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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