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.


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.


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

The eternal struggle of why with how (3/5)

Last week Cathy and I went to dinner at Richard’s house.  There were two other couples there.  I had taught the son of one of the couples last year, and as 2009 was his final year at school I asked what he was planning to do.  He was planning to stuff around for a year.  His parents seemed relaxed about this.  I’m glad they were relaxed about it.  The young man in question is intelligent, talented and engaging.  Things will work out.

It reminded me of the year I tried stuffing around after I finished school.  When I left school I had very little idea what I wanted to be.  Even if I was a day-dreamer with personal fantasys about being a rock star, or travelling the world, I also had some notion that I would probably need to get a real job.  Nobody wanted to give me a real job in 1991 so I went to university.  I went to university with the odd idea that you just studied what you enjoyed and were good at.  I took English and History, and picked up a bit of Classics, and Anthropology along the way. 

1991 was the last year that university was more or less free.  I think it is no coincidence that when fees were introduced there was a decrease in the notion of university as a place that provided a useful general degree, and an increase in the view that it was a training institution that would get you a high paying job.

While I spent my time at university sneering at this view of university as a training institute, I ended up in 1998 with a very mediocre MA in English Literature which is a complete career dead end.  By 1998 I had stopped sneering, and was fairly desperately wondering what I was going to do with my life.

I went to Japan and taught English there for a bit over five years.  It was this experience that actually educated me, and gave me a profession.  My current life is built on the foundation of those five years in Japan.

Which is saying this: I had no idea who I was or what I should be until around the year 2000, or 2001 when I was 27 years old, and that was only the beginning of the process.  It took another five or six years for me to accept the ideas, and train, and get through the hard early years of teaching. 

When I look back at myself as I was in my first year out of school I can see almost a different person.  If I were to resort to simile I would say I was like the first draft on the potter’s wheel; a mound of soft, pliable clay.  Under the hands of time and experience the outline of myself has become clearer, and harder.  This is good and bad.  I feel like I know myself a lot better, but I also sometimes miss the sense of not knowing what I could be.

You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all  your family.

Dr. Darwin to his son, Charles


Dr. Darwin sent his useless son to Edinburgh to study medicine but the useless son found that observing surgeries performed without anasthetic was not his cup of tea.  He convinced Dad to let him go to Christ’s College in Cambridge in 1828 to read for Holy Orders.  Of course Darwin was never to become either a medical doctor or a priest, and it was while he was at Edinburgh that he first became interested in botany.  A hobby he continued to develop at Cambridge.

While he was at Cambridge he read and accepted the views in Paley’s famous book Natural Theology (1802).  The most famous part of Paley’s books was an analogy about a watch.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

If you accept that a watch must have been designed and made by an intelligent being then when you observe the incredible complexity of nature you must also accept that it was made by an intelligent being.  God.

By the 1820s Paley’s views and Charles Darwin confronted the relatively new science of geology.  In 1830 Charles Lyell published the first volume of his book Principles of Geology.

The central argument in Principles was that the present is the key to the past. Geological remains from the distant past can, and should, be explained by reference to geological processes now in operation and thus directly observable. Lyell’s interpretation of geologic change as the steady accumulation of minute changes over enormously long spans of time was a powerful influence on the young Charles Darwin.

It was the “enormously long spans of time” that was a problem for those who took the Bible literally.  Douglas Palmer in his book Earth Time describes his grandfather’s Bible published in 1890.  This Bible has a margin down the side of the text, and in that margin is written the year that the events described took place.  The date next to the first entry for Genesis is 4004BC.  Geologists like David Palmer currently believe that the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years.

In a sense I don’t think this matters too much.  The human mind can’t comprehend 6000 years, let alone 4.5 billion.  Length of time was a problem, but I think it was minor compared to this one:

As the fossil record became clearer, the extinction of kingdom after kingdom of monstrous prehistoric animals before the appearance of man raised issues about God’s purpose in creation. (22)

In late December of 1831 Charles Darwin began a voyage that formed the basis of his views about life on Earth.

AFTER having been twice driven back by heavy south-western gales, Her Majesty’s ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831. The object of the expedition was to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, commenced under Captain King in 1826 to 1830—to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and of some islands in the Pacific—and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the World.

Journal of Researches, Darwin

It was a voyage that took five years.  Darwin took with him Lyell’s Principles of Geology and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He also took with him John Herschel’s idea that man should look for underlying patterns in the endless variety of the living world, and search for grand principles to explain them (Netwon’s theory of universal gravitation was an example). 

So that is the state of play in 1831.  Charles Darwin is all soft clay on the potter’s wheel, and here come the hands of time and experience.