COLLEE, JOHN - CREATION
CHARLES DARWIN: PORTRAIT OF THE EVOLUTIONARY AS A MAN
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
“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
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
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
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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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
In cinemas from July 15, 2010