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There is more to Charles Darwin than a bearded old bloke with a thick book to his name, as Australian writer John Collee shows in his screenplay about the man, adapted from the biography by Darwin’s great great grandson. Collee spoke to Andrew L. Urban.

To many people, the name Charles Darwin conjures up a crusty old fogey with a big beard who is famous for his book about evolution. That picture of Darwin is totally destroyed by the new film, Creation, in which Paul Bettany plays Darwin, the grief stricken father of his darling daughter Annie, dead at the age of 10.

In this adaptation of the biographical book, Annie’s Box, by Darwin’s great great grandfather Randal Keynes, we get to meet a real person with a real family and very real problems, living in Victorian England.

Australian writer John Collee is familiar with adaptation work, having taken Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) from the book to the screenplay. [There is symmetry here: in Master and Commander, Paul Bettany plays Dr Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and also an avid naturalist who uses every opportunity to collect samples on the lengthy and dangerous voyages under Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). The story is set in the early 19th century, not very long before the period of Creation.]

"not an obvious biopic"

It was (later to be executive producer) Jan Eymanm who sent the book, Annie’s Box, to Collee, who in turn approached his friend the director Jon Amiel with the project; Amiel agreed. “It was not an obvious biopic,” says Collee, “but it was full of detail and I saw the gem of a story there which would humanise Darwin.” Oddly enough, Collee was playing with the possibility of another Charles Darwin screenplay, focusing on the relationship between Darwin and Capt. Fitzroy of The Beagle. It didn’t have the same appeal – and the project collapsed anyway.

“Creation is a very complex adaptation that covers 25 years of his life, including a bit on The Beagle [the boat on which he collected so many samples as a scientific detective],” explains Collee.

While Annie’s death finally turned Darwin from God, his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) remained a firm Christian. “Both parents try to make sense of the child’s death,” says Collee, “but in very different ways.” They speak to each other about it in “the language of the heart,” which Collee calls “a third language…”

The film’s theme is about the language of science on the one hand and the language of emotions on the other. “People normally speak in the language of emotions,” he says. “That’s why films are so effective. But it’s also the problem for scientists today, for example, trying to explain climate change … trying to explain a scientific issue in a way people can understand. “In retrospect,” he says, “this is the element that attracted me to the project.”

"absolutely an evolutionist"

Collee, himself “absolutely an evolutionist,” was careful not to turn Creation into a scientific lesson. “I tried to drop bits of Darwin’s theory into the drama, not to educate people but to engage them.”

One of the biggest challenges Collee faced was how to bring Annie into the timeframe of the story. “So I created two time frames and made Annie a ghost, a memory for him.” In the process of continuing to grieve for her, coupled with the realisation that his book would have a devastating effect on Victorian England and faced with his wife’s unshaken faith, Darwin became gravely ill.

He was surrounded by many who encouraged him, but even more who were dead against him publishing the notion that the world was much older than Christianity believed and that all species – including man - evolved slowly over time.

For all its serious subject matter, Collee aspired to make it easy to access for audiences. “There are fewer jokes in the final cut than in my screenplay,” says Collee ruefully, “and the relationship between Charles and Emma is more intense. So it’s less playful than it was on the page, but it has also gained much.” As to accuracy, Collee says “most of the events have been recorded. Part of the writer’s job is to put the events together and in a time frame that all makes sense.”

When asked about the impact on the world of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in the context of today’s debate about creationism and evolution, Collee says “the New Testament is a series of lessons on living together. Then Darwin comes along and says this is where we came from … and he, too, wraps anecdotes around certain principles. Both make their points with stories. Rather than trying to sell this inconvenient truth to the Victorian people, he talks about pigeons and farm animals and children and geology …” But, he says, scientific methods can solve or answer so much about us and the universe. “The language of science and the language of spirituality are not that different,” says Collee.

"to the heart of a very topical question"

“The Bible versus Origin of Species is an interesting question which goes to the heart of a very topical question, ie how do we define the Truth. There’s a lot of spiritual truth in the Bible even though its logically inconsistent. The truth you find in Origin in a different thing, empirical scientific facts which are objectively verifiable, (as opposed to biblical fables which express some deeper truth about society and human interactions.) What’s interesting about Origin and where it differs from many science books is that it offers a philosophical framework for understanding the world. I wonder if science lost something important when we stopped calling it ‘natural philosophy.’"
Published first in the Sun-Herald

Published July 15, 2010

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John Collee


Written by John Collee, directed by Jon Amiel
Just weeks before the publication of his seminal book, On The Origin of Species, Charles and Emma Darwin (Paul Bettany & Jennifer Connelly), are grieving the death of their 10-year-old, Annie (Martha West). Her death has destroyed Darwin's remaining faith in God but reinforced his wife's. They differ dramatically and implacably over their belief in the creation of the universe and Charles is aware of the potential impact his work would have on the world at large.
In cinemas from July 15, 2010

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