Unspeakably Wonderful – The Untold Story of Insulin
The Unspeakably Wonderful feature film in development looks at how it was possible that two men who despised each other, Fred Banting and John Macleod, were able to make the medical breakthrough of insulin. Woven with the story of Elizabeth Hughes, one of the first people to receive insulin and survive a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis in 1922, the film explores the human lives at stake should these unlikely heroes not succeed.
“Unspeakably wonderful,” is how Hughes described insulin after it saved her life, and it’s no wonder. It’s saved millions ever since.
This new feature film is in development with the UK production company, Angry Man Pictures and in association with Canadian production company New Real Films.
Beyond Type 1 talked to director/co-producer Alex Tweedle and co-writers Matthew Lockyer and Neil Fleming to find out more on this wonderful project.
“Our objective is to make Unspeakably Wonderful as an inspiring, exciting, nail-biting period piece of unusually high dramatic and cinematic quality, and as a sound commercial proposition tailored for the international market that will generate income for years to come and serve as a springboard for other similar pictures,” says director/co-producer Alex Tweedle. “In the end we want to make a film that matters.”
What brought you to the subject matter of Banting?
Matthew Lockyer (co-writer): I loved history and science at school, and read the lives of the medical pioneers avidly. In television drama-documentaries the canon of Ignatius Semmelwiez, Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner, Joseph Lister and Alexander Fleming cropped up time and again, but the only mention of the discovery of insulin I came across was the grainy black and white photo of Banting and Best with Marjorie. When, as a medical student, I read that Banting and Macleod refused to appear together to accept the Nobel prize, and never spoke again, it reawakened another question that had always troubled me: who was taking the famous photograph? These two things eventually drove me to research and co-write the script.
Neil Fleming (co-writer): I am a playwright, screenwriter and poet by profession with a lifelong interest in science, and particularly medical science. Most of my writing seems to be about the exercise of power in human relationships, and when Mathew approached me and asked if I would help him write the Banting-Macleod story – an extraordinary story about conflict and cooperation – it seemed a natural and fascinating fit. Alexander Fleming is no relation, incidentally; although Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, is.
Alex Tweddle (director/co-producer): I am always drawn to films that not only entertain but also inform and give us a different perspective on life, society and even ourselves. This is why I became fascinated with the script Unspeakably Wonderful.
Do you have a Type 1 diabetes connection?
Alex Tweddle (director/producer): My cousin and good friend has been living with Type 1 diabetes for many years, last year he celebrated his 70th birthday. I also have several lifelong friends with the condition.
Matthew Lockyer (co-writer): My first degree was in biochemistry, and I was especially interested in carbohydrate metabolism, especially diabetes. My subsequent medical training saw me tread the RD Lawrence ward at Kings College Hospital, where I studied under Peter Watkins, one of the great diabetologists. All my subsequent medical jobs were connected to the condition, and for 25 years I not only cared for my own general practice patients, but also worked in the local hospital diabetes service, pioneering one of the first clinics to directly link primary and secondary care for the condition.
I have been the diabetes correspondent for several journals, and currently The Practitioner.
What message do you hope to convey to audiences with this project?
Alex Tweddle (director/producer): We think a really good film provokes a lot of discussion in the car on the way home or over the dinner table, and stimulates people to read about issues.
We would hope that people would realise that scientists are human, and that emotions, good and bad, influence the science they perform. The role of inspiration and luck as a complement to method and logic is another theme; likewise war and illness – random thieves of young lives. Many people will not realise how comparatively recently insulin was isolated, and that diabetes was a death sentence before this. The research involved vivisection of a distressing nature, and this will always be something that arouses strong feelings and discussion.
There is clear commercial potential in the Unspeakably Wonderful project, in particular in the run-up to the 2021 hundredth anniversary of insulin’s discovery. But beyond that, the objective is to make Unspeakably Wonderful a film of world-class quality, unusually imaginative and superior in its genre – a film that the public will appreciate and talk about because they find it moving, gripping and above all inspiring.
Neil Fleming (co-writer): Your readers will probably know that insulin was discovered in Canada. What they may not know is that diabetes killed more Canadians during the First World War than the war itself. The film is a message of hope, in part – the story of how two men who hated each other, nevertheless, found a way to make one of the most important medical discoveries in history. That they did so is a testament to determination – however imperfect their science, however flawed their personalities, Banting, Macleod, Best and Collip succeeded where many before them had failed because they didn’t give up.
How do you think the type of relationship Banting and Macleod had informed the project? For two men who didn’t they get along, how was it possible that they accomplished this?
This is the heart of our drama. It is by no means clear why Macleod allowed Banting into the University of Toronto, and the two men were poles apart in temperament and approach. Our screenplay is an imagining of how this might have happened, based on our research.
Neil Fleming (co-writer): Banting and Macleod make a fascinating couple, and their relationship is a sort of “inverse love story” based on the diametric opposition of their characters. Banting was an enthusiast – a landscape painter, a war veteran, a surgeon with no chemistry research experience who developed an extraordinary conviction that he could solve the insulin puzzle. He was driven by impulsive ideas, impatient, innovative and moody. Macleod was the archetypical academic scientist: cautious, methodical, adaptive; yet with a deep interest in and care for his patients. It is the mixture of these two personalities that fuels the explosive drama of their work together – and their eventual success.
What is most extraordinary about Banting’s story?
Our imagining of Banting is of a man damaged both mentally and physically by the Great War. He hasn’t made a success of anything since his military service. His career and his relationship are in free fall when he is granted his revelation. He knows he is right, and that this will be his one shot at redeeming himself.
Fred is damaged goods, who has never felt acknowledged, and a half-competent surgeon who is still afraid he will be found out as just a farm boy from the sticks. As a result he over-compensates with aggression and an inflated ego. He can be cranky, downright bad-tempered or even physically threatening. He drinks too much in order to escape. At the same time, he’s a man who feels deeply, thinks hard and is capable of flashes of true charm. His enthusiasm is real. He is brave, and dogged to the point of irritation. He’d rescue a kitten, but would be lost if he ever had children. His scientist shell is secretly home to an artist: he is both a gifted painter and a passionate romantic.
Is the film aimed at a family audience (PG)?
The subject matter of the film is not suitable for young children; there is a certain Gothic aspect to old medical procedures, and the vivisection scenes would be too distressing. The story is a complex one, and would not be easy for children to follow. We do not anticipate it would be rated PG.
Which part of the story do you think will shock/surprise the audience more – obtaining insulin from dogs, the extreme behaviour of Banting, the death of Jack Stebbings from a small tin of peaches or the triumph in such an unlikely situation?
Hopefully, all of the above, along with the fact that such a dramatic story has not been widely told before. The vivisection research certainly poses deep ethical and moral questions. Would it, for example, even be possible for Banting and Macleod to have discovered insulin today? At what cost are we, as a species, prepared to make scientific progress? Then, too, we want to bring home to the widest possible audience the realities of diabetes: for example the fact that prior to Banting’s discovery the only treatment for the condition was a starvation diet – one that eventually killed its patients as surely, and perhaps even more cruelly, than diabetes itself. Audiences may also be surprised by a story which, we hope, shows how “science really gets done” – not the inevitable progress towards triumph that 100% hindsight typically writes into the history books, but very often a rather anarchic series of failures, lit up and ultimately saved by flashes of inspiration, breakthrough or sheer good luck.
Will there be any statistics shown or information given at the end of the film with regards to Diabetes – # of people living with Type 1, Warning signs of Type 1 etc…
This is something we would like to consider, statistical information can distract from the dramatic narrative, so we would need to consider a visual way that we can show this information. Obviously, such things also depend on our ability to secure the resources for the film to be made at all, and the subsequent discussions with our creative team.
In September 2017 Alex Tweddle visited Toronto University and visited the actual university locations where Macleod, Banting, Best and Collip worked. We are in discussion with the university and hope to film at some of the original locations.