The 1980s were the best of the times and the…well, mostly they were the best of times. Then the 90s came. And they weren’t bad either, all peace dividends and dot.com booms after kids in the 80s defeated the Soviet Union and invented the Internet. But the 90s also produced a rather self-important strain of cinema. But authentic. You can tell because they stuck the original authors name on it. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The first time I read Frankenstein, I was struck by a couple things. One was how cool the artic expedition opening framing device was, and the other was that the book story itself could make a good movie as told. I would have surely picked Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the first place had I known of it. But when I realized I bought the wrong version of I, Frankenstein, I wasn’t about to pay for it again, so I just rented Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein instead. A fine reflection on the 90s, I think.
The 90s were the decade CGI exploded, but we’re still on the cusp here. Directors were a little more self-serious in those days. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein probably suffers in particular from a combination of Hollywood firepower and over ambition. Robert De Niro plays the monster (more on him later) and Francis Ford Coppola was a producer. A young Frank Darabont gets partial credit for the screenplay. But most of the blame probably lies with Kenneth Branagh. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was one of the first movies he directed, sandwiched by Shakespeare adaptations. The overwrought, overacting that pervades the movie probably owes something to the stage and to the Bard. There are also far too many directorial flourishes in the first ten minutes of the movie, but after that I guess Branagh is satisfied that he has impressed Coppola and everyone else and mostly settles down. And if it’s overwrought, well then so was Shelley’s Victorian writing.
I do have to give I, Frankenstein credit. I assumed that it would be way too long, as most movies these days are. (The 1931 version of Frankenstein? 71 minutes long.) But I, Frankenstein is only 92 minutes long. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, on the other hand, is 123 minutes long. The 90s saw the rise of the 3-hour movie (personally I’ve long viewed Braveheart as the turning point). And hallelujah for that in many cases (Braveheart itself, and without 3-hour movies there is no Peter Jackson adaptation of The Lord of the Rings). But Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t one of those cases. It isn’t just overwrought, it’s overlong. Frankenstein isn’t a long book (it takes up far less space than Dracula in the double-feature I own). But even short books can fill a lot of screen time. The film is a little self-indulgent at times, but my complaint is more one of overall effect than of individual choices.
I won’t bore you with exposition, because Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hews very closely to the plot of the book. But then, if you only know Frankenstein from the 1931 movie, then this will be quite strange to you. We first encounter Victor Frankenstein in the Artic before flashing back to his life in Geneva. It’s only after he leaves Switzerland for school that he begins the experiments that will culminate in his famous creature.
One of the problems with close adaptations is the tendency to transfer over the story’s sinew and bone but somehow forget the heart. (You see what I did there?) I briefly touched on this in my review of Luke Cage, but one thing about modern storytelling that I cannot abide is the rejection of anything but selfishness for human motivation. And so it is here. Frankenstein is driven not by an all-consuming desire for knowledge, growing and malforming until it becomes the Moby Dick to his Ahab, but by a desire to cheat the death of his mother and later his mentor, Waldman.
And the movie robs Frankenstein not only of motivation but of accomplishment—his success is not his own but based on Waldman’s work. That was one legacy of the 1931 movie that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein couldn’t shake. Victor Frankenstein is still robbed of his arc.
As expected, electricity is key to reanimation (it’s easy to forget that Shelley omitted telling us anything), but also acupuncture, which is a nice touch not asked to do too much. De Niro’s acting with his body isn’t nearly as good as Boris Karloff’s, but his acting with his eyes is between good and exceptional. The makeup and costuming are much closer to the creature as described in the book and more effective than the 1931 version, if only because the 1931 version has long since begun to slide from iconic to parody. The malevolence with which De Niro imbues his lines will make you wonder why they ever thought it was a good idea to turn the creature into a mute.
The most curious facet of this depiction of the creature is his “birth.” Overlong runtime notwithstanding, Branagh finds time for a bizarre, protracted scene featuring a shirtless (why?) Frankenstein repeatedly trying and failing to help his naked creation stand while both are coated in the fillings of the box used for the creature’s reanimation, which apparently was KY-Jelly. What is it supposed to symbolize? I haven’t the foggiest, beyond “I’m not nearly the auteur I think I am.”
It’s not that the shadow of the 1931 movie isn’t present, though. There are a few callbacks (each a subversion). The camera lingers on Wardman’s brain—the brain used is still prominent, but this time it’s not a criminal’s brain. The “Arabian” from the book is replaced by a little boy and girl at the blind man’s hovel, but the creature never interacts with her. And a lynch mob once again appears, but with a very different target (a particularly visceral scene).
There is also a substantial departure in the final act of the movie. I won’t discuss it, in order to avoid spoilers of both the book and movie, but again Frankenstein is robbed of agency.
So I have my answer as to why no one ever tried to make a faithful adaptation of Shelley’s book. Someone did, and it wasn’t very good. That’s really Branagh’s fault, though. He couldn’t do the material justice. But if you’ve just finished the book and would really like to see it imagined on film, you owe it to yourself to pick up this version. Just don’t go in expecting too much.