Did you know I knew how to play this? From which part of me did this knowledge reside? From this mind? From these hands? From this heart? And reading and speaking. Not so much things learned as things remembered. – The Monster, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994
Begone! I do break my promise; never will I create another like yourself, equal in deformity and wickedness. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Now I’ve been a little harsh on some of these movies. I’m about to get much harsher. A lot of horror movies are low budget jobs, and it shows, so if I’m being harsh about Teenage Frankenstein or Blackenstein it’s in the knowledge that these were quickly made cheapies, put together by third-string creative people. They’re not great films, but to be fair they do the best they can with what they have.
1994’s Frankenstein, aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a different kettle of fish. A major cinema release made by some extremely talented people (and Kenneth Branagh) it could have been good. Really, it could have been. Robert de Niro as the Monster? An inspired piece of casting! Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holme, Cherie Lunghi, Tom Hulce, Richard Briers and John Cleese (!) are all fine actors. Hell, I’m not a fan of Branagh, I think he’s a huge ham. But if there’s a role that you ought to be able to get away with hamming up, surely it’s Victor Frankenstein?
Directed by Branagh, the cinematography is by Roger Pratt, (who also worked on 12 Monkeys, Batman, Brazil and a bunch of Harry Potter movies). There’s enough more talent in this movie than the average Oscar night. I actually started trying to add up all of the Oscars, BAFTA and Golden Globe wins and nominations of people working on this film, before getting depressed and stopping. Dozens. The answer is dozens.
And yet, the movie stinks.
It’s a noble idea. Frankenstein as Mary Shelley intended. Include the Captain Walton framing story from the novel, that most movies skip. Run it as a period piece, but set it in the late 18th Century where Mary Shelley set her story, instead of the 19th Century when she lived. Include the characters usually dropped or reduced in scope – Frankenstein’s parents, Henry Clerval, Justine the Maid, Professors Krempe and Waldmann. Have the articulate, clever Monster, not the silent shambling version. It’s a great idea for a film.
It’s also an unworkable idea for a film. In the nearly two-hundred years since the novel was written, there have been big changes to the way horror stories work. Since the advent of films, horror stories have become far more visual. Mary Shelley was less visual, inducing fear by talking about fears. She refuses to show the ‘making a monster’ scene, or even get into specifics about how Victor made his Monster. It is unthinkable that a modern Frankenstein movie would fail to show these parts.
For huge parts of the novel, Frankenstein works alone. When he finished his work and abandons his Monster, his entire outlook changes and he becomes an extremely passive character, reacting to events rather than initiating them. Again, you can’t have a big name actor playing the title role in this way.
This makes for some necessary changes. Frankenstein talks more about his work with Clervall and Waldmann. Long, expository conversations between Frankenstein and the Monster have pointless action sequences grafted on. Frankenstein’s passivity vanishes. In the novel, Frankenstein refuses to act to save the life of Justine. The movie has him runs to her aid, arriving too late. In the novel, Frankenstein is horrified of creating a female monster. The movie has it as Frankenstein’s idea.
These are mere details, but they establish the difficulty with translating the novel to the screen. Sadly, they are not the only problems. The biggest problem with a film adaptation of Frankenstein is not what’s in the novel but what isn’t. Frankenstein is possibly one of the most surprising novels in the English language, and this is not just because of Mary Shelley’s considerable inventiveness. It is surprising because the reader generally absorbs the pop-cultural version of Frankenstein long before reading the novel. Everyone ‘knows’ about the significance of the specific brain that Frankenstein chooses. They ‘know’ that Victor is assisted by a hunchback named ‘Igor’. Everyone ‘knows’ that the Monster is basically misunderstood. And everyone ‘knows’ about the Bride. And everyone is wrong.
The film tries hard to ditch some of these common misconceptions. Igor is gone. While Frankenstein’s friends help with ideas, they are absent when he does the actual work of building the Monster. Likewise the Monster itself, while sympathetic, is not good as he is in so many other versions. In his persecution of his creator, he murders Victor’s little brother William, and frames Justine the maid for the crime, leading to her execution. He also commits the crime that many adaptations of Frankenstein shy away from – the murder of Elizabeth on her wedding night.
On the other hand, the film very explicitly departs from Mary Shelley’s text in other ways. Mary Shelley’s Monster is a blank slate, a tabula rasa. It is a new creature, potentially capable of good or evil, but twisted into evil through by rejection.
This idea has been completely lost on the film tradition of Frankenstein. Beginning in 1931, has been at least partly a revenant, retaining at least the personality – and sometimes the memory – of the brain donor. Here, after trying so hard to reject the film tradition of Frankenstein in order to rediscover the novel, Branagh and co give up. The brain. It’s all about the brain. What’s more, they extend the idea of Monster-as-revenant, declaring that the other body parts all contribute to the Monster’s nature – it can play the flute due to muscle memory in his hands, for example. This is a big change. You can get the period correct, the setting correct and the characters correct, but if you change the nature of the monster, you’re changing Mary Shelley’s story.
Which is fine, in some respects. In her own lifetime, Mary Shelley saw stage versions of Frankenstein that messed with her story and wrote of them approvingly, so I don’t think she was a purist when it came to her own work. But the question then becomes why? If you’re going to make a few changes, why not make more? Having given themselves the luxury of departing so drastically from the novel that they’re adapting, why not take it further? Why not streamline the rather dull first act? Why stick to the framing sequence that made such sense to readers in the 1820s but just muddies things now?
Those were the questions I was asking myself, until I reached the third act. After that I, was glad that they didn’t make more changes.
But. I haven’t done the synopsis yet. An Arctic explorer rescues a dying man, Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein tells the story of his life: he was born in a Merchant Ivory film, where he lived with his dad, a doctor and his mum, who has a big hat. He has an adopted sister, Elizabeth. Victor’s mother dies in childbirth. (Childbirth is a repeated motif in this movie, which must have made someone’s film studies teacher very proud.) Victor takes some crucial time out from shagging his adopted sister to go to university to learn to be a doctor.
The university is run by Prof Krempe (Robert Hardy) a crusty old doctor who hates new ideas. You know, just like you’d expect to find in a medical school at the height of the Enlightenment. His colleague, Prof Waldman (John Cleese) is more open to mad sciency stuff. Victor and his friend Henry Clerval seek assistance from Waldman, who refuses.
Waldman is killed by a some jerk (Robert de Niro). Victor builds a monster out of the executed jerk, Dr Waldman’s brain and some other bits. This is one of the most effective scenes in the movie, presenting Victor’s act of obsessive creation as a sort of crazed violence, which is both unusual and effective. It is followed by one of the worst scenes in the movie, as the creature is put in a tank full of electric eels, which vitalize the body through acupuncture needles.
Yes, for real.
The experiment seems a failure, but the Monster comes to life. Victor, terrified, drives it out. It is run out of town by the locals, seeks refuge with a blind man, is run off again, and confronts Victor, begging him to create him a mate. Victor refuses. The Monster kills Victor’s brother and frames Justine. Victor tries to escape with Elizabeth, they marry. The Monster kills Elizabeth.
Then everything goes to Hell in a handbasket. Victor attempts to revive Elizabeth with his apparatus. He succeeds. The Monster reappears and attempts to seduce Elizabeth/the Bride away from Victor. I don’t even want to talk about this scene, it’s just that awful. Elizabeth — perhaps having a ‘we belong dead’ moment, or perhaps just desperate to escape the movie — goes berserk, sets herself on fire and dies. Victor pursues the Monster to the Arctic and meets the explorer. The Monster kills Victor on the explorer’s ship, then goes off to die.
As I say, the third act sucks. An attempt to adapt the novel into contemporary cinema was always going to hit problems in the third act, since the novel ends with an anticlimax, the cool gory scenes having been and gone. It’s hard to think of a good idea for the end of this movie, but it’s not hard to think of a better end. The weird literalisation of the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ must have seemed like a great idea in the writers’ room, but on film it’s just stupid. I know I said I wouldn’t talk about it, but the bit when Victor and the Monster are calling to Elizabeth to see which one she will go to is just embarrassing. It’s not edgy, it’s not creepy, it’s just sort of ‘ugh’.
I should probably say something nice for balance. Richard Briers does a nice turn as the blind man. And Tom Hulce is fun, even if his character is pointless. Oh, and the cinematography is quite impressive.
In conclusion, Branagh’s Frankenstein is a hot mess, a massive waste of talent. But it’s a horror movie. I will forgive many flaws in a horror movie — flaws of plot, character, common sense, anything — if the movie is actually scary. The movie even seems to agree, opening as it does on a quote from Mary Shelley herself, in which she explains her intention to terrify her readership. Surely here, at least, Branagh and Shelley are on the same page? But no. Branagh’s Frankenstein is just not scary. Not even a little. Menacing, at times, but not scary. It’s mostly just gross and pointless.
Also, maybe it’s just me, but if you’re putting John Cleese’s brain into Robert de Niro’s body, shouldn’t the result be more interesting? Just saying.