Frankenstein Variations, Part 2
Directed by Jack Smight
Written by Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont
I hope no students attempted to get out of reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by watching either of these two film versions. If so, the grades they received must have been rather low.
Of the hundreds of versions out there, from the 1910 version for Thomas Edison's company to Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, the two with seemingly the greatest pretensions to faithfulness, based on their titles, are Frankenstein: The True Story, a 1970s TV version, and Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Fidelity does not guarantee quality, however, and although the latter is closer to the plot of the novel, the former is far more interesting and a better work of art.
(Another version, which I've only seen parts of, and not for decades, Victor Frankenstein, is available on DVD as Terror of Frankenstein. Even the creation sequence took place in a cottage, not a castle, and was decidedly low-tech.)
The most disappointing thing about both F: TTS and MSF is that is that while both adaptations do include rather more of Shelley's plot elements and characters than most, Frankenstein’s creation is so much less articulate than in the novel where, although he is born with a mind like a new-born babe, he becomes eloquent and educated by teaching himself to read Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, among other tomes.
Another thing that bothered me about both films is that in neither does Frankenstein discover the secret of creating life himself; that feat belongs to his mentor. Frankenstein just follows instructions. Also, when the mentor dies, he takes his brain and places it in their creation (Shelley never cites the origins of the brain, thus avoiding troublesome questions of whether it's memories and mind would survive intact).
Additionally, in Branagh’s film, when the Creature kills Elizabeth, Frankenstein uses her brain in the Creature’s mate. However, she retains her memories, and commits suicide rather than continue living in such a state -- a twist that seems to have been lifted whole from another film, the 1990 Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (based on a novel by Brian Aldiss, a curious mix of the novel, Shelley’s life and time travel).
By making the creature look and sound like Robert De Niro, I knew the picture was in trouble from the start. While I don't ask for total fidelity, he neither looks or sounds like the book’s creature, being bald (the creature had luxurious black hair and white teeth because Frankenstein was trying to make him beautiful) and unable to speak clearly because of an injury to his mouth that was evidently part of the reanimation process. He is also clearly a patchwork collection of body parts, the stitches everywhere evident, although Shelley never describes any such stitching. That was an invention of Universal Studios' Jack Pierce.
(You can argue that they would have to be visible, since the creature is described as being made from parts of dead people AND animals, but Shelley wasn’t writing a realistic story.)
The monster De Niro most closely resembles is the shoddy creature from Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), and no one should aspire to that.
Looking at one-star reviews of the film on Amazon, most seem to object to the "birth scene," in particular to Branagh’s Frankenstein not wearing a shirt, but that’s actually my favorite scene in the film. Branagh and the screenwriters have decided to get away from the strictly electrical means of bringing the creature to life (Shelley’s Frankenstein doesn't explain how he brought the monster to life for fear someone will try it again) for one involving chemicals, fluids and an artificial womb or similar.
On the plus side, it does begin and end in the Arctic, when Capt. Walton finds Frankenstein pursuing the monster, and ends with the monster apparently committing suicide (as the creature in the novel swore to do), and follows many other key points from the book. Still, it fails to feel like a true adaptation of the book and I don’t like it. What a lost opportunity.
Leonard Whiting is Frankenstein, David McCallum is Henry Clerval (in this version, another doctor who is working on creating life) and Michael Sarrazin is the Creature.
Significant characters not found in Shelley include Prima, a female creation, portrayed by a young Jane Seymour, and Dr. Polidori -- another creation-minded scientist, named for Lord Byron’s personal physician (who was present when Shelley began Frankenstein) and based in part on Dr. Praetorius from the film The Bride of Frankenstein -- played by James Mason.
F: TTS only follows the roughest outline of Shelley's book, but is entertaining and playful, not ugly and somber (as was MSF). Young Frankenstein meets Clerval, an older scientist with a bum heart (foreshadowing!) who is already trying to create life. Together, Clerval and Frankenstein assemble a creature. When Clerval dies, Frankenstein puts his brain (which does not retain his personality or knowledge, except on rare occasion) into the creature's body, which he then brings to life in a pyrotechnic display powered by solar energy (it was the ’70s). The creature awakens looking beautiful (well, if you find Michael Sarrazin beautiful, anyway), perfect and unscarred, and with a childlike personality. Unfortunately, Frankenstein slowly realizes that the reanimation process is causing the body to decay, so soon the creature looks ugly and Frankenstein is clearly repulsed by him. The now ugly creature attempts suicide by leaping from a cliff, but he survives. Eventually, after much mayhem, the survivors end up on a ship bound for the Arctic, and Frankenstein acknowledges his culpability, leading to an ending similar to the ending of the first play based on the novel, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake.
I hope to live long enough to see a really good AND faithful film version of the book.
(True Story is currently available on DVD, as is Branagh's film.)