Darwin Drama Raises Questions for Both Sides

By McCammon, Michael | The Humanist, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

Darwin Drama Raises Questions for Both Sides


McCammon, Michael, The Humanist


I SELDOM GO to the movies. It's as expensive as a Washington Nationals' game and has about the same (overwhelming) chance of being a flop. I am nearly alone in this sentiment, however; the Los Angeles Daily News recently reported that movie theatres "are one of the bright spots in the recession," with receipts up 10 to 16 percent over last year.

Given the booming, albeit saturated film industry, how was it that a major motion picture receiving rave reviews seemed unable to find U.S. distribution? The movie in question is Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. Quoted in the September 11, 2009, Daily Telegraph, the film's producer, Jeremy Thomas, lamented: "The film has no distributor in America ... because of what the film is about." And what, exactly, is Creation about? According to the film's website, Creation is about Charles Darwin's "love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place." Oh yeah, there might also be some stuff in there about his writing On the Origin of Species.

While I have a prurient interest in anyone's relationship with Jennifer Connelly, I hardly think a biopic that's sure to take artistic license should be of great concern. But the Darwin film became a big deal. At least ten mainstream press articles echoed the Telegraph line that Creation would "prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution." Was it unreasonable to surmise that the beliefs of a majority of Americans were preventing the release of a dramatic film? Humanists of the Year PZ Myers (2009) and Richard Dawkins (1996) reacted vociferously. The American Humanist Association drafted and electronically disseminated a petition claiming censorship. I was part of that effort, but a little alarm soon went off in my head; Bill Maher's film Religulous had no problem getting into U.S. theaters, and that film was a complete slap in the face for people of faith. So how could it be that a historical drama about Darwin's life wasn't welcome?

I made a call to England, straight to the desk of a very nice person at Han Way films, the movie's marketing firm. She informed me that, while there were concerns, negotiations were ongoing. The news stories appeared to be sensationalized; they'd taken the producer's quote and run with it. Shortly after I got off the phone a new story came out reporting that a bidding war had begun over the film. Then, on September 25, Variety reported that Newmarket Films (best known for releasing The Passion of the Christ) had acquired the U.S. rights to Creation. Good news, indeed. But to stop here would be to ignore a much larger matter.

Beyond the admission that many of us jumped to conclusions about a Creation controversy, the fact remains that a majority of Americans reject the theory of evolution by natural selection to explain the diversity of life on Earth, and this continues to make us extremely jumpy.

In Europe, where many countries have state religion, evolution is simply accepted. In fact, Creation was developed by the UK Film Council and BBC Films, both government entities. Yes, this film is a product of Queen Elizabeth II, who of course is also the head of the Church of England. No problem. What is it about Darwin that makes him so explosive in this country?

The religious side I get; Darwin proposes an alternate set of events leading to humankind which, for those who literally interpret the Bible, is perceived as a threat. But it's not just the religious who have a visceral reaction to Darwin. It's also nontheists, who risk tarnishing their credentials as staunch supporters of the First Amendment when he enters the picture.

Let me explain. Nonbelievers who jumped on the Creation controversy are now gearing up for a big fight with Living Waters, a religious group with plans to distribute 100,000 copies of On the Origin of Species at dozens of universities nationwide in November (coinciding with the 150th anniversary of its publication). …

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