In 1818 a novel was written that tingled people’s minds and thrilled literary critics alike. Frankenstein was an instant success and sold more copies than any book had before. The immediate success of the book can be attributed to the spine-tingling horror of the plot, and the strong embedded ethical message. Although her name did not come originally attached to the text, Mary Shelley had written a masterpiece that would live on for centuries.
Nearly 200 movies have been adapted from the text since the birth of Hollywood. Most recently though (1994), is Kenneth Brannaugh’s rendition entitled “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Although Brannaugh makes a spectacular attempt to emulate Shelley’s masterpiece, the film does not accurately capture the presence of the original text, and nor could it be expected to. Although Frankenstein was considered a horror in the 1800’s, audiences today are much more desensitized to violence and scariness, thus Brannaugh had to manipulate the original text in order to shock the modern-day viewer. If Brannaugh had produced a movie that followed the original 1818 text, it would have been mind-numbingly static on screen. Also, the concept of Hollywood itself was a vice to Brannaugh’s reproduction. Today, the movie industry is about making as much money as you can, and this responsibility usually falls to the director and screenwriters of the film. It is believed that the more action packed and gory a film is, the greater the turnout at the box office will be, and hence the more money the movie will make. Although Kenneth Brannaugh’s movie offers the audience a greater thrill with the aid of gory cinematography, the book invokes the reader’s imagination and conveys better the original moral message and intentions of the author.
Movies are often forced to use an omniscient point of view rather than a narrative, and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is no exception. The book is written as a frame narrative, but this sort of presentation is almost impossible to reproduce on screen. Robert Walton’s letters to his sister, and the monster’s long autobiographical narratives were both omitted from the film for this reason. A big asset to narrative voice is the reader acquires a more thorough impression of the charter’s thoughts and feelings. Without the use of this literary tool, Brannaugh had to rearrange scenes, add dialect where there was none before, and depend on the superb theatrical ability of the actors.
The movie starts off very true to the text with Walton’s ship becoming logged in the ice in the arctic. Despite some minor changes, the film follows the book pretty closely until the death of Frankenstein’s mother is described. In the novel, she contracts scarlet fever after caring for Elizabeth, and “died calmly…her countenance express[ing] affection even in death” (Shelley, 72). In the movie, she collapses while dancing with Victor, and soon after dies while giving birth to his brother William. This scene is filled with screaming, blood and gruesome images as the mother dies in a fit of pain and agony. Victor runs into his mother’s room and is met by the site of her covered in blood and lain strewn on a broken chair. He then proceeds to throw himself on top of her and cry “bring her back, oh please bring her back.” This scene is very theatrical and perhaps a bit overacted as the actors try to transmit Frankenstein’s future motive for his actions. The book conveys the same motives but does so in a much subtler way.
Shelley has been long critiqued for her portrayal of women in her novel. Both Elizabeth and Caroline are obedient subservient women who do not question the men of the household. However, in the movie there are instances where these characters show their stubborn natures and defiant personalities. When Caroline is dancing with Victor she refuses to stop because of her condition, and when she is dying giving birth to her child she screams at her husband to save the baby and not her. Elizabeth shows the same stubborn streak when she refuses to wait for Victor to come to her, and instead travels to Ingolstadt in order to bring him back with her. When he refuses to leave his work, she stays in a city rampant with cholera until he changes his mind. Brannaugh was able to make his female characters strong where Shelley’s could not because it is acceptable for women of today to act like that, whereas in the 1800’s it would be considered a terrible act of disobedience.
In the movie Victor arrives in Ingolstadt with the intention of becoming a doctor. He meets professor Waldman who becomes his mentor and provides him with the starting knowledge he needs to perform his experiments. While giving vaccinations to the townspeople Waldman is killed by a man who pulls out a knife and stabs him in the belly. Frankenstein does everything he can to bring his mentor back, but his efforts are in vain. In the text, Waldman does indeed become Victor’s mentor but he is not killed. Brannaugh used the death of Waldman to stir Frankenstein’s drive to reanimate the dead. Also, this provided him with another opportunity to add blood and gore to a scene with the intention of showing Victor’s relentless hatred of death.
After the death of Waldman, Victor begins to collect body parts to construct his being. When he has finished his creation, he places the body on a rack and begins the spectacular reanimation process. In comparison to the book this scene is totally overdone. The text shows a solemn Frankenstein looking over the body of his creation with horror as its yellow eyes look up at him. There is no dramatic electrical show or mechanization involved, just Victor on the floor awakening his monster. However, in the movie, a muscular half-naked Frankenstein is seen running from one end of his lab to the other flicking switches and pulling levers. When all falls silent he leaps upon the iron sarcophagus/womb and shouts at the being inside “LIVE, LIVE!” This whole scene is very dramatic and excites the viewer, which was Brannaugh’s intention. If the textual version were used, the scene would be mind-numbingly boring.
In the movie, when the monster is animated, Victor embraces him and tries to show him how to walk. It is only when he thinks he has killed him that he laments the horrific act he has committed and vows never to do it again. This scene provides the audience with a sense that victor has compassion for his creation and not just hatred like the book conveys. This compassion is shown again when Victor is in the cave with the monster. In both the movie and the book the monster asks victor here if he will create a companion for him. In the movie, Victor does not seem afraid of his creation; instead he seems sorrowful and laments his actions to the monster. He agrees almost the minute the monster asks him to build a companion for him saying, “if I can right this wrong I have committed I will do so.” However, in the book Victor calls the monster a devil and refuses to provide him with a companion. Only when the monster threatens to kill Frankenstein’s family does he agree to make him a companion. Because Brannaugh does not present the audience with a vision of Frankenstein malignant with hatred, he must create a scene that will drive Victor on his journey north to kill the monster.
It is a well-known fact that the monster kills Elizabeth on her and Victor’s wedding night as punishment for not making him a companion. However, Brannaugh’s recreation of this scene is a blasphemy to the text. The scene begins with a soaking Victor and a half-naked Elizabeth in their room. They begin a torrent love scene complete with mild nudity and ripping clothing when Victor hears a flute playing (the monster learned to play the flute) and dashes out of the room with his gun. The moment he leaves the room the monster is on top of Elizabeth pinning her to the bed. When Victor realizes what happens he dashes in to the room and watches as the monster reaches into Elizabeth’s chest and pulls her beating heart from it. In the book an exhausted Victor enters the room and finds Elizabeth strangled and faints at the sight. Brannaugh’s bizarre addition to the text does not stop with the gory death of Elizabeth. Frankenstein grabs Elizabeth up into his arms and proceeds to take her back to his house where his lab has been set up. The whole reanimation scene is recreated and the new Elizabeth (her head attached to Justine Moritz’s torso) is brought to life. An ecstatic Victor grabs her up into his arms once again, and dances around the room with her asking her to say his name. The monster enters believing this is his new companion and the two fight over her. She realizes what she has become, grabs a kerosene lamp and drops it on her head engulfing her, and the whole house in flames. This scene is remarkably overdone and totally ridiculous. Shelley never intended to have Elizabeth come back to life, this event is a total Hollywood creation; it has everything modern-day box office hits need: sex, violence, blood and suspense.
It is easy to see why a movie can never accurately recreate the intentions of the author, especially in today’s film industry. Movies must sell, and in order for that to happen they must have some sort of intensity. Although Kenneth Brannaugh created a viable version of Frankenstein, he was not able to convey Mary Shelley’s intentions as the text did. Brannaugh was wholly concerned with thrilling the audience instead of exposing the moral message embedded in the text.