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Capturing Darwin's Dilemma

  • Posted 09.29.09
  • NOVA

In crafting a film about Charles Darwin's great dilemma—whether or not to go public with his incendiary theory of evolution—scriptwriter John Goldsmith faced some quandaries of his own: How do you offer a fresh portrayal of one of the world's most iconic figures? What's more, how do you avoid the "gotchas" of countless Darwin experts apt to catch any tiny inaccuracy? In this interview, Goldsmith, who years ago traced part of Darwin's Beagle voyage to better understand the man, explains his fascination with both Darwin and his wife Emma, and the extraordinary research he did to get the details right.

Charles and Emma Darwin

Writer John Goldsmith conceived "Darwin's Darkest Hour" as a domestic drama, pivoting on the relationship between Charles (Henry Ian Cusick) and his wife Emma (Frances O'Connor). Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation/National Geographic Television

 

First Impressions

NOVA: In a film about Darwin, why did you open with a scene about Alfred Wallace?

John Goldsmith: That's where the story begins. Always begin at the beginning. The whole concept of the film was to take a piece of Darwin's life and tell the story of On the Origin of Species and evolution generally within that framework, right? And the trigger for Darwin publishing anything on evolution was this letter that came out of the blue from Wallace. It's kind of like a spear thrown that goes thunk! into Darwin's heart as he sits there peacefully in Down House in North Kent. It's really where the story starts.

In the script, you describe the set using Wallace's own words. What research did you do for this?

Well, Wallace, God bless him, wrote lots of autobiography. As well as collecting and selling specimens, he wrote books. And he wrote a book about his experiences in Borneo and Malacca, and that book contains a description of his room.

It's one of many instances where you tied your details—dialogue and sets and other parts of the script—to historical documents, which I found impressive.

As far as I could, because even if one can't precisely get it right in terms of props and production, at least the whole team knew what we were aiming for.

Alfred Wallace writing letter

A letter penned by the young English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (Rhys Bevan-John) sets the drama in motion. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation/National Geographic Television

 

When we first see Darwin, he's in his study. He's making a beehive out of cardboard. What impression did you want to give of him right away?

Well, that's an interesting example. You know, more is known about Darwin than he even knew about himself, because he wrote incessant letters. He was virtually a recluse for most of his life, and his equivalent of the telephone and e-mail was the postal service. So lots and lots of letters. And there's a wonderful thing online now, the Darwin Correspondence Project. The crucial years that I was interested in, they're all there.

I wanted to know exactly what he was doing on the date when the story starts. And I managed, by going through all this correspondence, to discover that he had just received a letter from his brother Erasmus and was making this little model beehive. Erasmus had sent him a drawing and instructions on how to make it, and that's what he was doing.

That's remarkable, that you pinned down that moment.

If it had been any other subject, really, one wouldn't have bothered. One would have made something up. But the world is full of Darwin experts who know what he had for tea on May the 4th of 1862, down to the last lump of sugar, and they're all sitting there with their pencils poised.

You were trying to avoid their gotchas.

Exactly, yes. But it's also a classic example of reality driving the creative side of things, because it's a wonderful example of the kind of man Darwin was—the meticulous care he took. He was interested in everything.

Charles Darwin and son in study

Moments before receiving Wallace's letter, Darwin is in his study, showing his son Franky (Jacob Robertson) a model beehive. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation/National Geographic Television

 

A VERY NICE FELLOW

From all that you've read of Darwin, how would you sum up his character?

Well, he's a character who, alas, has vanished from the world: the independent scientist. He isn't holding a job down; he has no chair at a university. He can do exactly what he wants. And because Darwin realized that if any example in nature upset his theory the theory was dead, he made it his business to look into absolutely every aspect he could think of in nature.

When you delve into the detail of his life and the evolution of his theory, it really hits home the kind of extraordinary range of his activities, everything he was interested in.

From barnacles...

From barnacles to the beehive.

He was a lovely father. They were a very unusual family.

If it weren't for Wallace sending this letter, do you think Darwin would have ever published his theory?

I don't know. I don't think anybody does. It's very hard to say. He'd written about half of [what he called] "the big book." My feeling is he probably would have prevaricated for some years more. I think, inevitably, he would have published, because if it hadn't been Wallace coming up with something similar, somebody else would have. There were a lot of people working in this area. But given his druthers—as they say in North America—he probably would have left it until he was on his deathbed in order to avoid all the fuss.

Why would Wallace send Darwin this letter and his paper on evolution?

Well, Wallace didn't actually ask Darwin to comment. He just asked him to pass it on to [the eminent scientist] Sir Charles Lyell. Darwin and Wallace had met. They'd corresponded. Darwin was a client. [Darwin had bought specimens from Wallace.] So, really, Darwin was a contact.

Darwin came from the upper middle class. He'd inherited a chunk of the Wedgewood family fortune. His father, Dr. [Robert] Darwin, had made an awful lot of money. He was extremely well connected in politics and literature. Wallace was from a completely different background and sort of knew nobody. And of course, in Victorian England, as I suppose it is today, it's who you know. And Wallace obviously liked Darwin. Darwin was an extremely likable man. He wasn't a snob. He was a very nice fellow.

Charles reading letter with Emma

"It's kind of like a spear thrown that goes thunk! into Darwin's heart," Goldsmith says of the letter. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation/National Geographic Television

 

When Darwin reads the letter, he becomes physically ill.

Yes.

I assume that detail wasn't documented in the historical record.

(laughs) Yes. Well, we don't know whether he threw up, but he had that tendency. Any kind of strain would make him physically ill. He suffered terribly from this very mysterious illness.

And this letter certainly would have been upsetting. You mentioned that about half of Darwin's "big book" was already written by the time he received it.

Yes. Then, because of the necessity to get something out, he abandoned the big book and started again. On the Origin of Species is a much shorter book. It was intended to be a sketch. It grew into 300 or 400 pages. But the big book was going to be 1,000 pages, I would think.

So, in a way, Wallace did Darwin and the world a favor, because what we got is such a readable book.

It's incredible. It's amazing. He was a naturally excellent writer. He had a very accessible, easy style. He never talks down. He never oversimplifies. But his mind is so clear and his perceptions are so straightforward that any lay reader like me can understand.

LOVING PARENTS

Early in the film you introduce Darwin's children, scampering around the house. What do we know about Darwin as a father?

He was a lovely father. They were a very unusual family. They lived in a way that very few upper-class Victorian families lived. They had a very loving, informal, very modern attitude to children and to child rearing. Absolutely a million miles away from what we think of as a Victorian upper-class way of thinking, where you had a formal handshake with your parents at six o'clock before going to bed, and that's about all you saw of them. In the Darwin house, they believed in playing with their children and talking to them and being with them.

It's endearing.

It is.

Charles with Annie Darwin

In flashbacks, Darwin remembers his cherished first daughter Annie (Emily Power), who was struck down by scarlet fever. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation/National Geographic Television

 

Why is the memory of Annie, Darwin's daughter who died when she was 10 years old, so significant in the film?

It was the great emotional moment of Darwin's life. What remnants he had of Christian faith, I think, were absolutely killed stone dead by that. It touched him enormously. He adored her, absolutely adored her. They had a very special relationship. And he had to watch her die. I mean, it was absolutely appalling.

A lot of the dialogue in the movie is verbatim from letters and diaries.

The film pivots on Darwin's relationship with Emma. How did you get a sense of their relationship? Was there correspondence?

Obviously, they lived together 50 years, so they didn't often write to each other. But he occasionally went away to take the water cure and so on, and they would write to each other. Also, Emma kept diaries. My great friend Edna Healey, who wrote the life of Emma (Emma Darwin: The Inspirational Wife of a Genius), used the diaries and the letters extensively. You get a very good picture of Emma from that. She was, how can I put it? She was quite lazy. She didn't get up very early in the morning. She liked to lie in bed.

What neither of them were—which was remarkable for those days—neither of them was a snob. England was very, very class-conscious. And Darwin and Emma simply weren't that way, Emma particularly. She wasn't interested in fine clothes. She was sort of casual, a very loving, wonderful mother.

Emma Darwin played by Frances O'Connor

Emma retained a faith that Charles likely lost after the death of two of his children. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation/National Geographic Television

 

We're very lucky. She wrote children's stories, and we found one that she'd written, which we used bits of in the movie. And they're enchanting, they're absolutely lovely, and they give you the person.

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN THEM

What about Emma's religious views?

She was a convinced Christian. She was a Unitarian, which means she wasn't a kind of raving evangelical. To quote Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, "Unitarianism is a featherbed for fallen Christians." I love that. So she wasn't a fundamentalist, but she did believe in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. She believed in the afterlife and so on. And it was a sorrow to her that her husband didn't. She writes somewhere that she believes their love will go on forever, and she would love it if he believed the same. He couldn't, really.

Charles and Emma walking

In their 50-year marriage, Emma was Charles's closest confidant. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation/National Geographic Television

 

You have a line—it's one of my favorite lines in the film—where Emma refers to "Notebook D," a famous notebook in which Darwin writes about evolution, as "Notebook D, for the devil." Did you conjure that yourself?

I'm afraid I did, yes. A lot of the dialogue in the movie is verbatim from letters and diaries and so on, but I have allowed myself creative leeway occasionally, and that's one of my little things, yes. I hope I'll be forgiven by the Darwin community. I don't suppose I will be.

Another great line, I believe, is a direct quote: When Darwin is writing to his friend Joseph Hooker about his ideas, he uses the phrase "it is like confessing a murder."

Yes. It's so hard for us to imagine ourselves back in that time when it was like murdering something. He realized the intellectual consequences and theological consequences and philosophical consequences of what he was thinking.

Do you think that, ultimately, Emma was able to reconcile her religious views with Darwin's view of evolution?

This is an area I didn't go deeply into. But the Anglican Church and, indeed, the Roman Catholic Church, quickly came to terms with evolution. After the initial outrage and shock, horror, people realized that this actually didn't chop the legs off conventional religion at all. And I suspect that Emma came to realize that her faith could survive evolution, as the faith of millions and millions and millions of Christians has.

Was it challenging to tell this story without having the screen time to develop characters like Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell more?

Not really, because it's a domestic drama, and that's what we wanted to do. If we'd had millions, we could have done it a completely different way, but we didn't. And, in a way, I'm rather glad we didn't, because I think, as a domestic drama on a small scale, it's much better for television. Also, it focuses the mind wonderfully.

It's really about these few terrible weeks in Darwin's life. And it's really about Darwin coming clean to Emma, if you like, and then having to have that final conversation, a conversation about God, which they'd avoided throughout their marriage. They'd never really talked about it. They'd agreed to just leave that to one side. Most marriages survive on those strategies. But in these circumstances, they simply have to have the conversation, and they do, and it's the emotional climax of the movie.

Emma then has my favorite line, when Darwin's feeding flies to a sundew flower, and he asks her about publishing, and she says—and this is a verbatim quote from Emma—"I suppose you're going to prove it's an animal." It's her way of saying, "Yeah, go ahead and publish." She had a wit, Emma did.

Well, we're very glad that those few terrible weeks took place, aren't we?

We are. Changed the world.

John Goldsmith

John Goldsmith, former head of the British Writer's Guild, has scripted many historical dramas, including "Victoria and Albert," "David Copperfield," and "Kidnapped!" Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy John Goldsmith

 

Interview conducted on August 13, 2009 and edited by Susan K. Lewis, senior editor of NOVA Online

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