was superb, and the physical likeness is startling. The physical likeness of the actor playing Huxley—less so, but the Bulldog’s pugnacious spirit certainly is well-done.

But all but a tiny percentage of the people who will watch this movie will know far less about Darwin than I know—or that most of the PT readers know. Most of the people watching the movie think of Darwin as a cardboard figure—especially the stern, elderly Victorian guy with a long white beard in the black coat. They aren’t going to think about Darwin as a tall and vigorous man very much devoted to his pretty wife, with a houseful of noisy children who adored him. In my experience, much of the public, following the _Creation_ists, thinks he wrote one not-very-good book, and is unaware that Darwin devoted his life to science, conducting experiments and making observations and being held in high regard by his contemporaries. In particular, Darwin as a passionate, loving human being is far from how most Americans picture him. And that’s too bad, because cardboard cutouts aren’t real—and the real is so much more interesting. I like to think that someone seeing this movie will be stimulated to read one of the many biographies found on the movie’s excellent website (www.creationthemovie.com), or otherwise easily accessible.

Creation is first and foremost a movie about the relationship between Charles and Emma. The actors, married in real life, and themselves parents, do an excellent job portraying the range of emotions that must have been part of the Darwins’ life together—from tenderness as they hold their baby Annie, through their shared grief over her death, to the tension over their different attitudes towards religion, and other aspects of their relationship. Darwin wrote several times about his concern that the death(s) of his children (two died in addition to Annie, alas) was the result of the close familial relationship shared by him and his cousin, Emma. As a breeder of pigeons and livestock, he knew that close inbreeding could bring out “weaknesses”, even if he didn’t understand particulate inheritance.

Charles feared that Annie’s painful, lingering illness and death was his fault—that she had inherited what he considered a disposition to bad digestion. In one especially poignant scene in a tavern, Darwin is told about the successes of a pigeon breeder who can produce new traits “in four generations!” He does it, of course, through close inbreeding, noting that, of course, there is higher mortality. When the cheerful tradesman comments with a hearty laugh, “A wealthy gentleman like yourself, sir, can certainly afford to lose a couple of chicks!” It’s understandable that Darwin struggles to maintain composure.

The scene where Charles years later sobs as he visits the room where Annie died should touch anyone watching the movie. Keynes talks about Darwin sometimes feeling he was neglecting his other children during Annie’s sickness and after her death, and his “return” to them as their loving father is handled in the movie with great tenderness. And indeed, Annie’s death did strain the marriage of Emma and Charles, though it also brought them closer.

By telling an interesting story, and making Darwin human, Creation will I think encourage some viewers to find out more about the historical Darwin and his ideas. From my standpoint as director of NCSE, that’s useful, indeed. The more people know about evolution and its most famous proponent, the less they will fear it. I’d like to see this movie get distributed in the US. Unfortunately, although Canadians and British will see it, there is not yet a US distributor. We can only speculate why, but the well-known American nervousness about evolution is probably and unfortunately part of the mix.

This movie deserves to be seen in movie theaters, not relegated merely to Netflix on DVD. I hope the reviews following the North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 are good, and also the reviews following the British premiere September 25. If a bomb like Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed can get a distributor, a well-made movie with an excellent script, actors, direction, and cinematography like Creation surely should.

Maybe people who care about science should do what the promoters of Expelled did: get lots of people to show up on opening weekend to give the movie a big ratings boost.

Of course, it has to get a distributor first, and there isn’t a lot we can do about that. If anyone has contacts with someone associated with movie distribution, send them to Creation!