To complement our review of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, we now present a review of a film that sought to adapt it as faithfully as possible: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
As with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein took the story back to its source material. In 1931, director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff created the iconic Frankenstein’s monster, the flat-headed, lumbering creature with bolts in its neck that could do little more than grunt. It was brilliant at the time, launching a whole series of films including Bride of Frankenstein, but the monster very quickly became known as ‘Frankenstein’ despite the fact that the monster in the novel had no name.
Kenneth Branagh traded the classic castle-top lightning-filled laboratory for a city warehouse that takes advantage of the weird and wonderful Victorian scientific equipment used at the time. The film also goes into Victor Frankenstein’s backstory more than any other adaptation, showing his youth in Naples and his close relationship with his foster sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Branagh plays Frankenstein as an eager and impulsive scientist who fails to realise that his experiment, if successful, will produce a being with desires and fears of its own. As he becomes more and more obsessed with his work, he rejects his friends and family, pinning all his hopes on his creation. His monster is recognisable as human, but horrifically scarred where it has been stitched together from several bodies. Robert De Niro gives a surprisingly sensitive performance as the philosopher-monster, starting as a groaning and shambling creature but learning quickly. De Niro has the acting ability to perform the speeches from the novel that were clearly written for reading rather than speaking, and the film is less a typical monster movie and more an intense story of the destructive relationship between a creator and his creation.
Branagh avoids a lot of the stock elements of the Frankenstein story – he does not have an assistant (added in the Universal film, and originally called Fritz rather than Igor) and the story begins and ends as the novel does, in the frozen wastes of the Arctic rather than starting as Dr Frankenstein brings his creation to life. However, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still looks wonderful, with a weird, hazy atmosphere that makes the whole thing seem like a dream. Branagh makes one major change from the book – instead of Frankenstein destroying the female creature he makes at the monster’s insistence, he resurrects his beloved Elizabeth as a bride for the creature, only to have her reject her monstrous mate. It is a disturbing scene that plays to Helena Bonham Carter’s strengths as an actress and makes the tormented rivalry between Frankenstein and his monster even more poignant.
There are some moments that end up as ridiculous rather than horrific, but for the most part this manages to be a creepy and very different adaptation of the novel from other versions of Frankenstein.
Find Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the BOOK ZONE at 823.7.
If you liked this…
Check out the original Universal adaptations – they don’t really follow the novel, but they’re pretty amazing. The birth of the monster scene is one of the greatest monster moments in cinema. The quality does diminish a bit across the series, but Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (with that iconic lightning-bolt hair) are well worth your time (DVD LOBBY 791.43).
Read our review of the novel that started it all.
Try Bram Stoker’s Dracula for another classic horror novel adapted for the screen (BOOK ZONE 823.91). Read our review here.
Photographer unknown (1910) Charles Ogle In Frankenstein 1910 Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Ogle_In_Frankenstein_1910.jpg (downloaded 29/10/2015)
Photographer unknown (1935) A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, using Jack Pierce’s makeup design Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein (downloaded 29/10/2015)