“I busied myself to think of a story which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror. One to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” – Opening narration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Last time I took a look at Hammer Film’s Frankenstein series; each one of their films steeped in moody, Gothic elements which made them all, on some level, creepy, and true horror films. Speaking of the Frankenstein story, which, more-or-less, created the horror genre as we know it today, I couldn’t help but take a look at another adaptation of Shelley’s novel – the 1994 adaptation directed by/and starring Kenneth Branagh. This is a film which is, I think, unfairly judged and put down today. Why? People were expecting it to be something which it was not.
Interestingly, in the 1990s, Francis Ford Coppola was involved in three literary adaptations – all of which were ostensibly horror films. The first was 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula which found Coppola directing; the second Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and the third Sleepy Hollow (1999), the last two on which he served as a producer. Now both Dracula and Sleepy Hollow are (on a whole) horror projects, so already modern audiences are being misguided looking back. Seeing Coppola’s name attached a Frankenstein project in the ‘90s could easily make one believe that the finished product was an out-and-out horror film. It is only one of the elements which could lead modern audiences astray. Frankenstein, in today’s popular culture, has become a horror product. 1931’s Dracula may have gotten the ball rolling for horror films in Hollywood, but it was Frankenstein, released the same year, which showcased the possibilities of horror films, and sent every major Hollywood studio scrambling to follow in Universal’s wake.
Frankenstein continued to be portrayed in this light throughout most of the twentieth century. I’m think it’s probably safe to say that the horror-movie incarnations of Mary Shelley’s creation are a little better-remembered today. After all, Frankenstein’s Monster, like Dracula, has simply become part of our culture (even if we do insist on calling the Monster Frankenstein – but I digress). So, for anyone who, like me, was going into this movie today, we had several decades worth of preconceptions to put up with. However, there was one vital difference between Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film and all the others: it was called Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Now, I do not purport to be anything like a literary professor who has analyzed Shelley’s writing time and time again, but I like to think that I know a little bit more about the novel than the average layperson. And there is one little, albeit very important fact, which I would like to contest: Mary Shelley’s novel isn’t very scary. At the time of its initial publication, I do however feel that Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus sent a shiver or two up the spines of its readers. The idea was pretty taboo, especially in 1818. The idea of a man, a mere mortal, playing God and creating life was a thing of mythology, like Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, or Pygmalion. The concept of the mad scientist was simply unheard of in fiction because it had never been done before. The other thing, which most people do not seem to realize, is that Frankenstein was not a Gothic novel. Mary Shelley’s novel was written during the Romantic era, a literary movement which dwelled on emotions, and the importance of life. Gothic novels were almost the polar opposite; preoccupied by death and decay. It’s actually an interesting reversal; the original Frankenstein was preoccupied by life while the movie adaptations which followed were constantly moored in death.
So, with a title like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the style and the tone of Branagh’s film would have to mirror the original novel. So, what we get is not exactly an out-and-out horror film, but a very convincing drama. Now, I think I ought to mention how much I like Kenneth Branagh. He has rapidly become one of my favorite actors/directors; his 1996 adaptation of Hamlet being a film of truly epic proportions, and it is criminal that the film is so overlooked today (however that’s all discussion for another time). Now, Branagh as a director, prior to 1994, was mainly known for his Shakespearean work: he debuted in 1989 with Henry V and prior to Frankenstein had worked on an uproarious adaptation of the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing. The point is I cannot imagine a director like Branagh, so skilled in classical drama, being attracted to a project like Frankenstein based solely on its horrific possibilities.
Under Branagh’s hand, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein becomes an evocative character study of Victor Frankenstein, his fiancée Elizabeth, and, of course, The Monster. In this way, the movie is quite like its literary counterpart. Branagh manages to do all this while managing to jettison the book’s philosophical discourses. It’s a very well-handled drama, which, while not exactly scary, is still engaging viewing.
That’s not to say that the film is entirely without thrills. One of the film’s most thrilling scenes comes not from Shelley’s novel but the screenwriters’ imaginations. One of the other complaints leveled at the film is that a movie entitled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the movie does change some of the plot. I should put up a SPOILER warning for the following passage so… SPOILERS. Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth (per the novel), Victor Frankenstein goes off his rocker and decides to bring her back to life. He is successful in his endeavor, only to be confronted in his lab by the Monster who believes the resurrected Elizabeth is his requested bride. Elizabeth cannot handle the pressure of the situation and lights herself on fire and in the process burns Victor’s lab to the ground. END OF SPOILERS
That bit of final act mayhem is certainly not in Mary Shelley’s original, but it serves to add a little bit of horror to this film which so many people complain is not scary. By doing what he does, Victor goes completely off his rocker; in the process of creating a human being, Victor Frankenstein completely loses his humanity. It’s not the blood-and-thunder, in-your-face type of horror which so many associate with Frankenstein, but it’s a subtler kind of horror, more in-keeping with the original novel and its tone. Retaining the tone and nuance of the novel is something which cannot always be said for Coppola’s own horror film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
So, here’s the point in all of this: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great film. Sure it isn’t exactly scary, but neither was its source material. And despite keeping its creator’s name in the title and then going and changing plot points, those changes don’t conflict with the original story or its original tone. Today, it’s a film which is sadly overlooked because modern audiences level mediocre reviews at it. So, I say give it a try. Just make sure that you have a completely open mind going into it, and you too can see what a minor masterpiece the movie actually is.
As a side-note, I will be changing things up a bit next time as I have looked at horror films quite a bit lately on this blog. What can I say: I like horror movies?