Why Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Sucked

Just as Bram Stoker's Dracula wasn't really Stoker, this wasn't really Shelley, though it was a lot closer than Coppola was to Stoker and closer than any other adaptation of Frankenstein has been to Shelley. Still, it would've been better if they'd titled it, say, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (the full title of the original novel) and just given Shelley a "based on the novel by" credit.

I was disappointed in this movie on both fronts: as an adaptation of my favorite book in the whole entire world and as a movie. It is well-crafted, and Branagh gets fine performances out of almost everyone (the exception is Aidan Quinn as Captain Walton; more on that in a bit), though he overues fancy camera angles to a degree he never did as a neophyte film director. He's always been fond of the rotate-the-camera-around-the-scene (used perhaps to best effect in one of the antique shop scenes in Dead Again), but he overuses it in MSF, to the point where I wanted to scream, "Sit still!" at the screen. Too many vertigo-inducing bird's eye shots, too.

Also some scenes seemed out of place. The dramatic confrontation on Mont Blanc was staged like it was a superhero battling a supervillain, with giant leaps and dramatic falls down ice floes, and silly things like that that served no purpose. And when the monster is first awakened, the ground is covered in amniotic fluid, and there's a too-long demi-vaudeville bit where Victor and the creature keep trying to get up and slip on the fluid and fall down again.

My real problems with the movie are the expansion of the Victor-Elizabeth relationship, which comes at the expense of the monster's story, and the alterations made for the express purpose of making Victor heroic.

The character of Elizabeth Lavenza in the novel serves one primary purpose: to be killed by the monster. Okay, it's more complicated than that, but this is a woman who's devoted to Victor whom he mostly loves back, but the impression is that he loves her because he's supposed to. In the movie she's beefed up considerably, to the point where Victor and she are a lovely, charming couple (like Branagh and Emma Thompson were in Henry V, Dead Again, and Much Ado...) who have a wonderful time when together.

Which leads me to the major problem.

Victor in the novel is not the hero. He's a scuzzwad, actually. He abandons the creature when he sees how hideous it is and repeatedly refuses to take any responsibility for his creation. Branagh and the screenwriters (Steph Lady and Frank Darabont) have made many alterations to the events to make Victor more heroic:

In the novel, Victor attended Ingolstadt to learn, period. No career path was in mind for him, but he did wish to study the natural sciences. His desire to create life from lifelessness was more out of a desire to do it, and to be remembered for doing it, than for any obviously altruistic purpose. Once he realized it could be done, he became obsessed with doing it at all costs.

In the movie, Victor is now specifically studying to be a medical doctor. He spells out his reasons for creating the creature as being to benefit humanity in one of those rotate-the-camera scenes with Henry Clerval and Professor Waldman (Tom Hulce and John Cleese). Now he's more heroic.

In the novel, Victor sees the creature, is horrified, and runs away from it. The next time he checks his lab, the creature is gone. Out of sight, out of mind: it's gone, Victor falls into an illness, and when he recovers, he puts it all out of his head.

In the movie, they add a cholera epidemic to the town around Ingolstadt, so when the monster escapes, Victor thinks it will die, as newborns are vulnerable to cholera (huh?). Not more heroic, but at least his behavior (forgetting the creature) is somewhat excusable.

In the novel, the monster, having sworn revenge on his creator who made him so ugly only a blind old man could stand to be near him, kills Victor's younger brother William and frames Justine Moritz, an old friend of the Frankenstein family, for the murder by leaving William's locket on her sleeping body. There is a trial, and Justine is hung. Victor knows that the creature is truly responsible, but refuses to say anything, because he cannot bear to reveal the secret of his creation to anyone, so he stays silent, and Justine dies by a legitimate hanging.

In the movie, the onus is taken off Victor because as soon as Justine is taken in as a suspect, a lynch mob comes to hang the child-killer before any kind of trial can happen. Victor has no opportunity to conceal his creation of the creature because everything happens too fast, so he comes across as more heroic.

In the novel, the monster extracts a promise from Victor to create a bride for him. He agrees at first, but at the last second changes his mind, refusing to inflict another hideous wretch such as this upon the world. The monster is furious, and promises, "I will be with you on your wedding night." (A great line from the book, which they didn't use in the movie.) Despite this promise, Victor marries Elizabeth, never once telling her that a huge, superstrong creature has threatened to crash the party, so to speak. And sure enough, on their wedding night, the monster comes in and kills her.

In the movie, Victor is happy to do this until the monster provides Victor with the corpse he wants Victor to reanimate: the hung Justine Moritz. Victor refuses then to complete the work, and only for that reason. The audience is meant to sympathize with him more (though I didn't). After the monster says, "If you deny me my wedding night, I will be with you on yours," Victor has about fifteen guards around him and Elizabeth after they are married and has told everyone about the creature. Mind you, the creature still goes in and kills Elizabeth (in an unnecessarily grisly fashion, I might add), but at least Victor tried his best.

Then there's the whole sequence where Victor tries to reanimate Elizabeth, as Branagh tries to work The Bride of Frankenstein in for no compellingly good reason. The whole sequence with Victor, the reborn Elizabeth, and the monster left me completely cold -- if nothing else, it took way too long. Even if the scene had to go in for whatever reason, Branagh dragged it out to "get on with it!" lengths.

And, to make matters worse, the monster's story is the one that's short shrift. Given that all the prior adaptations' main flaws have been in skimping on the monster's story (the best and most important part of the novel), it's galling that a movie called Mary Shelley's Frankenstein did the same. Several key sequences with the monster are removed (like his reading of Milton and Plutarch, which is one reason why he's so eloquent, his discovery of the dual nature of fire, his learning about the intricacies of nature). There's also a toning down of people's reactions to his hideousness, which is the only alteration to the novel that is out-and-out stupid and wrong (and based, I think, on a PC-ish unwillingness to let people only be affected by how someone looks; guys, this is the 18th century, when they burned people as witches because they had warts...). The whole reason why the monster becomes so miserable is because everyone thinks he's some huge lumbering thing that no one can stand to look at. But when he first stumbles through Ingolstadt, the villagers assume he's a cholera victim, and attack him for that reason. Victor doesn't react to his hideousness hardly at all. His reasons for being driven from the deLacey home have more to do with a misunderstood complaint from the smallest deLacey child than with the creature's bad looks. (It doesn't help that Robert DeNiro isn't really tall enough, nor big enough, to play this lumbering, hulking figure, though his acting work is, as ever, excellent.)

And then there's the abysmal performance by Aidan Quinn as Captain Walton, who has been turned from a slightly obsessive but brilliant explorer in the novel to a macho, posturing imbecile in the movie. Quinn sneers his dialogue and comes across as a complete schmuck. (He doesn't react to the creature's hideousness, either, offering him a place on the ship.)

[First posted on the "Keith R.A. DeCandido [KEITH.D]" topic on Genie on 3 November 1994.]


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