Fictionalisations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Film

Fictionalisations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Film
© Photograph by Priscilla DO

In ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, Shelley introduces the film in an opening frame narrative as though she, and not Whale, were its auteur.

Bio-fictional author insertion can be traced to the earliest days of cinema (Vidal 4), but as Ann Marie Adams argues, Whale’s film can actually “be said to prefigure second-wave feminist arguments that attempt to secure Shelley’s authorship over her own tale by ‘embodying’ the author within her text”.

Presaging critical discussions of the monstrous feminine, Elsa Lanchester not only plays Shelley in the film’s frame narrative but also the titular ‘Bride’, or female creature, though she remains uncredited for this additional role. Shelley does not make another author cameo in film or television until the late 1980s, where despite her reclamation by feminists in the preceding decades her return is part of the decidedly conservative heritage craze.

As adaptations of the novel’s origin story, 1980s “heritage gothic” fictionalisations of Shelley-as-author combine history, horror and science-fiction. They are part neither of the realist “cycle of quality costume dramas” (Lloyd-Smith 126) defined by Andrew Higson as “heritage films” that were “centrally engaged in the construction of a national identity” under ‘Thatcherism’ (Monk 179), nor of the biographical drama or biopic, which was more broadly engaged in the creation of “public history” through the commercialisation of national icons (Polaschek 42).

Similarly, however, in both kinds of fictionalisation “the construction of the woman writer on the screen feeds on often contradictory cultural readings of female autonomy, as her quest for self-definition is predominantly set against the background of romance and the love interest tends to overshadow all other concerns” (Haiduc 52). In many of these adaptations, the Romantic model of reproductive creation becomes literal through Shelley’s depiction as a sexual (and sexualised) being.

Ironically, most heritage gothic adaptations of Shelley-as-author are North American, though several have British directors who were formerly involved in major British heritage productions. The most famous of these adaptations is undoubtedly Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (US/Japan/UK 1994), although Shelley does not actually appear in it.

Discussions of authorship are central to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, as are the parallels between authorship, creation and (sexual) reproduction. The metaphor of artistic or scientific creation as birth is made most explicit in the scene in which the creature (Robert De Niro) is given life: we see “a shower of electric eels — spermatozoa — descend from enormous bags resembling testicles to a container of amniotic fluid — a surrogate womb — where the creature is lying and from which he breaks out — the birth waters flood the ground — naked and helpless like a newborn infant” (García 228–9).

This reproductive metaphor is present on a more subtle level as well, as Professor Waldman (John Cleese), not Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh), is the “original” genius in this story. Frankenstein simply works from Waldman’s notes, and even uses his brain, to create the resurrected creature.

Despite Shelley’s prominence in the film’s title, her only direct appearance is in the opening voice-over, abridged from Shelley’s 1831 prologue to ‘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” (x).

In Branagh’s retelling — which appropriates Shelley’s name, exploiting her creativity and reputation — the focus is overwhelmingly on male creativity, particularly that of Branagh, its director and star.

The women who do appear in the film are treated as little more than disposable bodies, or at best foils for the male characters (see Elliott 225, Gill 95). Shelley seems to function similarly for Branagh; his interviews abound with personal projections about Shelley’s authorial intentions in ‘Frankenstein’. On one occasion he even ventures that she was “titillated” by the thought of sex with the creature — an idea which he links to his decision to reanimate Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), thus creating “sexual jealousy” between Victor and his monster (Fuller n.p.).

Shelley has a more visible position in fictionalised adaptations from the preceding decade, but she still appears primarily as a lover, a pupil or a devotee, as someone whose authorship is derived from intercourse (sexual or otherwise) with a greater male figure.

Such accounts imply that anyone in the company of these great men would have produced a similarly great tale, reducing Frankenstein’s creation to a process of implantation and gestation. Consequently, these retellings seem primarily interested in Shelley’s relationship with the Romantic poets, rather than her own identity as a writer. In feminist terms, this perspective also contributes to Shelley’s framing as a “reproductive” writer, rather than a “productive” one. Often, Shelley’s motherhood of Frankenstein is only possible through her metaphorical (or literal) impregnation by some greater seed of genius, inevitably from a male source.

For example, in the late 1980s a trio of films imagined the inception of Frankenstein in dramatically different but similarly sexualised terms. Where Branagh’s film is best linked to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (US 1992), and the revival of the sympathetic monster in 1990s cinema (Weinstock 278), these three films respond more clearly to the wave of heritage films coming out of the UK, adapting the literature and literary idols of the nineteenth-century to comment on the relationship between past and present.

They even cast familiar faces from the heritage industry, including Hugh Grant, Alice Krige and Julian Sands. In Ken Russell’s camp horror film ‘Gothic’ (UK 1986), Shelley and the others at Villa Diodati combine ghost stories with experimental drugs, causing their worst fears to come to life as gory hallucinations.

The film plays on the glamorous depiction of Romantic poets as the equivalent of twentieth-century rock stars, immersed in an almost metaphysical world of sex, drugs and art. ‘Haunted Summer’ (Passer US 1988), based on Anne Edwards’s 1972 novel of the same name, indulges in a similarly glorified sex-and-drugs lifestyle, but characterises the Shelleys and their companions as gentle hippies rather than boisterous rock stars.

‘Rowing with the Wind’ (Suárez Spain 1988) begins as a costume drama but slowly morphs into an erotic, psychological horror. Shelley (Lizzy McInnerny) is literally haunted by her past, and imagines her fictional creature has somehow come to life to murder her friends and family.

In all three films, Shelley’s character follows a similar arc, and Byron is the central figure. His relationship with Percy Shelley, an equally passionate but more naïve character, is the initial focus. Mary typically begins as a rather silent and reserved figure — particularly in contrast with Claire Claremont – clothed in bonnet, gloves and several layers of dress and coat. In each film, her calm exterior is gradually worn down by her proximity to Lord Byron and (to a lesser degree) Percy. Her relationship to Byron, whether directly sexual or a sexualised power struggle for Percy’s affections, plays a key role in each film’s climax.

As the film’s proceeds, Mary’s sensuality and sexual receptiveness are revealed, visually symbolised by her undressing from braids and gowns into a thin, white cotton nightgown and a loose halo of blonde hair. This sexual awakening also coincides with her establishment as a more vital and outspoken part of the narrative. It is her physical relationship with Byron and Percy and immersion in their world of drugs and poetry that enables her vision of Frankenstein. Her creativity is thus directly linked to her sexuality, and her ability to be receptive to the sexual and creative prowess of these Romantic poets.

In these three films, Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein and the Frankenstein narrative itself become symbolic of sexual and spiritual revelation. This psychoanalytical reading is one many Frankenstein scholars have explored in a feminist context, and it is certainly no coincidence that Shelley’s rising popularity as a fictionalised author closely follows her reclamation by feminist theory.

As Adams suggests, although “some critics still contend that Shelley’s impressionistic and dream-laden account of the summer of 1816 does much to diminish her own role in the genesis of Frankenstein, most scholars endorse feminist readings of the introduction that see it and the tale that follows as a peculiarly ‘feminine’ creation.”

These feminist critics are also responsible for many of the resulting psychoanalytic readings popularised by later adaptations. As Brian Stableford notes, however, when determining whether there are biographical origins for the diverse themes found in Frankenstein, popular fiction tends to oversimplify psychoanalytical theory, and popular “champions of these various meanings are usually content to interpret them as the result of a coincidence of inspirational forces in which the author’s role was that of semi-conscious instrument”.

This effectively allows authors to frame the text as a blank slate on which to inscribe their own, authoritative reading.

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