Mary Anning collects fossils on the beach.

Anning is played by three different actresses in Mary and the Dinosaur Hunters to depict various stages of her life © Mermade Films. Photography by Andrew Blackmore.

A series of Mary Anning films are about to hit the cinemas

Mary Anning is finally receiving recognition for her contributions to palaeontology, including the basis for modern theories of evolutions which influenced Darwin's writing.

Kate Winslet is Mary Anning in Ammonite

Kate Winslet stars in the film Ammonite as Mary Anning, an accomplished but unrecognised fossil hunter. Set in 1840 in Lyme Regis, the English seaside town where Anning lived and found many of her famous fossils, the film focuses on the Anning's struggles in life despite her legendary discoveries.

As a woman of many scientific finds, Anning arguably should have spent her later years comfortable. Instead, she worked alone along the rugged coastlines of south England, searching for common fossils to sell to tourists to support her ailing mother.

Director Francis Lee injects a controversial twist to what is already a strong narrative of a working-class woman striving to achieve in a male-dominated world. A wealthy visitor asks Anning to take care of his wife (played by Saoirse Ronan) - a request Anning cannot afford to turn down. The class and personality clash between the two women eventually brings them closer romantically.

Produced by the BFI, BBC and See-Saw Films, the romantic-drama feature film is set to be released in cinemas in 2020.  

Why is Mary Anning important?

Mary Anning is a notable person in the history of palaeontology for many reasons.

Born into a working-class family in 1799, she was introduced to fossils as a child. She would hunt and sell fossils in her home town beach in Dorset with her father, a cabinet maker.

Anning's father died when she was 11, so she started selling fossils to support her family. She and her brother Joseph first discovered an ichthyosaur, and later, Anning found the first complete plesiosaur skeleton as well as the first pterosaur outside Germany.

During this period, women were not allowed to be members of scientific societies. She would send her finds to leading scientists, who would write about them but would not credit her. As a result, she was still in financial restraint until her death at age 47.

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At the age of 12, Anning discovered the Ichthyosaurus communis. After her brother found the head, Mary searched the area and carefully dug out the 5.2 metre long skeleton over several months. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 2019. All rights reserved.
 

Another new two-part feature about Mary Anning

Also taking place at the picturesque beaches of Lyme Regis is a two-part independent film about Anning, written and directed by Sharon Sheehan.

Mary Anning and the Dinosaur Hunters explores Anning's life and work, highlighting the struggles of a brilliant scientific woman in a patriarchal Georgian (and later Victorian) society.

As an avid fossil collector, Sheehan had been engrossed by Anning's story for almost two decades, feeling a sense of injustice on behalf of her heroine. Sheehan wanted to leave a legacy behind by producing a feature film rooted in factual evidence and sharing it with the world. 

'This is a passion project of mine,' says Sheehan. 'I discovered Mary Anning slowly over the course of many years and she filled me with a sense of fascination.

'I wanted to bring genuine understanding to her story. She was an intelligent woman who made many important discoveries - even Darwin's On the Origin of Species was highly influenced by her discoveries. Yet she was not given recognition because of her circumstances - she was a woman, poverty-stricken and a from a religious minority background. Although the story took place almost 200 years ago, these issues still remain prevalent.'

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Anning was known to be meticulous in her sketches and notes © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 2019. All rights reserved.
 

Part one of the biopic depicts Anning as a child and adolescent. Played by Sheehan's daughter, Katharine Hamilton, it leads up to Anning's spectacular discovery of the complete ichthyosaurus.

'I see a lot of Mary in Katharine,' says Sheehan. 'They're both bright, avid fossil hunters and I think they look similar.

'Katharine studied A-level geology and has a real attraction to palaeontology, rocks and history. She also has an acting background and the two complement one another, making her a great candidate to act as Mary.'

Part two focuses on the adult Anning, played by Sheehan herself, trying to navigate the male-dominated world of science, fighting plagiarism and discovering a Plesiosaurus and a pterosaur.

Sheehan says, 'I felt like Mary had manifested herself in me through my years of research. I understood what she had experienced and coming from a mixed background of acting, directing and fossil hunting, I felt like I could genuinely capture her character and epic story on screen.

'It was extremely important to me to be true to every aspect of Mary's story,' continues Sheehan. 'I researched her thoroughly by taking many trips to various museums, talking to numerous palaeontologists, reading scientific papers, researching the time period and learning about the traditions and the political climate.'

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Sheehan frequented the Museum on many occasions and found it to be a huge inspiration for the film

© Mermade Films. Photography by Andrew Blackmore.
 

Like Ammonite, romantic elements are present in the film, and hints of a possible amorous relationship with a male colleague are shown as the story develops.

Both films credit Anning for her remarkable discoveries and contributions to palaeontology, immortalising a well-deserved legacy of a pioneering woman scientist.

'The film has received a phenomenal response globally,' says Sheehan. 'I've had people get in touch thanking me for sharing Mary Anning's story and saying they can't wait to see it. It has also drawn the attraction of the BBC and ITV, both of which have covered the film.'

Mary Anning and the Dinosaur Hunters is set to be released this autumn. Sheehan hopes to take it further by producing a series of short documentaries for primary schools, and an exhibition displaying the film in museums. 

Read more

  • Did you know that Mary Anning is often credited as the inspiration to the well-known children's rhyme 'she sells seashells'?
  • What other woman scientist should we know about?