How Filmmakers Distill Science for the Big Screen
One day, Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree, minding his own business, when an apple fell on his head. Eureka! Just like that, he understood gravity.
Okay, that’s not quite how it happened. But in the annals of scientific history, it's these kinds apple-on-the-head moments that worm their way into our collective memory: neat, satisfying discoveries in which paradigms are shifted and new paths paved. In reality, science is an altogether more complex, messy, and just generally less sexy beast. It can take decades of lonesome, repetitive work—pipetting liquids, plating bacteria, calculating trajectories, sketching insects—to get even a taste of discovery.
Therein lies the challenge of capturing the authentic process of science on the big screen. Yet that was the aim of a new docudrama movie Amazon Adventure. This film, which premiered April 18th at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., delves into the work of famed 18th-century naturalist and entomologist Henry Walter Bates to tell the tale behind the key discovery of animal mimicry. Along with Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, Bates helped developed ideas that contributed to the emerging theory of evolution.
Born as the son of a Leicester hosiery maker, Bates was destined for life in the industry. But the natural world never stopped calling him. In 1848, with the support of a London agent who bought and sold exotic specimen, Bates headed to the Amazon to study how—and if—species change over time.
Despite bouts of malaria and yellow fever, he toiled in the rainforest for 11 years, documenting over 14,500 species, 8,000 of them new to science. Eventually, he did have his own apple-on-head discovery. It came in the form of butterfly wings. He eventually figured out that species of butterfly that were perfectly harmless would—over generations—develop the same coloring as its noxious longwing (Heliconius) cousins, a process now known as batesian mimicry. By playing the copycat, these mimics successfully kept wary predators off their backs.
“It may be said, therefore, that on these expanded membranes Nature writes, as on a tablet, the story of the modifications of species,” Bates wrote in a book about his adventures, Naturalist on the River Amazon.
It’s a nice story. But the reality is that it took years for Bates to arrive at this "aha" moment, and the producers of Amazon Adventure wanted to encompass that journey in its entirety. We talked to Sean B. Carroll, an evolutionary biologist and executive producer of the film, about how he shaped a compelling visual narrative for viewers while sticking close to the scientific facts. Let’s just say it took some real, well, adaptation.