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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Much like The Wizard of Oz, Mary Shelley’s seminal work has come to be defined in pop culture by an unbelievably piss-poor adaptation. The plot and the monster of Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein so scarcely resemble that of the source text that it’s almost like reading a completely different story altogether. However, “Frankenstein” has been in the public domain since well before the 1930s, and Universal can only claim a copyright on their bastardized adaptation of the text. Therefore, a more faithful adaptation could be pulled off with relative ease, and many have tried in the past few decades.

A more recent example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, made in 1994 under the direction of leading man Kenneth Branagh, who also produced the film alongside co-star Robert De Niro. Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and John Veitch also produced this movie after working together on Bram Stoker’s Dracula a couple of years prior. The screenplay was co-written by Frank Darabont, whose Oscar-nominated script for The Shawshank Redemption hit theaters that same year. Darabont would of course go on to many other outstanding projects in film and TV, though his Frankenstein co-writer, Steph Lady, only ever wrote this one screenplay and apparently went on to be a playwright in LA.

(Side note: I was interested to learn that Darabont himself has been very vocal in his dislike for this movie. He claims that it was a great script ruined by an artistic disconnect with the director. As you’ll see later on in the review, I’m inclined to believe him.)

Last but not least, Branagh and De Niro were surrounded by a cast including such talents as Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, and John Cleese. A pedigree of this magnitude, all gathered together with the goal of making a truly faithful adaptation of Shelley’s work. The film even opens with a quotation from the author herself.

Such a damn shame Branagh had to try and direct it, though.

This one had me baffled from the very opening. The text crawl didn’t help; if huge chunks of vital information are given to me by way of text instead of images, there had damn well better be a John Williams score for me to listen to while I’m reading. Anyway, the film then opens with a shipwreck that looks unbelievably hokey. Between the awful sound design, the terribly staged action, the laughable effects, and the clumsy writing, I found it very hard to take the scene seriously.

This, I’m sorry to say, was a portent of things to come.

The entire freaking movie suffers from ham-fisted writing, poor sound design, outlandish camera movements, overblown production design, and performances that are trying way too hard. I have no idea what happened here. I’ve seen Kenneth Branagh direct outstanding performances from worse casts than these, so why the hell does every actor in this movie look and sound like they’re playing to the cheap seats?

The lack of subtlety completely sinks this movie before it could ever get started. It’s impossible to be scared of a movie that throws everything at the camera like this one does, so it doesn’t work as a horror film. And since the story is presented without any semblance of nuance, it can’t be taken seriously as a work of intelligent science fiction either. I mean, I’ve read the book — it’s dense and the plot tends to get caught up in a lot of artistic flourishes, so it’s not like Mary Shelley was much of a storyteller either. But the book offers disturbing and macabre imagery that Branagh is laughably incapable of delivering. The guy can’t even imitate a third-rate Tim Burton, much less Mary Shelley.

Yet in spite of all that, the film still has one very powerful strong point in its favor. Part of that is of course the Monster.

The effects work on the monster is incredible, and De Niro gives a very moving performance that perfectly evokes the creature of the source text. He’s a being who’s conflicted with his own status as something new and completely alone. He despises Frankenstein for giving him this cursed existence, yet still gives him the love due to a father (even a negligent one, as Frankenstein is). Also, the creature starts out weak and incoherent, only to learn how to think and speak better than most humans, just like Shelley’s creation does.

Still, I do have a couple of nitpicks with the monster. First of all, Frankenstein of the books designed his creature to be a perfect specimen of great beauty. He didn’t come to see the monster as a horrible monstrosity until after the experiment was concluded. Compare that to Frankenstein of the movie, who uses a disease-ridden Robert De Niro as his primary specimen. Also, Frankenstein uses the brains of his old mentor (played by John Cleese), and that point never once comes back into play later on.

Speaking of which, it kind of bugs me that John Cleese’s character did pretty much all of the legwork in figuring out how to resurrect dead tissue, leaving only a few steps for Frankenstein to figure out. I realize that things need to be truncated in the process of adaptation, but that really does a disservice to Frankenstein as a character, and it’s not like there was anything more interesting happening in the first act anyway. Then again, the movie does take some clever liberties with the experiment, such as using acupuncture to involve electricity without the use of neck bolts. The use of electric eels, however, was just plain silly.

The movie doesn’t really start to feel like a truly faithful adaptation of Shelley’s text until the Monster finally gets on his revenge kick in the second half. Granted, the film is still bogged down by bad direction and lazy writing, and some of the themes aren’t presented quite as strongly as I might have liked. Even so, Shelley’s themes of paranoia, insanity, sin, redemption, mortality, loneliness, and other such concepts are all there. The film even throws in a revamped climax that actually adds to the source material in a few ways that are frankly quite genius.

It’s obvious that the filmmakers genuinely wanted to make a faithful adaptation and I’m sure that at least one person behind the scenes had a thorough understanding of Shelley’s book. Still, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a misfire. The primary strength of the book was in its dark and unsettling tone, which the filmmakers could only try and fail to replicate by making everything over-the-top. If Branagh had just handed the directorial reins to someone who knew what he was doing, this could have — and seriously should have — been a slam dunk.

Yet even for all of its many, many faults, this is still probably the most accurate Frankenstein adaptation we have to date. Though that’s hardly saying much.

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