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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Shelley’

You often hear people talking about proverbially unfilmable books – Ulysses, or A Suitable Boy, or whatever – although, of course, there is a long history of ‘unfilmable’ stories actually making quite decent and occasionally exceptional films, given the right treatment. What seems to me to be less commented-upon is the phenomenon of certain novels being endlessly adapted for film and TV, but never both well and faithfully.

We’re usually talking about ‘classic’ literature here – though it’s getting to the point where certain superhero comics also qualify – and I’m thinking particularly of 19th century Gothic Horror. There have been umpty-tump versions of Dracula, to say nothing of sequels and spin-off movies, and generally the ones that have really succeeded have been the ones with a less reverential approach to the source. The same goes for Frankenstein: this is one of those novels which, in many ways, defines the modern age, and yet I’ve never seen a film adaptation of the book which has really impressed me. (The best version I’ve seen was a TV mini-series from 1973, with Leonard Whiting and Michael Sarrazin in the two lead roles, and even this diverged a lot from the novel in many respects.)

Still, until recently I hadn’t seen the 1994 version of the story, helpfully titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to distinguish it from all those other stories with the same name by other people. Or, perhaps more fully, Francis Ford Coppola’s Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as this was the key talent involved as producer and director.

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Ken Branagh being Ken Branagh, he naturally casts himself as Victor Frankenstein, here a precocious young scientist (there’s no mention of him being nobility this time around, but he is still clearly rich and posh). And Branagh being Branagh, the cast list is also stuffed with British thespians: this does actually resemble a dress-rehearsal for a Harry Potter movie, so many of the performers here moved on to that series.

This movie sticks to the original structure, which opens at the North Pole with some explorers happening upon a desperate Frankenstein being pursued across the ice by… what? Scenes of sled dogs meeting a sticky end suggest we may have wandered into Mary Shelley’s The Thing by mistake, but no. Frankenstein tells his story, with accompanying flashback: traumatised by the premature death of his mum (Cherie Lunghi) – a motivation-bolstering amendation of Shelley – a youthful Frankenstein puts aside his romantic feelings for his adopted sister (Helena Bonham-Carter) and heads off to university, where he finds himself drawn to forbidden areas of research. Despite the misgivings of his mentor (John Cleese, playing it straight behind some rather peculiar dentures), he sets about manufacturing a perfected form of human life – and when that mentor is pointlessly murdered, Frankenstein instantly sees a way for his patron to live on. Well, bits of him, anyway…

The artificial man created by Frankenstein’s experiments is not quite what our hero was expecting, and in the context of the movie he cuts a striking, unusual figure, mainly because he is played by Robert de Niro rather than another of Ken’s luvvie mates. Frankenstein tries to get rid of his creature almost at once, and believes it has perished in a cholera outbreak. Henceforth swearing off unholy experiments and demarcation disputes over the provision of the vital spark, our man heads home to marry his sister. Sorry, adopted sister.

However, the Creature has survived, and wandered into an 18th century episode of The Good Life. Hiding out in the pig sty of elderly smallholder Richard Briers, the Creature learns to read, speak, and generally make sense of the world around him. Yes, this bit does stretch credulity a bit, but the film tries hard to make it work, and I think there’s an even dodgier subplot in the book about a fleeing Arabian princess which has actually been cut. Eventually the Creature decides he has not been treated properly by his creator and sets off to demand reparations…

This is a good-looking, pacy movie, and for the most part reasonably faithful to the book – much moreso, it has to be said, than either of the most famous versions from Hammer or Universal. The cast is good and there is nothing particularly bad about the script or direction either.

And yet I couldn’t really say this was a great Frankenstein. I know this film has drawn a good deal of sniggery criticism for the sheer number of scenes in which Ken Branagh runs around in leather trews with his shirt off, the suggestion being that this is evidence of a certain self-regard on the the director’s part. I’m inclined to cut Ken some slack on this front, not necessarily because there is something thematic about overweening vanity going on – though I’ve heard this argued – but because it does tie into a sort of Romantic hyperactivity which is central to this film.

Ken’s a bright bloke and he has clearly settled on the famous connection between Frankenstein and the Romantic poets as being a worthwhile line of attack. And so it is that the emotional pitch of this movie is never knowing understated. People are never happy in this film, they are convulsed with ecstatic joy; they never just dance, they hurl themselves across the screen while the camera swoops around them; they never just grieve, they are consumed with devastating, paralysing despair. The film is always turned up to 11, and considering how fast the story rattles along the results are desensitising, not to mention exhausting – you never have a moment to catch your breath and really think about what’s happening in the story.

This is a shame, as Frankenstein is obviously a story loaded with ideas, and this version of it doesn’t really get a chance to explore them. The handling of the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature is, surely, central to whether or not a version of this story works – and this one is just about there, but no more, simply because they don’t really share enough screen time.

And this doesn’t really work as a horror movie for most of its length, either. The film tries hard to be credible and avoid the cliches of other versions – but substituting the iconic bolt of lightning with a shoal of trained electric eels is not a decision I would personally have gone for. The moment in which the eels are let loose is central to all of the creation sequences in this film and I suppose it’s a minor miracle they do not become unintentionally funny as a result. Needless to say, the eels are not in the book; nor is a sequence in which Frankenstein and the Creature find themselves in a very strange love triangle with a ‘bride’ character. This is the bit of the film which actually does work as a piece of horror, all about twisted passions and dangerous obsessions – but it comes very late and it’s over too soon.  (In contrast, the major plot point that Frankenstein is in a quasi-incestuous relationship with his adopted sister is barely explored.)

So I would say this movie is okay, both as a movie and as a version of Frankenstein. I suppose this is a bit of a disappointment given the magnitude of the talents involved in making it, but there you go. Full marks for trying to be faithful to the novel (eels excepted), and also to Ken for finding an interesting new take on the original material. But it doesn’t quite (ha, ha) bring Frankenstein or his creation fully to life.

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