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Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,

           versus Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

                                   by Tom Wolfsehr

Kenneth Branagh's film, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, includes a
number of elements of the novel important to the many readers who
regret that the arctic pursuit and setting in which Frankenstein tells
his story and the Creature's ability to speak are absent in previous
cinematic treatments. Many of the changes Branagh made preserve
and even enhance the story, as is the case with his having Victor
restore life to the murdered Elizabeth. However, while Branagh
deserves credit for having brought to the screen a motion picture that
is in some ways far more faithful to the original work, his film so
distorts other elements of the novel that Mary Shelley's name does not
belong in the title.This criticism is prompted by the unintended
disservice the title does to Shelley's purpose in writing the novel,
to her family, and to the reading world.

As stated in the preface, an important purpose of Shelley's Frankenstein
is the "exercise of any untried resources of mind". The dedication of the
novel to her father, William Godwin, suggests the kind of exercise she
designed. Godwin observed that, all too often, vital questions are not asked,
with the result that opportunities to produce better results are ignored. In
order to demonstrate the great value of her father's insight, Shelley left the
story unfinished. Discrepancies, unexplained changes, gaps, and curious
inclusions are parts of the machinery Shelley provided that allow the reader
to discover some truth in the way Godwin said truth eventually appears with
"double lustre" in the sequel. It is this machinery that Branagh discarded.

Frankenstein is a novel designed to generate a sequel.  Walton's
narrative ends with a moment about to explode with discovery, yet
we readers do not at first recognize the possibilities suggested in the
preface and by the information Walton provides. We accept that Victor
Frankenstein is dead, even though Walton tells us how unreliable any
report of his of such an event might be.  We accept that the Creature is
doomed to die alone in the arctic night,  forgetting Walton's promise and
the consequences of breaking that promise as much as he does. We prove
ourselves to be readers in a state of enervation, something the preface says
the author seeks to avoid. We do not exercise the untried resources of mind
that Shelley purposed. Close examination of the changes Shelley made to
Frankenstein in 1831, together with  her response to theatrical productions
based on her novel, indicate her appreciation of the attention it receives,
but also her desire that the reader notice the "machinery" of the story. She
refers to "it" as her hideous progeny, which she again bids "go forth
and prosper". Those changes Branagh made to the story that steer us away
from Shelley's purpose deny it the prosperity she expected its careful design
to eventually achieve.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

The person Walton believes Frankenstein created disappears in the
darkness and distance. Frankenstein has often appeared to be dead
to Walton during a period of at least a week. The ship's surgeon does
not expect his patient to live many hours, but has not yet pronounced
him dead. There is nothing to indicate that the crew has any knowledge
of what Frankenstein has told Walton, nor is there anything to indicate
that they are fearful of the person they saw on the ice the day before the
stranger was rescued. Walton's relationship to Frankenstein is one
of benefit to each for different reasons. Walton loneliness is relieved
by the attention he receives from Frankenstein, whose sensibilities and
powers of expression attract Walton. Frankenstein's need to destroy the
person he has pursued makes Walton and the means at his disposal useful.
The relationship works against its members. Walton disregards the ship's
surgeon's orders, disturbing the rest Frankenstein needs. Frankenstein has
less interest in recovering his health, as he finds Walton willing to believe
his story without questioning the discrepancies in it that indicate it is a
fabrication. The relationship of  Frankenstein and the person he has
pursued has changed. The person pursued, although he, like Walton, thinks
Frankenstein is dead, regrets his part in the conflict.
 

Shelley's sequel possibilities:

Frankenstein and the person Walton believes Frankenstein created
may be reconciled in life. Because Walton broke his promise to kill
no albatross, the wind should cease, as happens in The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner he alluded to in March. If the wind ceases at the
moment the novel ends, the ice raft may be visible from the ship the
following day.  Shelley adds a supernatural event upon which the
sequel depends, one that alludes to Coleridge's poem. The Creature
tells Walton that he will leave the ship on the ice raft that brought him
to it. Either that ice raft is moved by the power of the author of the
novel, or Walton's ship is sailing in a circle. In either case, the design
of the novel makes it inevitable that the ship and the ice raft meet again.
In light of the encounter between the delegation of the crew, among other
things, it is evident that, while Walton privately gave credence to
Frankenstein's story, he did not inform the crew of the additional dangers
to which they were exposed when trapped in the ice. This major
discrepancy serves Shelley's purpose in several ways. The crew has no
reason not to effect rescue. This situation will present Walton with a
plethora of  "the exquisite combinations of human feeling" mentioned in
the preface. The matter he thought was put to rest returns with the added
complication for him that his own part in it is sure to be the point of focus.

The ship's surgeon may find that his patient's fever has broken and, on
hearing of the rescue of the person he has pursued, is willing at last to
take the nourishment necessary for his recovery. Reconciliation between
Frankenstein and his enemy will eliminate Walton's usefulness to
Frankenstein. Walton is likely to feel betrayed by Frankenstein, as well
as jealous of the new relationship between Frankenstein and his former
enemy. Frankenstein is likely to abandon his creation, which is the story
he told Walton, not his former enemy. Since Walton is the only person to
whom he has told the story, he may even deny that Victor Frankenstein is
his name. His own corrections and additions to the story Walton wrote
may prove useful in that regard. He has much to draw upon to prove beyond
a reasonable doubt that he merely made suggestions to Walton as to how
Walton's fiction might be improved. The pursuit to the arctic in Walton's
novel may be seen as inspired by the actual the pursuit of the two men the
ship encounters.Those who have known Walton best know that, before he
set his sights on exploration of the globe, his ambition was to make a name
for himself as a writer. Any attempt on Walton's part to convince anyone
that he is not the author of the story is doomed to great frustration and
certain failure. In any case,  the sequel promises much that will cause to
develop in Walton "the exquisite combinations of human feeling" Shelley
promised in the preface. Her attribution of authorship of the preface to
Percy years later, may well be a way of adding yet another hint at what
her story's machinery was capable of.
 

Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein:

Walton's situation and character are completely changed. He doesn't
make the crucial promise to kill no albatross, neither does he kill any
albatross. He has no loneliness, no reason to believe the story
Frankenstein tells him, no reason to inflict punishment on or excoriate
Frankenstein's enemy, nor, and this is a bit odd, does he seem to have
any interest in knowing what actually happened between the son and
the father who pursued him. Branagh's Walton has no conflict with
regard to warning the crew of the menace that is out there. The crew is
already concerned about the vicious dog killer Branagh added to the
story. Reconciliation would not effect any significant change in Walton's
relationship with Frankenstein, nor is there any way examination of the
story might cause Walton any problem or produce in him "the exquisite
combinations of human feeling" that are available through Shelley's
version. The person Walton does not believe Frankenstein created is
consumed in the flames of Frankenstein's pyre. There is no sequel to
Branagh's Frankenstein. Gone is any need for us to learn how much we
have in common with Walton, for Branagh replaces the tragic protagonist,
removes the engine of what may well be the most instructive novel ever
written, and, however unintentionally, mocks the stupendous mechanism
of the creator by calling the result Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

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