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Science in feature films

Sara Cropley asks: But what about the facts?

‘I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being!’ This line from the David Lynch classic, The Elephant Man, never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

Sara Cropley asks: But what about the facts?

‘I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being!’ This line from the David Lynch classic, The Elephant Man, never fails to bring a tear to my eye.It’s clear that biomedicine can serve as an excellent inspiration for feature films. The Wellcome Trust has recognised the power of film for public engagement and has launched a new screenwriting prize with both the British Film Institute and Film4 as judges. But how accurate should writers be in the portrayal of science?

Dr Jenny Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London, and a novelist. She says she has a controversial opinion about handling the science in her fiction writing. ‘I think that fiction is fiction, so if you’re writing fiction about science, I think you should be able to make it up,’ she says. ‘So for example, there might be a gene that I’ve invented or a disease, and this is very useful because it’s sometimes good to have something that’s different and original. However, the genes that I make up in my novels all conform to the laws of biology.’

Jenny uses the laws of nature to guide her fiction writing, but this certainly doesn’t hold for many feature films. As far as her favourite films go, she confesses to having ‘a serious answer and an embarrassing answer’. Her serious choice is Outbreak, the story of an eruption of a fictional virus in Zaire and the United States. ‘I think Outbreak is a great story about an epidemiologist who saves the world,’ she says. ‘It has great science and is a sympathetic depiction of scientists.’

And the embarrassing answer? The post-apocalyptic thriller, I am Legend. ‘Obviously it has zombie vampire things in it,’ she says, ‘but the scientist character that Will Smith plays is fabulous. He’s got his secret lab, he’s doing animal trials on the zombie rats, he takes it to the Phase I clinical trial on the human zombies, he’s keeping his lab journal and he’s systematically going through this grind of discovering a vaccine, which is a very long and hopeless grind in real life. It’s very nicely depicted in this film even though it was a complete fantasy.’ Jenny is excited at the depiction of the process of science and I can see why. It’s rare to get that in a documentary these days, let alone a drama.

But would someone from the world of feature films really let the science get in the way of a good story? Eva Yates, from Film4, thinks science can validate fiction. ‘I think it makes things feel authentic, it makes them feel real,’ she says. ‘It means that the audience is watching purely the story rather than questioning the credibility of the world.’ I find this an interesting and compelling argument. Many times I’ve found myself shouting at the screen, ‘That couldn’t happen!’

Eva continues: ‘The flip side is that some of the most interesting stories come out of stuff that feels stranger than fiction and science can do that in ways that not many other disciplines can.’

So perhaps it’s not so much accuracy but authenticity that’s important. What I love about drama is that it can provoke questions about the ethics and direction of science. It allows us to ask questions before we get there, or reflect on how we’ve used science thus far. That’s why for me, the world of science is a treasure chest of ideas, just waiting to be plundered by talented feature
film writers.

The winner of the Wellcome Trust Screenwriting Prize will be announced at an awards ceremony on 8 October 2012.

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Sara Cropley
Sara Cropley is a freelance Producer/Director and is the Producer for the new Wellcome Trust Screenwriting Prize
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