The eternal struggle of why with how (4/5)

This post is part of the Read the Book/Watch the Movie Challenge. 

It is about the film Creation and the book Annie’s Box, and contains spoilers.

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Annie’s Box by Randall Keynes starts with a child’s writing case.

The writing case was Annie’s, and is filled with her things.  She was Charles and Emma Darwin’s first daughter.  She died when she was ten….  It was passed down to my father, one of their great-grandsons.

There is one idea at the heart of my account.  Charles’s life and his science were all of one piece….  This book explores Darwin’s life with his family and his thinking about human nature in the interweavings around Annie and her memory.

The screenplay that is based on this book was written by John Collee and “expands” on this idea.

Collee … suggest[s] Darwin was so unhinged by his daughter Annie’s death that he started imagining she came to him as a ghost and had conversations with her – a creative decision which has prompted a whole other controversy and angered British scholars. Collee admits to some “historical liberties”, but says the ghost is a reflection of Darwin’s state of mind, not a literal apparition.

The Scotsman

Fine, except she literally appears on the screen and Darwin has arguments with her.  We know, eventually, that it is only Darwin who can see Annie, but still, if there is no evidence that Darwin had demented visions of his dead daughter why make it up?  The director, Joe Amiel explains:

We… chose to dramatize Annie both in her life, but also in Darwin’s memory. And again, that was a choice that’s not born out by the biographers or the historians. That was a choice we made as filmmakers—based on a number of known facts about Darwin, yes, but nonetheless an imaginative leap.

Movie Maker

I enjoyed Creation when I saw it, and then I read the book that it was based on.  The more that I read the book, and the more that I thought about the differences between the book and the movie the more that the movie began to annoy me.  Turning Annie into an apparition is unnecesary, because what actually happened is sadder and makes for a more powerful story: Darwin wishes he could hold his daughter again, but he can’t.

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Where did the movie makers get their ideas from?  Well, there are some seeds in the book that would have been useful to them.  They probably noted that Darwin had a strong visual imagination, and that he observed seances in the 1860s to test their veracity and came away convinced there was something in them.  Sure.  Flicking through the book a second time though, I suspect that it is the letters quoted  below that may have been the point in the book that Collee and Amiel got their inspiration from:

Dear Old Darwin, I have just buried my darling little girl and read your kind note.   [She was] the companion of my walks, the first of my children who has shown any love for music and flowers, and the sweetest tempered affectionate little thing that ever I knew.  It will be long before I cease to hear her voice in my ears or feel her little hand stealing into mine by the fireside and in the garden.  Wherever I go she is there. (p.270)

Joseph Hooker to Charles Darwin, 1863

I am very well, but it will be long before I get over this craving for my child, or the bitterness of that last night.  To nurse grief I hold is a deadly sin, but I shall never cease to wish my child back in my arms as long as I live. (p.271)

Joseph Hooker to Charles Darwin, 1863 

In 1863 it was twelve years since Charles and Emma Darwin’s daughter Annie had died, at the age of ten.  She had died in the town of Malvern which was at that time a famous place to go for hydrotherapy.  By coincidence, Charles was back in Malvern seeking treatment for one of his own recurring, debilitating illness when he received the letters from Hooker (a friend of Darwin’s for many years).  It was the first time that Emma and Charles had visited Annie’s grave in Malvern.  Darwin wrote back to his friend,

I understand well your words ‘Wherever I go, she is there.’  I am so deeply glad that she did not suffer so much, as I feared was inevitable.  This was to us with poor Annie the one great comfort.  Trust to me that time will do wonders, and without causing forgetfulness of your darling. (p.270)

You might note that the letters above are discussing Hooker’s daughter and not Darwin’s.  This doesn’t seem to have bothered the film makers overly.  But let’s be (slightly) fair; the underlying element of a father suffering the death of a daughter is the same.

For a long time Darwin had wondered about the meaning of suffering.  What is the purpose of so much suffering in the world?  Annie’s death had deeply impacted Charles and Emma, but they had also lost two other children and had known many other deaths in their extended family.

The movie and the book approach the suffering of Darwin in different ways.  The movie pushes it all up a gear by manufacturing scenes to heighten the drama, while the book lets the events unfold more gradually and, it has to be said, more truthfully.

The central conceit of the movie, and a dominant idea in the book, is that the death of the Darwins’ daughter Annie was a factor in Charles’ thinking while he was preparing his book On the Origin of Species published in 1859.  In the movie the dead daughter haunts Charles, and he has conversations and arguments with her manifestation.  She is portrayed as his favourite child, and one with a curiousity in the natural world.  Her death is a major contributing factor in Darwin’s move towards atheism, and also a source of great tension between Charles and his wife who was a devout Christian.

Let’s take the central plot arc from the movie.  Annie becomes sick at home.  Charles wants to take her to Malvern to seek treatment there.  Emma is against it.  Charles does it anyway and Emma is upset with Charles and with herself.  The death of Annie drives the couple further apart, a plight worsened by Charles’ complete loss of faith in God and Emma’s continuing faith.  They are eventually reconciled when Charles confronts his guilt about the death of Annie, and his behaviour afterwards.

This makes for some good scenes in the movie. 

  1. Charles dashing away from the house in a carriage with the ailing Annie for Malvern while Emma wrings her hands and sobs
  2. Charles in a series of increasingly wretched conversations with the ghost of Annie
  3. Charles and Emma having a big, emotional scene where they cry, and talk about their feelings and reconcile (and go and have sex)

Well, it turns out that none of these scenes are true.  When Charles went to Malvern with his sick daughter, Emma was heavily pregnant.  Charles went with her approval, and Emma asked a close friend to go to Charles for support.  They exchanged letters almost every day as Charles sat at side of his daughter and watched her die.  It is extraordinarily sad and painful to read about this in the book.

Charles often reflected on Annie after her death, and vividly recalled scenes from her childhood as he grew older.  This is poignant.  More so than having a ghost hang around.

Annie Darwin

And finally, the matter of faith between Charles and Emma.  It was never resolved between them, but very early in their marriage Emma wrote a letter to Charles.  She was concerned with the cost of him giving up revelation, and the sin of ingratitude for Christ’s suffering.  She concluded,

“Everything that concerns you concerns me and I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other for ever.”

Charles kept the note for the rest of his life.  At some point, perhaps many years later, he wrote to her on the outer fold: ‘When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and  cried over this.’ (p.59)

Which is considerably more moving than the scenes manufactured in the movie to make the same point clear.  Considerably more moving?  Profoundly more moving, and far truer to life.  Perhaps Charles and Emma should have had a big Hollywood scene, fought it out, and shouted at each other about their feelings.  Perhaps.  On the other hand the strong marriage of Charles and Emma, and their relationship with their children is one of the highlights of the book because it is so loving and positive.  The spirit of compromise, respect and love was a very solid foundation for that family.

I enjoyed the movie Creation.  If I hadn’t read the book and I was giving it a rating I would say it was something like a 6 out of 10.  I think I was probably affected by the idea of father losing their daughter; imagining such a thing in my own life made me feel great compassion for Darwin and his wife.  I am also prone to sympathise with those that struggle with faith, and come to some sort of hard won compromise.

Unfortunately (for my view of the movie) I did read the book, and I would now have to say that the movie slips.  Not far, but a little.  Let’s say I now give the movie a rating of 5 out of 10.  Some of the decisions made in the screenplay are dishonest adaptations of the book.  Of course I know that when you make a movie out of a book you must change things.  This isn’t the problem.  The problem is that the screenplay fictionalises the life of Charles and Emma Darwin in order to make points, and that these points are often so over-emphasised that they also become untrue.

What is true is harder to bear.

We have lost the joy of our household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could know how deeply, how tenderly we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face.  Blessings on her.

Charles Darwin’s memorial to Annie, 30 April 1851

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John-Paul

I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

3 thoughts on “The eternal struggle of why with how (4/5)”

  1. “your reading rate makes me look like an arthritic tortoise”
    Comparing yourself to a tortoise would have sufficed. I mean, we would have got the picture. Some of us out here aren’t complete idiots.

  2. Thanks. I really didn’t know much about Darwin before, and only went to see the movie by chance (knowing nothing about it). It is quite a good movie all by itself, and obviously got my interest because I was motivated enough to hunt down the book.

    I’m glad I joined in too – it’s been interesting reading your blog more regularly (your reading rate makes me look like an arthritic tortoise), and the other reviews.

  3. Marvelous review. I’m not familiar with either of these, but you’ve piqued my interest. I think your overall objections to the movie share my main concern with historical fiction. I find the fictional parts of the lives of famous people questionable. Is it right to make things up when there is more than enough in the historical record to tell a good story?

    There’s been so much about Darwin about of late, I believe he or his book is having a major anniversary, but I did not know about the death of his daughter and its influence on his work. I’m glad you joined my book/movie challenge, otherwise I don’t think I would have found your review here.

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