Books and Arts

Nature 438, 25-26 (3 November 2005) | doi:10.1038/438025a; Published online 2 November 2005

Scientists on screen

Adam Rutherford1

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Does Hollywood think we're all dangerous megalomaniacs with crazy hair?

BOOK REVIEWEDMad, Bad and Dangerous: The Scientist and the Cinema

by Christopher Frayling

Reaktion Books: 2005. 239 pp. £19.95, $35

Joey: It's like reading a script. Like, "This is a Tyrannosaurus rex, a creature from the Jurassic period."

Ross: Actually, Joey, it's the Cretaceous period.

Joey: Yeah, but, I can pronounce Jurassic.

Watching Friends, the pre-eminent US sitcom of the 1990s, I once found myself in the embarrassingly geeky position of correcting Joey's gaffe half a second before Ross did. Fortunately, I have few friends myself and this smart-arse moment passed almost unnoticed. Ross is an urban New Yorker, a loving father with a tight network of close friends. He is attractive and socially well adjusted (if a bit wet). He is also a lab-based palaeontologist, a postdoc working in a prominent metropolitan museum.

Ross spends little time writing grants and a lot of time hanging around coffee shops. In this regard, his is a hugely inaccurate portrayal of a working scientist. But at least he doesn't display any of the stereotyped traits associated with scientists in the movies, outlined in the title of Christopher Frayling's new book, Mad, Bad and Dangerous.

Frayling has reviewed in detail the changing role and perception of scientists in more than a hundred years of cinema. His analysis is partly chronological but desperately uneven. Frayling, a cultural commentator with a clear love of cinema, frequently comes across as a fanboy, albeit a rather academic one.

He covers films from the first half of the twentieth century rigorously, detailing lost or forgotten reels with the precision and loving hand of a devoted film historian. But his coverage of the modern era is more sporadic. The rather desultory selection of films he analyses in detail include some that might not figure in a cinéaste's list of classics at all. A detailed deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick's cold-war masterpiece Dr Strangelove is welcome after tracts on many films from the silent era. But to my mind, The Man with Two Brains falls into the category of films, like Blazing Saddles, that are remembered as being funnier than they actually are. It's a clumsy comedy, slapstick funny at best, and doesn't strictly feature a scientist (Steve Martin's Dr Hfuhruhurr is a brain surgeon), let alone a particularly stereotyped version of one. Its presence in this book seems unwarranted.

Devoting more than a page to mercifully forgotten Australian funny man Yahoo Serious and his frankly dreadful film Young Einstein, while only mentioning in passing the original 1972 version of Solaris (Steven Soderbergh's remake doesn't get a look in), is at best an idiosyncratic decision. And where is The Day After Tomorrow (2004), the mega-budget eco-disaster film that, thanks to some canny marketing, received much coverage in the scientific press, this journal included?

It doesn't bother me that Penelope Ann Miller wears a cocktail dress to do battle with the mutant beast, half reptile, half insect, half human (it's that bad), in updated B-movie The Relic, as Frayling points out in one of the few sections detailing the portrayal of female scientists. She was, after all, at a swanky party when the beast got hungry. I was much more impressed when seeing this as a genetics undergraduate with the (fairly) accurate use of the enzyme reverse transcriptase to explain away the genesis of this wicked chimaera. Maybe Joan Allen's sensitive and passionate stem-cell biologist from Sally Potter's film Yes was too recent to be included.

Frayling has certainly done his homework, and Mad, Bad and Dangerous is bulging with factoids. Did you know that scientists feature as heroes in only 11% of horror films, but that mad scientists have caused bad things to happen in an eye-popping 31%? I found myself scratching my (egg)head at these data, but mostly in bewilderment at their relevance. Sometimes it's not clear whether he's talking about scientists, doctors, psychiatrists or explorers, and frequent references to television programmes obscure the line between the small and big screens.

Several studies exploring the stereotyped image of a scientist come under Frayling's gaze. These are interesting enough, if not wholly surprising. The influence of Hollywood imagery cannot be underestimated. When mentioning Frankenstein, we tend to think of Boris Karloff's flat-headed creature with a bolt in its neck, although this depiction belongs entirely to Universal Pictures and not Mary Shelley. But it seems that Einstein's late career decision not to comb his hair much was just as significant in creating a stereotype that scientists are invariably detached, bespectacled, crazy-haired social misfits.

Frayling's implicit conclusion is that scientists have been portrayed inaccurately throughout the history of cinema, although their dual role as unlikely hero and evil baddy has shifted a little over time. Peter Sellers' Dr Strangelove is described as the archetype, certainly without morals, but where's the crazy hair? Do we as cinema-goers (or indeed as scientists) turn to Hollywood for accurate portrayals of scientists? Of course not. Nor should we, any more than we expect accurate portrayals of politicians, pirates, spies, drunks or even penguins in the movies (and that includes the 2005 surprise hit documentary March of the Penguins). Perhaps we should praise Friends for portraying a scientist as someone who is just a little bit normal.

  1. Adam Rutherford is an editor at Nature Publishing Group.