"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994) Was My Secret Pleasure for Years

Updated on April 4, 2019
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a 1994 horror drama directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein.

I remember first reading the book Frankenstein when I was very young and becoming obsessed with it. As always, I identified with the Creature because he was an outcast, scorned and shunned by society, when all he wanted to do was bring peace and love. The Creature wasn't born evil. He chose to become that way after having been subjected to the world's cruelty . . . but I'm jumping ahead of myself.

Anyway, I loved the book. And I loved that it was written by a woman -- who didn't have the help of a man, you misogynists who are reading this.

Because I loved the book so much, I was delighted to stumble across the film in a video store (remember those?). I grabbed a copy and fell in love with the film. I say it was a secret pleasure to watch this film because so many people hate it and openly ridicule it.

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For starters, there was that ridiculous scene where Victor and the Creation (Robert De Niro) slide around naked and wet for about ten to fifteen minutes in the Creation's "birth water."

I think this scene was supposed to symbolize the struggle of childbirth: the naked Creation wallowing around in confusion while its "parent" struggles to bring it into the world. The execution failed, though. It's a completely ridiculous scene, and I cringe for Branagh every time. The entire scene just makes your brain scream, "WHY???" endlessly.

Then there's De Niro's thick accent, which he can't seem to turn off for the film, leaving the Creature to sound like a downtrodden mob boss, as well as a host of other things besides.

But despite its flaws, I still enjoyed this film immensely. I enjoyed it enough that I've watched it several times over the years -- while skipping, of course, through the awkward "birth" scene.

Here's why.

Elizabeth Came to Life

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Perhaps it was Helena Bonham Carter's talent shining through, but the character of Elizabeth really came to life in this film.

In the book, Elizabeth is little more than a plot device with no personality and no background. I can't recall her having any lines. She was utterly boring, her sole defining attribute being her sweetness and innocence.

Basically, Elizabeth was there to make the reader hate the Creature and pity Victor.

In this film, however, Elizabeth is so much more. She is not merely a plot device -- she's a person. She's silly and fun and full of life. She teases Victor and steals his equipment while he's researching. The film goes to some lengths to show why Victor loves her and to make her interesting.

What's more, Elizabeth doesn't lie down and docilely take it when Victor treats her poorly. When he keeps blowing off their wedding, she packs her bags and is out the door.

She wasn't a doormat or pushover. She was strong, free spirited, and full of self-love.

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I also enjoyed that the film had a tragic "bride of Frankenstein" moment.

The Creature kills Elizabeth to hurt Victor -- and also to bait him into resurrecting her as his mate. Victor falls into the trap and does the selfish thing, bringing Elizabeth back to life. He and the Creature fight over her in the lab, until she comes to her senses and realizes what has happened.

The look Elizabeth gives Victor is heartbreaking. In despair, she sets herself on fire.

Victor, meanwhile -- rather than realizing he's done something awful and taking responsibility for his actions -- spends the rest of the film blaming the Creation for everything that's happened.

Film Clerval > Book Clerval

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I also loved Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Victor's best friend.

In the books, much like Elizabeth, Henry Clerval was boring, one-dimensional, and little more than a plot device there to make us pity Victor.

Let me pause here to make it clear that I love the book. The focus of the book was not character development but rather the theme of "humans are the real monsters."

Different writers have different styles. Some writers focus on character development over world building and lore. A good example of this would be A Song of Fire and Ice, where there are a lot of well developed characters that are primary -- not secondary -- to the books. I'm not a Martin fan, I just know this from listening to his fans rant.

Meanwhile, a writer like, say, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote stories where the world was primary and the characters secondary. In the Earthsea books, the world is the protagonist, not Ged or any of the other characters. (Also -- again for misogynists -- you were not supposed to see Genly Ai as a hero in The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin even confirmed it in an interview. He was a sexist. Just like you.)

Anyway. The point here is that I loved how the film developed Henry Clerval as a character.

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In this film, Henry was hilarious and also relatable. There was one scene in particular where Victor -- after having been ridiculed for his wild ideas in class -- is storming down the street while scribbling in a diary. Henry follows along behind him and teases,

"Dear Diary, I am not mad!"

Henry is also a really good friend. Each time Victor runs off to do something crazy, he is there trying to stop him or help him in some way. I can't recall him being that reliable in the book, only that the Creation murdered him like he murdered everyone else.

Justine's Death Was More Tragic

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Justine was such a minor and underdeveloped character in the book that I could hardly remember if she had been in the book. Like most of the book characters, she was just a plot device, there to fuel the fire between Victor and his bitter Creation.

Portrayed by Trevyn McDowell, Justine Moritz was a servant in the Frankenstein household. She was constantly berated by her overbearing mother, a subplot that was not in the book. I enjoyed that this was added to the film because it made Justine's death more tragic. It also made her more human and developed and interesting.

In other words, developing Justine's character further served the plot far better than leaving her so one-dimensional.

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I also enjoy that, for the most part, this film stuck to the book. I didn't enjoy all the unnecessary sex or the fact that Branagh couldn't keep his damn shirt on, but those are things I can overlook in order to enjoy the rest of the film.

That's it. I guess I basically just enjoyed this film because it expanded on the characters so much in ways that the original book did not. I happen to enjoy stories that focus on character development.

So I guess that's why I love this film.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Own this great version of Frankenstein now!

 

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    © 2019 Ash

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