MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN (1994)
Synopsis: The ship of Arctic explorer Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn) becomes trapped in ice, and his men threaten mutiny unless he agrees to turn back. Suddenly, the crew hears an unearthly howl, and watches stunned as a man, half-dead with exhaustion, staggers across the ice. Taken on board, the man identifies himself as Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh), and tells Walton an incredible tale…. As a boy in Switzerland, Victor passes a happy childhood with his adopted sister, Elizabeth, and their companion, Justine Moritz. This idyll lasts until Victor is a young man, and his mother (Cherie Lunghi) dies tragically giving birth to his younger brother, William. Developing a taste for scientific research, Victor prepares to depart for the university at Ingolstadt, where he will study to be a doctor like his father (Ian Holm). Before he leaves home, however, Victor asks Elizabeth – whom he no longer regards as his “sister” – to be his wife. At Ingolstadt, Victor makes friends with a fellow student, Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce), clashes with the hidebound Professor Krempe (Robert Hardy), and finds himself fascinated by the secretive Professor Waldman (John Cleese) who, he learns, once fell foul of the authorities for conducting illegal experiments. Setting up a laboratory in a hired attic, Victor sets about achieving the ultimate aim of his research: cheating death…. After another public argument with Krempe, Victor is almost kidnapped by Waldman, who shows the student his rooms – and his secret laboratory. Waldman explains to Victor the Chinese practice of acupuncture, and how it might affect the electrical energy of the body. Victor expounds his own theories on the overcoming of death. His words have a dramatic effect on Waldman, who reveals that he once came close – too close – to the artificial creation of life…. During an enforced vaccination of the people of Ingolstadt, carried out by the staff and students of the university, a man (Robert De Niro) objects hysterically to the treatment, and in his panic stabs Waldman to death. He is hanged for his pains. The devastated Victor breaks into Waldman’s laboratory, securing the scientist’s notebooks before anyone else can see them. Upon reading them, he discovers just how close Waldman did come to creating life…. Inspired, and in defiance of Henry’s warnings, Victor prepares to go one step further than his mentor. By rough and ready means, he acquires his “materials”, including the body of Waldman’s murderer and Waldman’s own brain, and sets about creating an artificial man. Applying his knowledge of electricity, Victor sends a massive charge through the inanimate body that he has put together. Climbing up onto the metal tank in which his creation is housed, Victor cries out for it to live; and for a brief moment its eyes flicker open – only to close again. Victor turns away in despair – until a knocking sound comes from within the tank….
Comments: Well – it’s not a bad Frankenstein, but it sure ain’t Mary Shelley’s! The adaptation of a novel for the screen is always a delicate business. Literature and film might both be art forms, but they are not interchangeable; and with rare exceptions – within the world of the genre film, Polanski’s amazingly faithful adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby comes to mind – changes to the original story will, even must, be made when it is transferred to the screen. The important issue is – what changes, and why? Is the adaptation faithful to the spirit of the novel, if not to the letter? With respect to the myriad of screen adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel, the answer is a resounding NO! And from one perspective, this is understandable. Shelley’s novel is, after all, less a story than a philosophical rumination upon human nature, man’s place in the universe, and his relationship with God; countless pages pass with both Victor Frankenstein and his Creature expatiating tirelessly upon these issues. It is, perhaps, not surprising that a century’s worth of screenwriters have largely ignored this facet of the novel; yet in so doing, they have also overlooked other aspects of the novel that would lend themselves very well to cinematic dramatisation. When Kenneth Branagh’s version of the story arrived on the screen in 1994, it did so accompanied by a rather defensive explanation that the film had been given its title at least in part because (as indeed was the case with Bram Stoker’s Dracula) its producers wanted to avoid a legal wrangle with Universal Studios, which incredibly enough claims that it owns the rights to the simple titles “Frankenstein” and “Dracula”. Be that as it may, when screenwriters choose to put the name of the author that they are adapting into the title of their film – which instead could, and perhaps should, have been called “Victor Frankenstein” – they are making a promise of sorts to their audience. And as it happens, Branagh’s version, while not exactly “faithful”, is one of the more faithful cinematic translations of Shelley’s story – up to a point. This film goes badly off the rails during its final quarter – which, significantly, is comprised of events with little or nothing to do with the novel – but until then, probably shows Shelley’s work more respect than almost any other adaptation of her story.
For the most part, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein follows the structure of the novel, and includes many aspects of the story usually overlooked by film-makers, including the book-ending Arctic scenes. (That said, the blood-and-thunder, damn-the-torpedoes Robert Walton of the film has little to do with his model.) Most critically, the film gives us a thinking, feeling, speaking Creature – here called the “Reanimant”. Eyebrows were raised when Robert De Niro was cast as a mere “monster”, but it isn’t hard to see what attracted him to this particular role: for once, a telling of “Frankenstein” allows its artificial man to undergo the full process of education, as it learns to speak, to reason, to suffer – and finally, to commit acts of vengeance. It even manages to salvage that section of the novel which is perhaps its greatest weakness. The Creature learning to speak and read and understand human society because it just happens to be in the vicinity when an impoverished Parisian noblemen is giving lessons to his runaway Arabian bride is not, to put it mildly, the most credible part of Shelley’s story. The film dodges this bullet rather neatly by changing the occupants of the cottage where the Reanimant takes shelter into a young couple with children who are being educated by their mother. In time, the Reanimant is able to read “The Journal of Victor Frankenstein of Geneva”, which it finds in the coat that it took when fleeing Victor’s laboratory, and thus learns its own history. Suffering rejection yet again, this time by the inhabitants of the cottage for whose benefit it has been doing favours – and who, until they actually lay eyes on it, think of the Reanimant as “the good spirit of the forest” – the Reanimant sets out for Geneva, finally cornering the horrified Victor and insisting upon a showdown. The two face off in an icy cave in the mountains; a tricky scene which, all credit to it, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein pulls off very well. The language of the novel has been substantially toned done, but the essentials are there; and the Reanimant gets to ask the big questions: who is it? – and what is it? – and has it a soul? Victor has no answers, of course. The Reanimant then makes its offer: if Victor will make it “a friend, a companion – a female”, then they will go together and live where no people will ever see them. “I have love in me, the likes of which you can scarcely imagine,” the Reanimant tells its creator, and it’s quite right; Victor is far too much the egotist for that. “And rage, the likes of which you cannot believe. And if I cannot satisfy one, I will indulge the other.” The remarkable thing about this scene is that although the threat is evident, the Reanimant’s offer to Victor comes across as reasonable, even generous; rather more than Victor deserves, in fact. In terms of natural appeal, Robert De Niro is no Boris Karloff, but he nevertheless succeeds in giving us a Creature for which we can feel. The pain in the Reanimant’s eyes at it experiences rejection after rejection; the struggling emotion of its language (De Niro worked with stroke victims prior to filming, to master the Reanimant’s hesitant speech patterns); its simple yet passionate yearning for sympathy all work together to win over the viewer. Undoubtedly, De Niro’s committed performance is one of this film’s virtues.
However, in another sense the Reanimant is one of the film’s major weaknesses. Rather too obviously, having pulled off the coup of casting Robert De Niro in this vital role, the film-makers became intent on making the audience aware throughout that it was indeed De Niro under the make-up. Consequently, the Reanimant is simply not grotesque enough. It is a critical part of Shelley’s story that Victor’s handiwork be physically repulsive enough to terrify; time and again, the Creature is rejected, abused, attacked on sight, without committing any act to justify the treatment. Once, it saves the life of a child, only to be assumed to be her assailant and shot for its efforts. (Of course, it is inferred that, hideous as the Creature is, something deeper is at work here: these people are reacting instinctively to the presence of something unnatural.) Shelley wisely left her readers room for imagination, not getting too specific in her description of the Creature. Victor himself speaks of its “yellow skin”, “watery eyes”, “shrivelled complexion” and “straight black lips”; the Creature, movingly, calls itself “an abortion”. The film’s Reanimant is a disappointment, being inflicted with nothing worse than post-operative scarring – which, by the way, heals over the course of the story. Consequently, the hysteria that his presence provokes is rather hard to believe – would a population battling plague and cholera and smallpox on a daily basis really be so freaked out by a few scars? Another significant lapse is the screenplay’s uncertainty over the effects of the Reanimant’s origins. Shelley’s Creature is a tabula rasa; it knows only what it learns. Branagh’s Reanimant, on the other hand, is frankly a bit of a cheat. In order, no doubt, to cut to the chase, the screenplay gives it “memories”; and while it cannot initially speak or read, it somehow manages to understand what the residents of the cottage are saying to one another. It also has residual talents, such as musical ability. The Reanimant questions Victor over these phenomena, but of course he has no explanation. That isn’t a problem; but that the screenwriters were, obviously, equally mystified is. The brain inside the Reanimant’s head is Waldman’s; why are its memories, if it has memories, not specifically his? Why should the other body parts have more of an influence than the brain? Almost in spite of themselves, the writers of this film seem to have shied away from Shelley’s made “monster”, in favour of Universal’s born one: the body of the Reanimant is, primarily, that of the man who murdered Waldman, while during the post-birth struggle in which the Reanimant is supposedly killed, it suffers a heavy blow across the back of the head. Ah, that “abnormal brain” – the uncertain screenwriter’s eternal friend….
You do have to admire the courage – or the ego – that led Kenneth Branagh to cast himself opposite a heavyweight like De Niro. Their respective characterisations make a fascinating contrast. De Niro’s Reanimant is grounded, logical, and remorseless; capable of savage violence if provoked, but able, willing, to live in peace. Branagh’s Victor, in contrast, is a firecracker – emotional to the point of hysteria, selfish, arrogant and vain. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is, undoubtedly, an over-the-top piece of cinema. It is melodramatic – almost operatic – and so is Branagh’s performance. I know a lot of people are unable to swallow this film’s extremities, but I rather like them. As always, I would much rather that a film (or a film-maker) took itself too seriously than not seriously enough – the latter being, of course, something of which Kenneth Branagh is not frequently guilty. (That said, I could definitely have done without the endlessly swirling camera – which is enough to induce mal de mer in the susceptible – and with about a dozen less slow-motion “NOOOOOO!!!!”-s.) However, for all its passion for its material, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a severely compromised work, and for reasons that can be laid squarely at the feet of its writer-director-star. The film as a whole is badly weakened by Branagh’s conception of Victor Frankenstein – that is, of himself – not as the story’s villain, but as its hero. This is a mistake that few, if any, other versions of the story have fallen into. Even the first sound version, in which director James Whale’s empathy with the scientist is patent, does not hesitate to deal with the underlying fact of Frankenstein’s ultimate responsibility for all that happens. Branagh, however, chose to film the story not as outright horror, or science fiction, but as Gothic romance; and a romance, of course, requires a hero, no matter how doomed he might be. Thus, the screenplay of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does everything it can to mitigate the question of Victor’s guilt. First up, and to my immeasurable disgust, Victor is led into his line of research not merely by his passion for science and his desire to ask “the big questions”, but because of personal trauma: his beloved mother dies in horrendous, bloody childbirth, during a caesarean performed by her doctor-husband, sans anaesthetic. (In the novel, she succumbs quietly to scarlet fever after nursing the young Elizabeth through her own illness.) I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, of course. Is it, I wonder, that film-makers don’t think they can convey a purely intellectual passion, or is it that they don’t think that an intellectual passion alone will evoke a sufficiently emotional response in the viewer? Either way, this mis-step is doubly annoying here, because there is a sequence in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that actually does a wonderful job of demonstrating Victor’s intellectual fascination with the mysteries of the universe, when he drags Elizabeth and Justine out into a violent lightning storm to demonstrate his own mastery over electricity. The slightly manic, “Hey, wanna see something cool?” attitude that Victor evinces in this brief scene is a far more convincing depiction of the scientific temperament than any amount of the playing God and laboratory-bound hysteria that follows.
As soon as Victor departs for Ingolstadt, the screenplay’s “1984”-like re-writing of his motives begins in earnest. In the novel, Victor proves a first-class student of science. His desire to understand “the principle of life” leads him to study anatomy and physiology, and in the course of his investigations into “the change from life to death, and death to life”, a “sudden light” breaks upon him. Victor has not set out to create artificial life, but when the implications of his extraordinary discovery dawn upon him, he cannot resist following the path laid down before him to its very end. Importantly, no-one but Victor himself knows what he is up to. He cuts off communication with his home, his friends, and his professors. Victor, and Victor alone, therefore, is responsible for all that happens. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though, would have it otherwise. Here, it is Victor’s university mentor, Professor Waldman (an effectively underplaying John Cleese), who has made most of the critical discoveries. Where Waldman drew back, however, Victor will press on – out of “courage”. His acquisition of the “materials” he needs proves a far simpler, far less gruesome, and far less morally dubious activity than it is in the novel. No grave-robbing here; no “days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses” for our Victor; with Ingolstadt in the grip of a cholera epidemic, he simply goes down to the morgue and helps himself – like a kid in a candy-store. The film’s staggering “birth-scene” – about which I will have rather more to say later – follows; it ends with the naked, panicking Reanimant becoming entangled in a series of ropes and pulleys and being dragged to the roof of the laboratory, struck upon the head, and apparently killed. Although Victor is as horrified by what he has wrought as his literary counterpart, he does not reject his creation outright; rather, he believes it to be dead. When he realises that the Reanimant still lives, he takes action to kill it, but it escapes him. Exhaustion and illness claim Victor at this point, and his friend, Henry Clerval, must nurse him through a lengthy fever. By the time he recovers – and begins to comfort himself with the belief that his handiwork has almost certainly succumbed to cholera – the Reanimant is long gone. Thus, there is no actual abandonment of the Reanimant by its creator. At a stroke, the screenplay obliterates the entire moral crux of Mary Shelley’s story.
The film’s whitewashing of Victor does not stop there, however. The most harrowing section of Shelley’s novel involves the murder of Victor’s young brother, William, by the Creature, and the subsequent condemnation and execution of Victor and Elizabeth’s childhood companion, Justine Moritz, for the crime. One thing that the screenplay does handle much better than the novel is the insertion of Justine into the story. In the original, Justine is suddenly thrust upon us via a horribly laboured letter from Elizabeth to Victor, one full of sentences starting, “You will remember, Victor, that---” (Yes, he will; so why are you telling him?) In the film, Justine is simply there, a part of the Frankenstein household from her early youth; a good friend to both Victor and Elizabeth, a mother-figure to the orphaned William, and (couldn’t resist, could you, Ken?) unrequitedly in love with Victor. We are allowed to know her before tragedy strikes. In the novel, the Creature strangles the young William after the boy is unwise enough to utter the fatal word “Frankenstein”; it then finds Justine, who has been searching for the boy, asleep in a barn, and plants on her evidence linking her to the murder. Critically, however, the novel’s Victor becomes aware of his Creature’s guilt before Justine is accused and arrested. Nevertheless, he does not speak, first arguing to himself that since Justine is innocent, she will be found innocent; then that the character testimony of himself and Elizabeth will free her; then that her appeal will succeed; and then – as Justine goes to the scaffold – that no-one would believe his story anyway. The most shocking scene in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the summary execution of Justine, who is snatched from her prison cell by a howling mob of townspeople and hurled off a high building with a rope around her neck. And it is only after this that the film’s Victor becomes aware that the Reanimant is responsible for William’s murder – and for Justine’s. This manoeuvring of the story to exculpate Victor is unforgivable.
(Of course, if Justine had really been hanged as shown here, her head would have been ripped clean off her body – which may or may not have facilitated later events in the film. The impact of this hanging scene is tempered only by the unfortunate use of the expression “a lynching party”, which is by no means the only anachronism to be found in the screenplay. Earlier, a highly prescient Victor performs CPR on Waldman after the scientist is stabbed; and – speaking of Waldman – I don’t think the word “vaccination” was in common usage in the late 18th century, either.)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is, in essence, a story of relationships – natural and otherwise. Early on, the screenplay sets up a strict division between the demands of Victor’s work, and the intrusion upon that work represented by domestic ties. This dichotomy is made perfectly explicit when near-consecutive scenes have first Victor’s mother, then Elizabeth, breaking in upon his studies and dragging him away from them. Later, the opposing forces at work become still more evident. It must be conceded that, in dealing with these themes, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ventures into some distinctly worrying territory. In both novel and film, Victor becomes engaged to his adopted sister, Elizabeth. This passes in the book because the character of Elizabeth is such a nonentity; she contributes nothing, but exists purely so that the Creature can murder her on her wedding-night. This happens here, too, but only after we’ve seen a great deal more of Elizabeth than is necessary. It is clear that Branagh has tried to give us a “modern”, “independent” Elizabeth; Helena Bonham Carter spends much of the film rushing about on horseback and making stands and generally giving the impression that she is a young woman in charge of her own destiny. Yet for all that, she contributes nothing extra to the story. (Shall I confess? Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth irritates me hugely; and quite frankly, I find the moment when the Reanimant slams its hand through her chest and rips out her heart a strangely satisfying one….) Victor and Elizabeth are duly married, in spite of the Reanimant’s threat to Victor, “I will be with you on your wedding-night” (another of the novel’s painful lapses, and one that the screenwriters were stuck with), which brings into focus the fact that this expansion of the character of Elizabeth must inevitably give us Victor saddled with even more pathological motives for his behaviour than Mary Shelley intended. Victor proposes to Elizabeth by asking whether she is indeed his sister? They agree that they are no longer “brother and sister”, yet continue to call each other by those titles with unnerving frequency – even on their wedding-night! As for Victor, no sooner has he become engaged to his “sister” than he sets out to create a Being to whom he will be both “father” and “mother”. This Being in time wants a wife for itself and, when Victor denies this to it, retaliates by murdering Victor’s wife – that is, his former sister. The film’s most misjudged sequence follows – one that is part Hammer, part The Bride, part Roger Corman, and all wrong – as a clearly crazed Victor brings his murdered wife back to life after attaching her head and hands to the dead body of Justine Moritz, only to have her show a preference for her fellow Reanimant. Soon, Victor and the Reanimant are in the middle of a violent “father-son” conflict as they fight for the loyalty and affection of the re-born Elizabeth – Victor’s “sister-wife” and the Reanimant’s “step-mother-sister-bride”. And I think my brain is about to explode….
(There should be a third layer to these misplaced relationships: Victor’s father, a magistrate in the novel, is a doctor here, presumably to underscore the theme of father-son rivalry. However, this never ultimately amounts to much. The only moment when anything of what might initially have been intended by this alteration is apparent comes with the death of Victor’s mother, when Victor rushes up to her room, passing unheeded his devastated, blood-soaked father.)
One of the real joys of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is its production design. Victor’s laboratory (which is bigger than my house; no dingy one-room attic here!) is a masterpiece, into which a great deal of thought and planning was obviously put. This is also true of the film’s centrepiece, the “birth” of the Reanimant. The major challenge confronting any adaptor of Shelley’s story is, of course, deciding how the creation scene should be handled. Shelley herself was extremely vague, being less concerned with the fact of Victor’s actions than she was with their morality. The definitive cinematic birth sequence is undoubtedly that found in the original Frankenstein itself, all bolts of lightning and showers of sparks. Almost every other version of the story filmed since has a laboratory scene modelled upon James Whale’s seminal effort. To their credit, Kenneth Branagh and his team set out to do something a bit different. Clearly, a huge effort was made to provide Victor with credible equipment and procedures; although the Reanimant is brought to life by electricity, the source of that power is not lightning, but a tank of enraged electric eels! – while the artificial man is submerged in a solution consisting of, among other things, human amniotic fluid obtained via the co-operation of a compliant mid-wife. As power slams through the body of the Reanimant, which is encased in a huge metal tank, Victor climbs up on top of that tank, in a posture that – were you the kind of person given to seeing sexual symbolism – might possibly be construed as sexually symbolic. The “birth” follows, with the tank tipping over and spilling its contents out onto the floor of the laboratory. What happens next is one of the most daring, the most bizarre, the most downright disturbing scenes to be found in any adaptation of Frankenstein. Throughout this sequence, Victor is stripped to the waist; the Reanimant, when born, is completely naked. Creator and creation end up grappling together in a slippery tide of amniotic fluid. There is something singularly unnerving about having the film’s central birth scene turned into something so unmistakably homoerotic.
But then, the film’s attitude to birth and reproduction is worrying throughout – as is its overall, rather reactionary tone. Of course, this can in part be blamed upon the very faithfulness of the adaptation. It is hypocritical of me, I suppose, to complain about unfaithful adaptations of novels – and then to complain, too, about something in the film that is there because it has been carried over from the novel. But there it is. Shelley’s novel is a cautionary tale, the story of a man who both perverts nature and challenges God. It ends with Victor warning Robert Walton not to succumb to the same “madness” that has destroyed his own life, and with Walton obediently abandoning his expedition and turning back, his dreams and ambitions forgotten. This attitude, this sense that any attempt at progress is unavoidably dangerous and wrong, is present in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well; yet consider the world that Victor inhabits. It is one where there is no such thing as anaesthesia; where childbirth is an endless nightmare of blood and pain; where at any moment, a woman can meet the fate of Victor’s mother. (Her labour gone wrong, she demands of her husband, “Cut me!” He complies; she dies.) It is a place where disease is rampant, and epidemics common; where the dead are taken away by the cartload. It is, in short, a world that could stand a little progress. Yet there is no real acknowledgement of this, either in the novel or the film. Like far too many science fiction films, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein takes place in a universe of absolutes; everything is either yes or no, black or white, right or wrong; there are no shades of grey, no room for advancement via slow, careful steps. As is so often the case, the film’s ultimate message is “Go back! You are going the wrong way!”, rather than, as it should be – “Proceed with caution.”
Footnote: This review of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is my offering in Part 4 of That Was Then, This Is Now. For this entry in the series, I am more than pleased to announce that Chad Denton of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and myself have again been joined by Zack Handlen of The Duck Speaks. Chad himself will be reviewing the oxymoronic Bram Stoker’s Dracula; while Zack – displaying far more courage than sense – will not only be tackling both of these films, but taking a look at the novels upon which they were allegedly based. Finally, the three of us sit down to discuss the rights and wrongs of these films and their novels. Follow the links below to join us.
Click here for Zack’s review of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Click here for Zack’s review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (Click here for Chad’s review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Coming Soon! Click here for The Conversation.