Monday, November 02, 2009

Is Darwin a problem for Hollywood?

Darwin biopic, Creation, had a hard time landing distributor in the US. The likely explanation is that Hollywood is squeamish about the topic and does not want to offend religious sensibilities of the US movie going audience. I'm not sure if I buy all of this explanation. Among other things, Hollywood thrives on controversy. For example, US distributors have been picking up gay-friendly films for years and religious opposition in the US has not really been a deterrent). But may be the distributors did get conservative regarding Darwin - I don't know. In any case, Creation has now been picked for distribution by Newmarket - which also released Memento and The Passion of the Christ (Hmm...yes, Mel Gibson's movie). Now here in an interesting article by David Kirby tracing Hollywood's discomfort with Darwin and evolution - detailing censorship efforts in the 20s and 30s:
After the highly publicized Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 the notion of a human/primate connection changed from one of comedy to one of horror in cinema. Several post-Scopes films, beginning with The Wizard in 1927, feature “mad evolutionist” characters who design evil experiments in order to prove their “crazy” evolutionary theories about humanity’s connection to the animal world. Likewise, the goal of the mad evolutionists in The Beast of Borneo (1934) and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) is to prove humanity’s link to the animal kingdom. In front of a chart detailing the evolutionary “ladder of life,” the mad evolutionist Dr. Mirakle (played by Bela Lugosi) from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) informs an unbelieving carnival audience that “the shadow of the ape hangs over us all” and that he will mix human and gorilla blood to “prove Man’s connection with the ape.” While this evolutionary-minded scientist is ultimately punished for his heretical conceptions, the film actually conveys the human/primate connection through Mirakle’s grotesque appearance and his clearly “animalistic” actions. In mad evolutionist films, the only human beings with a clear connection to primates are the evolution spouting evil scientists and their simian-like assistants.
Despite the comeuppance these mad evolutionists received for their beliefs, many of these films actually ran afoul of censors for their inclusion of evolution and Darwinism. The 1922 Lon Chaney, Sr., film A Blind Bargain was re-cut after test audiences found the movie too favourably disposed to Darwin and evolution. This included changing the original book the mad scientist uses to reach his secret lair from Origin of the Species[I1] to a less controversial tome. Murders in the Rue Morgue was not shown or was severely edited in several states because some censor boards objected to the theme of “Man’s descent from the Apes.”
and here is the conclusion that Kirby reaches:
Given the treatment of Darwinian thought in these horror films it is not surprising that Creation faces an uphill battle in American theatres.
This may be the case, but I'm not sure how much we can trust drawing a straight line from Hollywood's early censorship days to the cinema in the late 20th and early 21st century. After all evolution has been mentioned quite neutrally (however superficially) in blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and the X-Men franchise. But even if we leave that aside, David Kirby should not get to his conclusions without addressing Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind from 1960 - even though its not in the horror genre. It starred some top Hollywood actors of the time (Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly), it was a successful mainstream film, and was nominated for four Oscars, including for best actor and best adapted screenplay. But the protagonist in the film is Clarence Darrow (ok - Henry Drummond in the original play) is clearly on the side of Darwin & evolution and is portrayed in a very positive light. Sure, the movie is looking at the 1925 Scopes Trial through the cultural lens of the 1950s political scene - but the basic premise is fully in support of those who accept biological evolution.

Similarly, looking at the sci-fi/horror genre for evolution can be a bit tricky. The inspiration for many of these films is Shelley's Frankenstein (1818, written before Darwin) or Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) with an emphasis on humans playing God with nature. This is a rich premise and because evolutionary experimentation provides an obvious means, the Mad Scientist often happen to be an evolutionary biologist (though chemists are not that far behind - oh the things they can brew in their beakers).

I think Kirby's piece is interesting - but he has cherry-picked evidence to provide a neat and clean narrative. The reality, as usual, is messy and complex. I'm looking forward to Kirby's forthcoming book where I'm pretty sure he deals with Inherit the Wind and other related films.

Read the full article here.

Other related posts:
Idiocy around Darwin's biopic - Creation

2 comments:

Don said...

Don't forget the mess that was Super Mario Bros (1993). Bowser had a"de-evolution" machine.

Ouch. Worst... video game... to movie adaptation... ever.

Salman Hameed said...

woah! worst video game to movie adaptation. Now that is seriously saying something!

Other movies with evolution?