Frankenstein: From Book to Screen
Among the secret joys of many English teachers is that moment when reading an essay one is able to pounce on the realization that the student has put off reading the assigned novel and instead watched the movie adaptation.
As I was once one of those English teachers and my teenage sons are avid readers, this is not an issue in my home, but after reading a novel, we often watch a movie to discuss the differences. This was recently the case with Frankenstein.
I busied myself to think of a story which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror. One to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.
So begins Kenneth Branagh’s movie Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The text is from Mary Shelley’s explanation to the 1831, revised version of her novel. But despite this introduction and the title, this movie differs in countless ways from the novel, as had the many previous on-screen attempts. This is, in part, to do with the difficulty of translating any novel to film. First there are the problems of length; films are ill suited to capture the breadth of a full-length novel unless the novel consists mostly of cinematic elements such as detailed descriptions of landscapes that are more easily captured by the slow pan of the camera and romantic music. Good novels are more often faithfully translated to film in the format of the mini-series.
There is also the problem of visible action. Thought processes which occur in characters’ heads are easy to portray in print. It is natural for the reader to enter the characters’ alternating feelings of angst and triumph, but such subtle thoughts are difficult to portray in film. Even with hushed voice-overs, or characters talking to themselves or, as Woody Allen used to comic effect in his film Annie Hall, through the use of subtitles. Thus, in this film, a series of letters reporting events by Captain Walton is discarded in favor of actual action. What is lost are some of the motivations that, in any case, might not make sense to today’s audience. For example, in the movie Walton struggles to reach the North Pole as an adventure and a conquest of nature but, in the novel, there was the popular belief during the early 19th century, that a new land of eternal spring awaited.
After meeting Victor Frankenstein, the movie slips back through Victor’s childhood in Geneva, and alters the death of his mother from Scarlet Fever to an accident during childbirth. His childhood friend Henry Clerval does not appear in the movie until Victor goes to University; in another simplification of the plot, Clerval is also later spared death at the creature’s hands. There is a general shift of focus away from some characters and greater emphasis on the character of Victor. Victor is, after all, the main character of the novel and gives the book its name. But is part of the emphasis because the actor playing Victor and the director are the same person (Kenneth Branagh)? It is an impossible question to answer, but one can imagine that had actor Robert DeNiro been directing, there might have been far more (justifiable) emphasis on the feelings of his character, the creature.
Among the characters who do receive more emphasis is Victor’s professor, Waldman, played by John Cleese. In the movie, he is a disgraced figure whose earlier experiments on the nature of life produced “abominations.” This was based in part on his use of acupuncture, a treatment not mentioned in Mary Shelley’s novel and more likely a bow to contemporary interests. Victor is arrogant and undeterred, and pleads with Waldman to share his secrets. Waldman refuses but, after his death, Victor breaks into his study and steals the book of knowledge.
What follows are among the most gruesome slaughterhouse depictions of medical experiments found in the history of Frankenstein filmography. Branagh’s design team took their inspiration from period medical texts and descriptions of operations.
The monster inevitably escapes and befriends the DeLacy family. In the movie, the brother and sister are instead husband and wife, and their teaching of the children is the means by which the spying creature learns to speak and read. Waldman’s book, to which Victor has added notes, is the creature’s text; he does not come across and read the same philosophical books that were so familiar in Mary Shelley’s time. Much is deleted in the business and reasons for making the creature a bride but there is a dramatic scene in which Elizabeth, heart torn from her breast on her wedding night, is resurrected and, rather than choose between man and creature, she submits herself to self-immolation.
At this point, with all possible hope for love out of the way, the movie at last turns to the novel’s more philosophical ideas. Victor finishes his narrative with “Let this be a warning to men of ambition” and his advice is not lost on Captain Walton who makes the decision to abandon his quest. Walton’s funeral service for Victor includes the text from Ecclesiastes “...he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow....” Although this section is also a creation of the movie, it is an adaptation which serves the novel’s enduring message that tampering with the secrets of life, whether through crude medicine, genetics or nuclear science, must not be done without consideration of the greater ethical questions.
When I read the book as a child, it horrified me, as did an early movie adaptation that I watched between my outstretched fingers. For my son, though, it is more banal. He lives in an age that Shelley’s Frankenstein has since spawned far worse fictional and real monsters. In all this, are the lessons of the book lost to him?
That’s a question his English teacher should ask.