Darwin’s Screens opens with a quote from the man himself: “I was in those days a very great storyteller” (unpaginated). In the following 232 pages, Barbara Creed explores the influence of Charles Darwin’s work upon a selection of cinematic “stories”. Creed is Professor of Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne, and one of Australia’s best-known commentators on film and media. Her work has drawn heavily on the fields of psychoanalysis, feminism and postructuralism. Creed’s topics of analysis have included film noir, horror cinema, and representations of sex in visual culture (1). These topics are all raised in her new book. Sigmund Freud rates a mention, but Creed otherwise has her sights on another notable Victorian man.
Early on, Creed justifies her choice of theorist:
Charles Darwin is one of the most original and influential thinkers of all time. His theories of evolution, descent and sexual selection have completely transformed the way in which we think about the major issues of life: our origins, the relationship between human and animal, race and sexuality, survival and the future of the planet. (p. xii)
Much has been written about Darwin’s influence on literature (2), but very little about his influence on the cinema. Creed aims to rectify this situation. She primarily explores the influence of Darwinian ideas on “early cinema” (defined broadly here as films released prior to the 1940s), though she does refer to more recent films.
Creed begins by examining how a “sustained exploration of Darwinian ideas first appeared in early cinema through the cinematic adaptation of popular Gothic novels” (p. 1). These include Rouben Mamoulian’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931). In this film, the apelike appearance of the good doctor’s alter ego invokes Darwin’s theory of the relationship – or, perhaps more accurately, the continuum – between humans and animals. As Creed puts it: “[Darwin’s] aim was to reveal parallels between human and animal in the expression of feelings in order to show that not just the body but the mind also is a product of evolution” (p. 8). To achieve this aim, he made “reference to photographs and drawings that demonstrated similar emotional expressions on human and animal faces” (p. 8).
In later chapters, Creed traces the influence of Darwinian thought on musicals, noir and science fiction movies, as well as on a series of films depicting “primitive peoples, exotic landscapes, and strange, surreal creatures who had been caught in an evolutionary time warp” (p. 163). These films include the three versions of King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933; John Guillermin, 1976; Peter Jackson, 2005). The book concludes with an analysis of the black comedy Max Mon Amour (Nagisa Oshima, 1986), which (according to Creed) “explores bestiality in a direct, deadpan manner” (p. 195). Darwin never mentioned bestiality, though his “ideas collapsed the traditional boundaries between the human and animal worlds” (p. 183). This collapsing of boundaries raises a provocative (and controversial) question: How unnatural are erotic relations between humans and animals?
Throughout Darwin’s Screens, Creed combines a comprehensive knowledge of Darwinian theory with some excellent close readings of her chosen filmic texts. The strongest chapter is the one devoted to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Mamoulian’s film features a distinctly “Darwinian transformation scene” that, Creed argues, was to become “an iconic feature of horror films that seek to explore the boundary between human and animal” (p. 29) (3). Creed also cites film theorist Mary Anne Doane’s observation that “the cinema, invented at the end of the nineteenth century, displayed its power to capture time just when writers and philosophers had begun to explore ‘modernity’s reconceptualisation of time and its representability’” (p. 29) (4). Creed elaborates on Doane’s argument:
This rethinking of time was clearly influenced by evolutionary thinking. Darwin’s theory of evolution pointed to a relationship between vast expanses of time and the transformation of species […] The power of the cinema to “tell” the story of evolution through special effects makes it the Darwinian art form par excellence. (p. 29, emphasis in original)
Furthermore, Creed uses the Jekyll/Hyde transformation to rethink “the uncanny”. This concept has its genesis in Freudian psychoanalysis, and Creed admits that Darwin “did not refer directly” to the uncanny in his own work (p. 4). Nevertheless, Creed asks rhetorically: “What could be more uncanny than a theory of human evolution … that caused the human subject to be forever tied to his secret double – the common ancestor that brought him into kinship with the ape”? (p. 4). Mamoulian’s film mobilises the sense of the “Darwinian uncanny” that was present in Stevenson’s original text (p. 3).
I was thoroughly engrossed by the chapter on science fiction cinema. This may seem a strange genre to address in a book about Darwin, given that his theories of evolution are largely “about the past” (p. 39). Yet Creed persuasively argues:
When Darwin’s theory of evolution removed god from the universe, all things became possible: an unknowable future, extinction of humanity, the scientific creation of new life forms, evolutionary super-beings, alien others, the end of the earth. Those things that became possible constitute the major themes of science fiction as a genre. (p. 42)
Creed unpacks the celluloid adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960; Simon Wells, 2002) in which a Victorian gentleman discovers a range of creatures “with simian features” and “white hair that covers most of their body” inhabiting the future (p. 56). This scenario inverts a common (and simplistic) reading of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which maintains that humankind has “descended directly from the apes” (p. 20). Creed also analyses Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997), which “depicts a not-too-distant future society in which an individual’s destiny is determined by his or her genetic make up” (p. 65).
Creed shows a great deal of enthusiasm for the films she discusses, and this is a plus. The most satisfying film theory is that which suggests the viewer’s affective responses to the cinema. Yet Creed makes a number of value-laden statements that are unsuitable for a work of scholarly analysis. The Aliens series is described as “remarkable”, while Busby Berkeley musicals are lauded as “popular entertainment at its best” (p. 74). The prehistoric creatures that populate Peter Jackson’s King Kong are “jaw snapping” (p. 190). (I ask: “Jaw snapping” for whom? Jackson’s characters certainly gasped at the sight of these beasts. I suspect viewers who are familiar with the many ghoulish monsters that have haunted cinematic history may respond in a less horrified manner).
In her chapter on Busby Berkeley films, Creed makes the delightfully provocative argument that “the Hollywood musical is essentially a mating ritual in which the sexes meet and impress each other with their spectacular song and dance routines as a prelude to mating” (p. 75). She acknowledges that a number of Berkeley films were set amidst a backdrop of “poverty, loss and despair” (p. 90), and that Berkeley chose to “choreograph his erotic musical numbers in terms of the new assembly line” (p. 84). Yet, regardless of these remarks, Creed does not attempt to synthesise Darwinian theory with class analysis in the way that (when discussing the “Darwinian uncanny”) she synthesises Darwin’s work with psychoanalysis. Class, in this chapter, becomes the proverbial “elephant in the room”.
Finally, and perhaps appropriately given the stage in the review that I have reached, Darwin’s Screens does not feature a proper conclusion. That said, despite its shortcomings, Creed’s book is intelligent, well-argued and immensely readable. This text certainly demonstrates that Darwinian ideas have had a stronger influence on the cinema than some of us have suspected.
Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema, by Barbara Creed, MUP Academic Monographs, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2009.
- For a useful overview of Creed’s work, see Pandora’s Box: Essays in Film Theory, Australian Centre for the Moving Image with the Cinema Studies Program, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2004.
- Creed extensively references Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983.
- Creed cites The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941), The Fly (Kurt Neumann, 1958; David Cronenberg, 1986) and The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982). There are many other films featuring this kind of transformation scene.
- See Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2002, p. 4.