Big-Screen Bio of Charles Darwin on the Way

By Sean Cavanagh — September 01, 2009 2 min read
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I recently received an e-mail about the upcoming release of a new film about the life of Charles Darwin, and the personal turmoil he coped with on the path to his groundbreaking research on the theory of evolution. A major focus on the film, titled “Creation,” is the British naturalist’s difficulty reconciling his scientific discoveries with religion, and particularly the beliefs of his devoutly religious wife, Emma.

The film, which stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly (*bonus points* if you can name another film featuring both of them) as Charles and Emma Darwin, is based on on the book Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution. It was written by Randal Keynes, a conservationist and the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. The title is a reference to Darwin’s first daughter, Annie, who died at the age of 10, eight years before the publication of his landmark work on evolution: On the Origin of Species. The movie, by BBC Films, is scheduled for a Sept. 25 release, according to a Web site promoting it. It’s coming out on the 150th anniversary of the year of the publication of Species, and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Many biographies and accounts of Darwin’s life and work have been released over the years, though it seems as though there’s been much less interest in telling his story on screen. Ironically, one of the most publicized films to discuss evolution in recent years was Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which made the case for intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. That film was widely panned by scientists as misleading in its depiction of evolutionary theory and its promotion of design.

I’ll be very curious to see scientists’ response to “Creation,” and the film’s exploration of how personal tragedy and inter-family relationships influenced Darwin’s views of faith and reason, and his groundbreaking work. Of course, biologists, teachers, and others are likely to judge the film by another standard: Does it get the science right?

The filmmakers are also offering a series of educational resources for teachers, and students ages 14-18, aimed at helping with science lessons, as well as general studies and “critical thinking,” according to a link on the promotional web site. Those materials include excerpts from historical documents, student worksheets, and other background materials.

* Bettany and Connelly worked together in “A Beautiful Mind,” Hollywood’s portrayal of the Princeton mathematician John Nash, and his struggles with schizophrenia.

UPDATE: One potentially important note about “Creation”: Despite its impressive cast, at this point, it doesn’t have a U.S. distributor, a representative for the film confirmed to me today. This could affect American audiences’ ability to find it. Judging from the e-mails I’ve received, there’s strong interest among some scientists in trying to ensure that the film makes it into as many theaters as possible, stateside.

In the above photo, courtesy of BBC Films, Darwin arrives in Tierra del Fuego during his exploratory scientific voyage aboard the Beagle.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.