In 1994, following the release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the original novel was critiqued for trying to ‘cram in’ too much of Shelley’s content, for ‘hurling’ her characters at the silver screen. It was criticised for including the prologue and epilogue, the story-within-a-story metanarrative of Captain Walton’s North Pole expedition – the metanarrative of Shelley’s own design. It was called at once ‘overly lavish’ and ‘more substantial than Hollywood’s typical fluff’, simultaneously overambitious to its own detriment and the most faithful book-to-movie adaptation out of the then thirty-something strong Frankenstein filmography. It would be hard, from the mixed bag of reviews that Branagh received, to form any entirely coherent picture of the film, which seemed to at once do right by Mary Shelley and betray her completely.
Now, in the Year of Our Lord 2015, we are given Victor Frankenstein, Paul McGuigan’s reimagining of Shelley’s novel. McGuigan’s openness with not staying ‘reverent to the book’, with instead devising his own backstory, his own plot, whilst still retaining the major ideas of the novel caused some fuss. It appeared that, unlike Branagh’s adaptation, McGuigan’s appreciation stopped only at the themes, leaving him the creative licence to create the story that he wanted.
It definitely did that – Victor Frankenstein is as much a gothic adventure romp as they come, filling the screen with steampunk Victorian machinery and chasing sewn-together monstrosities around darkened hospitals. James McAvoy’s Victor is as egotistical as he ever was, infused with the qualities of a mad scientist and, underneath, some uncontrollable desperation to prove himself. McGuigan was right; whilst, plot-wise, Victor Frankenstein does little to adhere to Shelley’s original, it retains all the grimly fascinating gothic horror and speaks to the same ethical and moral debates.
And yet, despite McGuigan’s insistence, a large proportion of the inevitable negative criticism has focused on it being a ‘dunderheaded’ interpretation of the novel. But what use is any of this criticism, any of the arguments of butchery, if the film’s interest was never in its faithfulness to Mary Shelley? How much weight does any critic’s argument have if it relies upon something which has been dismissed already by the director itself? McGuigan hasn’t seemed to market Victor Frankenstein as Shelley’s to begin with – Branagh’s film may have owed everything to her, have dedicated the film itself to her name, but McGuigan’s does not. It gives the story back to Frankenstein, to the characters instead. In a film where the second protagonist is Igor, a character first introduced in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein – a character entirely absent from the original novel – it seems a little pointless to argue a lack of truthfulness to source material, to label something a ‘dog’s dinner’ for not doing what the 19th century volume did.
Victor Frankenstein is openly an homage to the Frankenstein cinematic history, something so large that it’s almost a subgenre of film in itself. We get the infamous line, Colin Clive’s unhinged ‘It’s alive!’ – and it’s spoken by McAvoy with the same maniacal glint in his eye that we’ve seen so many times before. However, it simultaneously lends voice to a lot of the scientific and ethical questions that we might perhaps have come to associate with a traditionally truthful adaptation of Shelley’s novel; Igor, in McGuigan’s take, is the voice of reason, the outsider who shows the audience how progressively obsessed and blinded Victor becomes with his work, with his ability to defy God. Religion, here, is something to be bested by man and his endeavours alone.
It is perhaps not the best film in the world; in parts, McGuigan’s invented plot falls slightly thin, Andrew Scott’s detective seems only to exist as the pro-religion side of the debate, and Igor’s romance with circus performer Lorelei doesn’t appear entirely necessary. It is, however, good fun, filled with mad science and some rather striking Victorian set design and costumes. It’s a reimagining, as Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original, and it’s inventive and exciting because of it.
Even if it’s not liked, it seems both redundant and regurgitated to condemn it for butchery. It’s a Frankenstein of Frankenstein, a stitching together of the defining moments of the tale’s cinematic past, and if some of those limbs don’t look particularly like Shelley’s did, so what? That’s not something that Victor Frankentein ever set out to do. It keeps as much of the book as it needs to in order to deserve its title.
Igor tells us, “You know this story.” – and so, they gave us a new one.
Victor Frankenstein is out in cinemas now.