Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a 1994 feature film adaptation of the classic novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818). The film was directed by Kenneth Branagh , who also stars as Victor Frankenstein. The film presents a relatively faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's source text and co-stars Robert De Niro as the Creature and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth.
The film opens with Arctic explorer Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn ) discovering Victor Frankenstein. Through flashbacks, Victor relates his happy childhood in Geneva, Switzerland; his studies in Ingolstadt, Germany; and then the story of his scientific experiment to create life. Victor had optimistically assumed that such an experiment would allow mankind to avoid the sorrow of death, but it culminates in his bringing to life a hideously ugly creature. The creature, embittered by Victor's abandonment of him and his mistreatment at the hands of others, seeks revenge against Victor and his family. The film chronicles the creature's quest to exact vengeance on those closest to Victor, including his brother, his father, and his bride, Elizabeth. In return, Victor then follows the creature into the Arctic, where the former finally passes away and the creature then kills himself.
Similarities to Original Source Text
This film follows the novel's plot more closely than many other adaptations.
One significant difference between this film and many other adaptations is its preservation of the novel's frame narrative. Most adaptations, film and text, entirely remove the subplot of Arctic explorer Robert Walton as an audience for Frankenstein's memories within the text. Others keep the frame narrative but remove Walton from the story. For instance, in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) , Frankenstein still tells his story to someone unfamiliar with the events, though in this film he talks to a priest and Walton is not a character at all. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, however, not only retains Walton in the same role he performs in the book but also in the same setting--the Arctic. Preserving the specific details of the original frame narrative is one reason the film is considered one of the more faithful adaptations of the story.
Another significant similarity between this adaptation and the novel is its presentation of the creature. In the original novel and in this film, the creature educates himself and becomes articulate and intellectually sophisticated. Many other adaptations instead present the creature as inarticulate and slow-witted. In keeping this aspect of the creature's personality, as well as the original text's frame narrative, Branagh's film perhaps seeks to establish itself as a more truly authentic adaptation to the piece for viewers who subscribe to fidelity discourse models for judging adaptations.
Motif of Writing
A subtle homage to the original novel is also present in the emphasis the film gives to writing. In the source text, the story is related through an epistolary narrative structure, and there are frequent references to writing--the characters write each other letters, Frankenstein keeps records of his experiments, etc. The film acknowledges these aspects of the original with frequent scenes that show the characters also writing or using objects associated with writing.
For instance, early in the film, at the dance celebrating Victor's graduation and impending departure to study at Ingolstadt, his father presents him with a gift from his late mother--a journal. The journal itself is blank, except for his mother's inscription noting that it is Victor Frankenstein's journal and will be filled with his deeds. On its most basic level, the scene provides Victor with the journal that he will record his findings in and that later allows the creature to guess his creator's identity. It also provides situational irony to the tale--the gift that was supposed to celebrate Victor's achievements aided his most significant achievement (the creature) in destroying him. Apart from these details, the emphasis on the journal as a treasured gift also establishes the importance of writing to these characters, and it is one that is echoed throughout the film.
After Victor leaves for Ingolstadt, writing is used as a gauge of his mental health. Initially, he writes his cousin and love interest, Elizabeth, as well as the rest of his family regularly. One scene shows Elizabeth reading aloud one of his letters to the other members of the household, as Victor recounts his friend Clerval's difficulties in passing anatomy. A separate, more intimate letter is including to her in which he fantasizes about their wedding night. She refuses to share this letter with the others. This scene emphasizes the importance of writing within the context of the film, as well as the historical period, in which letters were the only real means of communicating with distant loved ones. The obvious pleasure that Victor's family gets from receiving the letter and the fact that Victor wrote it to relay relatively mundane updates on his studies and his life, as well as to convey his love for Elizabeth, further emphasize the importance of writing to these characters.
As Victor descends into further obsession with his experiment, Elizabeth worriedly notes that he has stopped writing. Unaware of the true cause, she assumes he is sick with cholera, which is ravaging the city. Given the early privileging of writing in the film, this cessation of writing is significant and is an early warning of the consequences of Victor's experiment. Furthermore, the importance of letters is especially emphasized when Elizabeth confesses to Justine, the family's servant, that for months she had been writing weekly letters and pretending they were from Victor to prevent his father from worrying. The letters, then, serve as a litmus test of Victor's mental function, but they also are a continuation of the emphasis on writing that recurs throughout the film.
After Victor brings the creature to life, he records his disappointment in his journal. Significantly, he also notes to himself that the journal will be destroyed to keep his experiment secret. This scene, then, affirms the importance of writing. He may have stopped writing his family, but that doesn't mean he stopped writing. Rather, he redirected his attention in writing to his obsession with his experiments. The fact that he acknowledges he must destroy his writing about the experiment underscore his realization that what he has done is unacceptable and dangerous. Nevertheless, Victor cannot resist adding the final few lines to record his disappointment with his results, though he knows he will destroy the record the next day. The scene, then, indicates that there is a natural human desire to record experiences in writing, even negative experiences.
Taken together, this emphasis on writing serves two purposes. On a strictly practical level, the scenes involving writing help establish characterization and also advance the narrative by providing character's internal thoughts so that the audience has a better understanding of motivation and plot. On a symbolic level, though, the motif also explicitly connects the film with its source text. Because the scenes constitute an acknowledgement of the importance of preserving a record of human experience in writing, they also serve to affirm the film's merit. In the modern era, newer means of transmitting and recording knowledge are available. People are not just limited to recording information in text-based journals and letters. They can also rely on newer technologies, such as film, to preserve knowledge. The film, then, pays homage to the original novel by using writing as a recurring motif while also defending its own existence as an adaptation of the novel.
Victor and The Creature as Doubles
One aspect of the film that both deviates from the original story while still portraying themes emphasized in the novel is the explicit doubling of Victor and the creature. The similarities between the two are hinted at in the original novel. For instance, in the novel, the creature seeks vengeance on Victor for creating him and abandoning him. He pursues Victor and then kills his younger brother out of spite. Toward the end, the situations have been reversed, and Victor is pursuing the creature to take vengeance for Elizabeth's murder.
These elements are present in the film adaptation, but the film makes this connection even more apparent in its presentation of the story. The scene where this doubling is most evident is after Elizabeth's death. Earlier, Victor had agreed to create a bride for the creature. However, he decided that he could not finish this experiment and destroyed her instead. The creature swore vengeance and promised Victor that he would also be deprived of a wedding night. These elements are all present in the book, but Victor's decision to then reanimate Elizabeth for himself is unique to this film. Essentially, through this action, he has done exactly what the creature wanted. Though the scene is not present in the original novel, it conveys a recurring theme from the original book--that Victor and the creature are more similar than either of them is willing or able to acknowledge.
Differences from Original Source Text
Inevitably, as with any adaptation, original plot details are altered or removed to accomodate the transition from text to film. For instance, the film removes any reference to the Safi subplot from the novel. However, the film's most obvious changes are the portrayals of the deaths of both Justine and Elizabeth. In the original novel, both die. That is one significant difference between this film adaptation and many others--many films do not portray the women dying onscreen or even rewrite the plot so that the one or both of the female characters live. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein preserves the women's deaths. However, the details of their deaths in Branagh's film are quite different from the source text. These differences reflect Jack Halberstam's argument about increasing misogyny within modern horror films. Halberstam argues that extreme violence against female characters has become the norm in contemporary horror films and that films from this genre now compete with each other to see who can depict the most disturbing act of violence against women.
In the source text, Justine is executed as the murderer of Victor's brother, William. However, the death occurs after a trial and is not described by witnesses. Indeed, Victor mentions the death and moves on. In the movie, however, Justine's hanging is graphically portrayed. Not only is the hanging viewed by the audience, but it is essentially a mob lynching with no trial to precede her demise. Furthermore, her death, in addition to being onscreen, is disturbingly graphic. The audience watches as she is dragged to the wall, screaming and protesting her innocence and pleading for Victor to help her, before the noose is put around her neck. She is then thrown over the side of the wall; again, the camera captures her screams as she falls before her neck audibly breaks. In contrast, William's death at the hands of the creature are only described by the creature. His suffering is not portrayed onscreen. The explicit focus on Justine's death meshes with Halberstam's argument that modern horror films now emphasize the suffering of women.
The depiction of Elizabeth's death is also much more graphic than in the book, further lending credence to Halberstam's argument. Elizabeth's corpse is briefly described in the original source text, but her actual death scene in which the creature strangles her is not narrated. In the film, however, her death is explicitly portrayed and is far more graphic than her fate in the book. In the film, the creature does not kill her by strangling her; instead, he rips out her heart. He then knocks her onto the floor, causing her to slam her face against a nightstand with a candle on it. As a result, her face and hair catch on fire. All of those actions are portrayed onscreen.
Afterward, Victor takes her corpse home to reanimate her. During this scene, some of the violence is off-screen, but it is clearly implied that Victor decapitates her. The camera lingers on him stitching her head onto Justine's corpse. After her reanimation, the scars and aftereffects of his surgery and the injuries she sustained from the creature's attack are clearly depicted. She then incincerates herself once Victor and the creature start fighting over her. The camera again lingers as she runs through the house, engulfed in flames, before plunging to her death.
One could argue that the graphic violence in Justine's death is just coincidental to Halberstam's argument. However, taken in conjunction with the extreme nature of the violence sustained by Elizabeth's corpse, the film supports Halberstam's claims that contemporary horror films emphasize violence against women in particularly graphic ways. In the film, it is not enough that Elizabeth die--she must die in a particularly graphic way, not even once but twice. In the interim, her body suffers even more graphic violence as her husband hacks off body parts and stitches her onto another woman.
These changes in Elizabeth's fate can be seen as an attempt to make this version unique, but it also reminds viewers of Halberstam's argument about the rise of increasing violence against women as a hallmark of the modern horror movie. The film participates in this contemporary horror trope with its brutal revision and portrayal of exactly how both Justine and Elizabeth encounter death.
Halberstam, J. Jack. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and The Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, and Helena Bonham Carter. TriStar Pictures, 1994. DVD.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. Ed. Susan Wolfson. 1818. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.
CONTRIBUTER: Shirley Rash (original)