Monday, January 25, 2010

Darwin biopic, Creation: What controversy?

Darwin biopic Creation peacefully premiered in the US this past Friday (so far only in major cities). But back in September, the blogosphere (and even some newspapers) was abuzz with the view that Creation is too controversial for US (as it turns out most of the comments were based on this one Telegraph story: Charles Darwin film 'too controversial for religious America'). For the life of me I couldn't figure out why would Hollywood run away from such a (mild) controversy (see this earlier post: Is Darwin a problem for Hollywood?). Sure enough the movie found a distributor and the movie is now playing in the US without any controversy. But this non-controversy is now not any news and I haven't seen many articles written about the fact that a movie about Charles Darwin and his religious beliefs has received good press coverage in the US. Ah....the conflict narrative sells.

Here is the beginning of a more or less a good NYT article about the movie - but the author could not resist bringing in the controversy (again based on speculation), Making Darwin the legend a man again:
PALE, winded, a blanket draped across his twitching knees, a sick, despondent man confides his woes to the minister who has stopped by. Stretching a sympathetic arm around the man’s shoulders, the minister murmurs, “God moves in mysterious ways.”

Yes, yes, the man agrees with a glower, adding that “he has endowed us — in all his blessed generosity — with not one but 900 species of intestinal worm.”

As a comeback the line may not rank with “Make my day.” But “900 species of intestinal worm” is a pretty fair rebuttal to the idea of a beneficent creator, and the minister doesn’t try to argue. He retreats, insulted by his old friend’s hostility.

It’s not the only moment that finds the forces of religion in retreat in “Creation,” Jon Amiel’s new film about Charles Darwin. And if arguments about the existence of God were not enough to mark “Creation” as, well, highly unorthodox, the movie also dares to be unapologetically eclectic in style, incorporating elements of historical drama, psychological thriller, horror, romance and ghost story in recounting, with minimal fictional flourishes, how Darwin came to publish his landmark theory of evolution by natural selection.

Depicted (by Paul Bettany) as an illness-plagued, middle-aged family man, Darwin wrestles not only with the clergyman (Jeremy Northam) but with his own devout wife (Jennifer Connelly), the spirit of his inquisitive daughter (Martha West) and Darwin’s tortured psyche as he struggles to come to terms with the implications of his scientific studies.

Okay - this sounds like an interesting movie and the article is doing a good job of bringing up some of the underlying issues. But then here is a paragraph that alludes to the controversy:

Whether or not movie executives share Mr. Amiel’s view of “Creation” as evenhanded, they didn’t exactly rush to release it in the United States, where Gallup researchers found last year that only 39 percent of those polled accepted evolution as fact. The movie had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, opened in Britain the following month and languished without an American distributor until Newmarket Films, the company that released “The Passion of the Christ,” came along and scheduled a Friday opening in New York, Los Angeles and selected cities — just barely making it into the 200th anniversary year commemorating Darwin’s birth.

First of all, it is not unusual that movies released in UK get a delayed release in US, and vice versa. For a recent example, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (the new Terry Gilliam film), was released in UK in October and in US in December. No controversy. Second, if you have any doubts, check with the movie executives and then report it back. But here is just speculation feeding unnecessarily into the conflict narrative (save it for a time when there really is a controversy).

(Side note: If you like creative films, do check out Imaginarium. Its story may not all click well, but it is still a highly enjoyable experience. Plus, how can you go wrong in seeing Tom Waits as the devil? But also, please support the works of creative, ambitious directors like Gilliam - so we are not left with only Transformers 2 to watch).

Read the full NYT article here. If you are interested in another interview related to the film, check out this this excellent Fresh Air interview with Randal Keynes, author of Annie's Box, the book that the movie is based on. Randal Keynes provides thoughtful responses about Darwin and his religious views (please listen to the last 15 minutes if you are only interested in science & religion issues).

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