Film About Darwin's Life Stokes Creationism Debate

"Creation" depicts scientist's struggle with the implications of his theory.

Jan. 25, 2009 — -- Charles Darwin has become one of the most divisive men in history. One reason, perhaps, that no one has ever tried to make his biopic. Until now.

"We didn't find that American distributors were beating a path to our door," said Jon Amiels, director of a new movie about Darwin's life called "Creation," distributed in the United States by Newmarket Films. "This is not a fashionable film in that sense and not the easiest film to market in any conventional sense. The fact that it was also a hot potato in terms of its subject content I think also made several studios quite squeamish about handling it."

The Creation vs. Evolution debate is, of course, a bitter one. The conservative Christian Web site calls "Creation" a "beautifully made, poignant movie" but goes on to warn viewers away: "The fact that the movie is so well done is what makes it very dangerous. ... A lie that there is no God ... is still a lie, even if it's well-written and acted."

"Creation" focuses on Darwin's own struggle as the enormity of his theory of evolution dawned on him.

In the movie, Darwin's eldest daughter, Annie, asks her father, "What are you so scared of? It's only a theory."

Darwin replies, "If I'm right, it changes everything. Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us."

The movie is set at Down House in Kent, not far from London, where the Darwin family lived for many years.

At Down House, one can visit Darwin's study and see the very table on which he wrote "On the Origin of Species." As Darwin worked, his kids would run in and out, steal their father's footstall, pester him and beg him to come play with them in the garden. "Creation " focuses on Darwin's relationship with his kids and, more crucially, his wife.

Darwin's wife, Emma, was deeply religious, a Unitarian. She believed strongly in what we now call creationism. At the time it was just the accepted truth.

'At War With God'

The film stars married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles and Emma Darwin.

It imagines a conversation between the couple.

"I think you are at war with God, Charles," Emma says. "We both know it's a battle you can't win."

The battle rages on. Today, about 40 percent of Americans believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. Thousands of Americans visit the Creationist Museum in Petersburg, Ky., every year. Many accuse Darwin of not just denying God but of spawning race hate.

The movie seeks to humanize Darwin; something that might surprise his detractors.

"I think it is possible that some people who come through the Creation Museum, if they watch that movie, might be challenged concerning Darwin as a family man, Darwin as a father, as a husband," museum curator Ken Ham. "He wasn't an evil man running around trying to deliberately hurt people or anything like this. I think he truly did struggle in regard to the whole issue of his ideas of evolution; killing God, if you like."

Darwin's own faith was eroded by his research, particularly his trip around South America aboard the Beagle. By most accounts, the injustice he felt at the death of his daughter Annie snuffed out his faith. But Darwin continued to respect his wife's religion and her opposing view.

In the movie, Darwin presents his final manuscript to his wife, who is at the piano and stops playing.

"I've finished," the Darwin character says. "I've finished. ... You decide."

"About what?" Emma replies.

"About what should be done with it. Someone needs to take God's side in all of this."

Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" in 1859 because a colleague, a protege, sent him an essay proposing the same theory. That forced Darwin's hand, ended his vacillation about publication.

"Creation" opens today in six cities; Chicago and the coasts. Will creationists watch it? Will they object?

"I'm not sure this will be seen so much as controversial [but] more seen as, well, a movie that promotes evolution," curator Ham said. "And, you know, we're used to that because that happens at school, that happens in the media anyway.

Director Amiels said, "The saddest fact about Darwin is that he is almost more controversial now than he was 150 years ago.

"At a time when, in a sense, so much of what scientific thought has achieved has confirmed his ideas, Darwin has become the poster child on both sides of the argument, which has become increasingly polarized in an increasingly extremist time."