It’s Alive?: Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein

Mary Shelleyvictor frankenstein

In honor of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s 200th birthday, and because I read the book for the first time this summer, I decided to watch two recent films made/inspired by the groundbreaking science fiction novel.

The first is this year’s Mary Shelley, which tells the story of Shelley’s life up to the publication of Frankenstein. The movie mainly focuses on her marriage to Percy Shelley and tries to connect parts of Mary’s life to her novel in order to show where she got her inspiration. One place this inspiration comes from is Mary Shelley’s mother, trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Referring to Wollstonecraft is great, as she did play a large role in Mary’s life, even though she died soon after Mary was born. The problem is, the film tries to give Wollstonecraft’s personality and characteristics to Shelley. They had similarities, yes, but were also very different people, which is part of what makes their relationship so interesting. The film does this so often that it makes me think they really just should have made a movie about Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley should be known, of course, and had an interesting life, but that interesting life was spent, for a large part, writing and grieving. There is only so much you can do to depict those in a visual medium, and this movie just isn’t up to the task. But, Mary Wollstonecraft was a much more vibrant character, and her story would lend itself better to this visual medium and it seems like the filmmakers felt the same way.

Frustratingly, this lackluster film does have scenes of brilliance that reveal and comment on Mary Shelley and the world around her. For example, there is a scene where Percy comes home and Mary tells him a friend of theirs made an advance on her. She refused him, but she clearly wants Percy to go avenge her and be grateful to her for her faithfulness to him. But instead, he’s upset. He wishes she had said yes to the man, so it would excuse his own affair. This scene is pointing out how the open-marriage, free-love ideologies of Percy and Byron always hurt and disempowered the women involved.

The potential of these moments makes me wish for what this movie could have been, a bold take on a brilliant author, instead of a Pride and Prejudice (2005) wannabe. These are the scenes that embrace the contradictions of Mary’s life, but they do not make up the whole film. Instead, the film is made up of melodramatic scenes that feel uninteresting and hollowing. Most baffling of all, in a film that wants to be about Mary and Percy Shelley’s unconventional romance, it not only tries to have an overly-construed happy conclusion, but the film ends right before some of the greatest drama of their relationship. Since the film seems more interested in the romance than Frankenstein anyway, why limit the timeline of the film? These creative choices make no sense and cripple the film even further.

So despite a few good scenes and great performances by Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, Mary Shelley is competent but numbingly bland. But, while I would prefer movies to be both competently made and interesting, if I had to choose between competent and bland or disastrously entertaining, I would choose the latter. So the nicest thing I can say about our second film, Victor Frankenstein, is that it is disastrously entertaining.

The movie itself has very, very little to do with the original novel, yet lacks a clear vision for what it wants to be on its own. It’s told mainly from the perspective of Igor, a character made up in pop culture and not from the original novel. The story, I guess, is supposed to be about the lead-up to the creation of the creature (who is only present for a full five minutes at the end of the film) but the real heart of the story is Victor “creating” Igor, and Igor struggling between his respect for Victor and his fear of Victor’s madness. That storyline is much more of a creator and creation story than the one between Frankenstein and the monster as presented in this film. So why does screenwriter Max Landis keep trying to cover this, the most interesting part of the film, up?  Add in an underdeveloped female love interest (in case anyone is getting any ideas about there being romance in this bromance) and a stock religious-fanatic-villain and the second and third act of the film is bogged down beyond repair. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t play to its strengths, which is the dynamic between Victor and Igor, played by James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe respectively. These actors have come here to chew gum and scenery, and they’re all out of gum. Their scenes are a guilty delight, but there is not nearly enough to let me recommend you this film in good conscience.

So, if you are in the mood for some Frankenstein, I would instead highly recommend the book Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon, which tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s trailblazing work for feminism and her fascinating, complicated life, and that of her daughter, Mary Shelley, and the tragedies that compel her to write the first science fiction novel. The book tells their stories in alternating chapters that show how the two women’s lives mirror one another. It is more enlightening and perceptive than Mary Shelley, and just a lot more worthy of your time than Victor Frankenstein. It’s a big book, but I couldn’t put it down. And to clarify, not only could I not put it down, but I read the entire book during my trip to New Zealand. It was so good, I literally set aside time while in Middle Earth to read this book. I also recommend, of course, the original novel Frankenstein, which not only holds up after 200 years but continues to become more and more relevant as time goes on.

Bonus Frankencontent:

I listened to Frankenstein on Audible, with narration by Dan Stevens. It was a truly tremendous 8 hours. Stevens makes every voice distinct, makes even the longest of monologues feel brisk and exciting, and carries the story with bravado. I would 10/10 recommend for both someone new to the book and an alum.

Additionally, my local movie theater offered a showing through Fathom Events of Frankenstein, a play written by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternate between the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. It was originally put on by the National Theatre in London in 2011. I watched the version with Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.

It is “inspired by” Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it truly takes such liberties that I can’t say much without spoiling it. But I can say that if you like Benedict Cumberbatch, be sure to see this version with him as the creature. The play is from the Creature’s perspective, so he has the bigger role, and he does a phenomenal job interpreting the Creature as a newborn child mixed with a Shakespearean caveman. It’s weird, but he commits to it, and it somehow works.

I’m not familiar with much of Miller’s work, except that he is the inferior Sherlock, and this play does him no favors. Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s book is a conflicted, agonized, multifaceted character who here has been reduced to a mad-scientist caricature, without a hint of humanity or complexity.

Therefore the writing is the weakest part. While I can admit Dear certainly has some interesting thoughts on the themes of Shelley’s novel, they never come to fruition during the meandering second half. One of these more interesting elements is Dear’s attempt to build upon the sexual undercurrents of the novel. While it’s not a bad instinct, he handles it, in my eyes, with unnecessary gratuity.

This all creates a dazzling stage production whose script threatens to overtake the good work of everyone else involved but is pulled through with a delightful performance by Cumberbatch that is able to, in the end, be considered a successful addition to what I’m going to call the “Good Adaptations of Frankenstein” genre. Too bad Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein won’t be joining it.

-Madeleine D

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♫ HAAAA AHA AHA AHH AHHHH HAAAA AH♫ : A Star Is Born

A star is born

If you know what the title of this review is referring to, you’ve probably seen A Star is Born. Or you’ve seen the trailer, in which case, you’ve seen the film. This is going to be an in-depth review, with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this new remake, go see it, and come back.

After seeing A Star is Born, I didn’t know what to think, so I began reading as many reviews and think pieces about the film as I could, to see if anyone else was feeling how I was and could articulate it. (So, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. I don’t just watch a film, retreat into a cave, and hope to make brilliant insights. I often talk to multiple people about the film, read other reviewers, and occasionally make blood sacrifices in order to write these reviews.)

In this case, research (and college) delayed this review because I want to be careful. I think in many ways A Star is Born is this year’s La La Land. An audience favorite, excellently made, has some conflicting messages, and is about Hollywood (this A Star is Born is about the music business but the original two films were about Hollywood, and that’s still what the heart of the film is about).

However, I think A Star is Born is a more interesting film than La La Land because I think it’s a film that, more than most, presents itself without much of a lens. You see, every film has a worldview. Every piece of art does. Being a discerning viewer is just the action of deciphering what the film’s worldview is, and not letting it sink in without some interrogation. But, what makes A Star is Born so interesting is that it is able to hide that worldview in a way that makes it more of a mirror- who the viewer is informs his or her interpretation of the piece.

Yet A Star is Born still does have a lens, no matter how well-hidden. To see what the filmmakers are saying about the material, we have to look at what the text says (the text being the substance of the film) and then the attitude in which it’s presented, which will reveal the ideologies of the filmmakers. And while film-making is a team effort, for the sake of simplicity I’m going to attribute ownership to director, co-writer, and star Bradley Cooper.

The original story of A Star is Born is about many things. It’s about fame and what it does to people. It’s about addiction. And it’s about the dynamics of male insecurity and female success. This is true in all previous versions of the film (Full disclosure: I have only seen the 1954 Judy Garland and James Mason version). Even in this latest version, which adds the poptimism vs rockist debate, it still has an element of gender, as rock is often coded as masculine, and pop as feminine, as these groups are the face of those respective genres. So in this version, the “male insecurity” is replaced with “authenticity” and “woman’s rise to fame” with “pop/selling out.” All of which makes this conversation a lot more difficult.

I think if you approach the film with the idea that Ally should be able to make the music she is comfortable with, and this does not at all excuse Jackson’s toxic behavior or addiction, then the text of the film seems to be saying that Jackson’s character is, no matter how well-intentioned, in the wrong. He starts drinking after Ally’s SNL performance, but that’s on him, not her. She never once shows regret for that performance or song. With all of Jackson’s talk about authenticity, he admits to “stealing” his brother’s voice, he later threatens to steal Ally’s song by performing it unless she sings with him, and before he commits suicide, he lays down his cowboy hat, as if taking off one final mask. These all read as Jackson having his own artifice, one he can’t bring himself to admit he has. His power over his career, and Ally, even if he won’t say it, is directly in proportion to her rise to fame. So he counteracts it with assuring himself of his own authenticity, and assuring himself that she is the pop sell-out who needs his protection and guidance, thus giving power back to him. Ally never sees it as a zero-sum game, but Jackson does.

This all makes it clear he’s insecure, holding onto a by-gone time, and his attitudes about authenticity and pop are misguided at best. Even if it isn’t as clear as previous incarnations, this has the same commentary on relationships and gender as the originals. But I don’t think that’s the message people will immediately walk out of the theater with, including myself, because the film has a visual language that goes straight for your heart, and the feeling the film evokes towards Jackson are tragedy and sympathy. Cooper is obsessed with making Jackson sympathetic, from his tragic backstory to his struggle with addiction being called “a disease,” and adding modern flourishes that are supposed to assure us that this cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boy isn’t like other cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boys (such as setting up this supposed authenticity-obsessed heterosexual love story in a drag bar, which shows this film doesn’t really understand the point of drag.) So while the film does admit that yes, Jackson is jealous and insecure but sees all of this as trying to protect Ally, it is presented as a tragic love story that could have been fixed if things had just gone differently. Richard Brody nails it on the head when he writes in his review of the film for The New Yorker, “The film is made in such a way as to spare Cooper any fear of jealousy: its vision of self-expression is, above all, the expression of one self.”

To be fair, this remake does go to some lengths to equalize the relationship between Jackson and Ally, so the remakes become less of a story about gender roles and more of one between the struggle of staying true to your artistic visions and what that looks like. But this is a story that has always been about gender, and it can’t pretend it’s not. It is in sidestepping this area of the story where Cooper weakens the film.

In order to ensure this sympathy and sidestep the troubling implications of the story, Cooper makes some storytelling cheats. Ally is sidelined for the second half of the film, so we don’t get to actually hear from her, which means the only true point of view we get is Jackson’s. As he spends the film feeling Ally is being inauthentic, this is what the audience is conditioned to think, too. When we do hear from Ally, after some reluctance at the start, she is positive about her success. Her new hair color, her producer notes, was her choice. She loves her success, and so does her audience. She doesn’t see herself as inauthentic, and anytime she becomes doubtful, it’s after Jackson makes a comment about it. And most importantly, it’s important to consider that you can do both. You can make bouncy pop songs and so-called “authentic” ballads. It shouldn’t be a binary choice, yet for Ally’s character, it is presented as such (and conveniently we don’t see how Jackson is able to support his career so independently without making any of the same concessions as she does).

I applaud the film for exploring the anxiety this man has about the changes in his life. Just because he does bad things doesn’t mean he’s a villain or should be one-dimensional, or shouldn’t be looked at with compassion. Exploring why he feels jealous and anxious and can’t let go of his ideas of what is authentic (i.e, him) is important, especially in a time where a lot of men feel unsure of their place in a rapidly changing culture.

The problem is that Cooper is uncomfortable with associating Jackson with any of these things. Cooper dodges these discussions, instead leaning into the romantic tragedy of the story, without really digging deep into all of the reasons this story keeps resonating. All of these elements are present in the film, and if you think about it you can find them. But the way the film is presented, not to mention its press tour, covers a lot of that up. In a movie that is obsessed with taking off Lady Gaga’s makeup as some kind of sign of a woman revealing her *true* self, it doesn’t quite let Jackson do the same, even when his character has seemingly vulnerable moments.

A Star is Born is an entertaining, extremely well-made film. It’s a fascinating start for Bradley Cooper’s directing career and Lady Gaga’s Hollywood takeover. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat. The screenplay sets up a complicated story that doesn’t take sides and instead lets its character struggle. It pays homage to the originals while still being its own entity. The only thing standing in its way is Cooper, who doesn’t feel comfortable allowing the film to explore its own depths. He seems, like his character, to be afraid of sharing too much of the spotlight, and instead shapes a superficial narrative that threatens to cast a shadow over the other excellent work done here. But it doesn’t have to. I have discussed the film with many people, and more than a lot of movies this year, everyone seems to have a unique interpretation, and any movie that can stir up so much thought is an accomplishment.

-Madeleine D

The Best Christian Movie Of The Year: The Hate U Give

THE HATE U GIVE

The Hate U Give is based on the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas. It follows a young black girl named Starr Carter, (Amandla Stenberg) who struggles to live between the world of her black neighborhood and her white preparatory school. After her childhood friend is shot and killed by the police at a traffic stop, the divide between her world becomes bigger as she struggles with whether to step forward as a witness to the shooting.

So why is The Hate U Give the best Christian movie of the year? After all, it’s not from the Kendrick Brothers, it’s not the next God’s Not Dead film, and it doesn’t have any children coming back from heaven. It’s not been advertised as a Christian movie in any regard.

It’s the best Christian movie of the year because it is a film that sees its characters the way Jesus sees us. It takes a complicated situation and slowly unravels all of its layers with empathy, lament, hope, and a cry for reconciliation and justice. It is a movie that is pro-life. It advocates for protecting the oppressed and recognizes the value and dignity of every human life. It is an honest movie because it laments the hate in our world and recognizes that it comes from everyone. It sees all of its characters as complex people who are sinful. It confronts large-scale systematic injustice and small-scale prejudice, without ever turning into a movie about us versus them. Instead of running away from the characters who appear to be in the wrong, the movie moves towards them with compassion. It looks suffering and pain square in the face- although it is never gratuitous- and then looks up in hope. It doesn’t just ask questions, but suggests solutions, all without acting like it has all of the answers.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a pure message-film. I’m sure some viewers will approach the film with cynicism thinking, it’s just Oscar-bait because this is the next cause the liberals want to back. It’s going to be preachy and one-sided. This is not the case. The Hate U Give is an effective movie, but not because it is “trendy” or “topical.” It is the fact that it feels (unfortunately) timeless that makes it so strong. And yes, it does have a message (all films do) and there are moments in the film where this isn’t exactly subtle. But, the film is always centered on its characters. Everything else is secondary. It is about one girl’s life, and while her viewpoint touches on bigger issues, it’s about her. In fact, there are only one or two scenes in the film that don’t have Starr in them. This is what keeps the movie grounded, even as it deals with so many issues, and this is what will make you remember it once you leave the theater. You will remember Starr and her family.

The Hate U Give is also a must-see because it is just an excellently made film, which seems to be something a lot of Christian movies are afraid of being. The writing, directing, and cinematography, in particular, are excellent, and the actors are all spectacular. Not to be punny, but Amandla Stenberg is a Star. She carries The Hate U Give and ups the game of everyone around her. In fact, the only weak cast member is Anthony Mackie, whose charisma is clearly miscast in a role in which all he does is stand around and give the same I’m peeved and intimidating look.  

Another reason it is a must see is because the film equips white viewers with a guide on how to be an ally. It first asks you to look beyond stereotypes with compassion. Reading the book and seeing the movie made me think about if my friends of color felt like Starr. Did our majority white high school force them to be someone else? How did I contribute to that? Secondly, the film gives you examples of how to react if someone accuses you of doing something racist. Getting defensive does nothing- it just kills the relationship and any potential for learning. Instead, seeking to understand why you’ve been accused and how to make amends is what furthers and deepens a relationship. And third, the film shows you how to be an ally within a larger movement. How can white allies help Black Lives Matter? The movie’s advice is to listen to the people of color in charge and follow their instructions (as your conscience allows). Support them, learn from them, and amplify their voices over your own.

A small warning though: at over two hours, the film has cut a lot from the book, and most of the things it cut were the happier moments, which means the film is a non-stop gut punch, with very few moments of respite. The moments of peace given are extremely effective, but by the end of the film, you will feel as emotionally drained as Starr. That’s an excellent movie-going experience if you ask me, but do be prepared for a heavy two hours. When I was walking into the theater, I was nearly backed into by a car in the parking lot. When I walked out, I felt like I might as well have been hit by that car.

The Hate U Give is a challenging film because it refuses to be easy. It doesn’t let you walk away feeling smug or self-righteous. Instead, it gives more nuance than our polarized age wants to allow. It’s a film I hope Christian filmmakers and studios will pay attention to, and it’s one you should pay attention to, also. It’s one of the best films of the year.

If you’d like to think more about films that view their subjects in a Christ-like way without necessarily speaking directly about Christ, I highly recommend this article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christ-like-gaze-film/

-Madeleine D