Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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The Resurrection of Frankenstein

by Daniel C. Smith

Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein, originally published in 1818, has undergone more reincarnations (on film) than other story ever told with the possible exception of the Bible, yet none of the movies that have carried the name were true to the original novel, at least not until this glorious adaptation originally released in 1994 (Tri Star Pictures) and now readily available on DVD. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who, with the help of none other than Francis Ford Coppola and the script-writers James V. Hart and Frank Darabont (from Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Shawshank Redemption, respectively), created a cinematic masterpiece. But their version represents more than a reincarnation; indeed, it is a resurrection of one of the most important (and earliest) statements in the history of science fiction literature. With Branagh directing and starring as Victor Frankenstein and with Robert DeNiro cast as his creation (the stellar cast also includes Aidan Quinn, John Cleese, Tom Hulce, and Helena Bonham Carter), the film is as true to Shelly's milestone novel as any movie adaptation of any novel I have ever seen.

And yet the movie is far more than a simple homage or tribute to the original novel-- it's accuracy demonstrates a far deeper respect-- both for the craft of filmmaking and for the story of Victor Frankenstein. The attention to detail in both the set design and costuming transport the viewer back to the late eighteenth century where we find Victor Frankenstein chasing his creation across the arctic ice cap, temporarily rescued by Captain Robert Walton, who is crossing the arctic in a magnificently recreated three-masted schooner for very selfish reasons of his own. It was an age of rapid advancement and conquest, and the captain and Frankenstein develop quite a rapport as the doctor relates his hideous tale, one man of conquest to another, and the movie unfolds with a narrative as powerful as Shelly's own.

The film itself has a beautiful textural quality to it that manages to evoke a certain intimacy between the audience and cast, an intimacy that is not lost on the smaller screens of our living rooms. The audience is allowed to experience both the erotic and the grotesque nuances of the novel in such subtle and yet powerful ways thanks to the incredible camera work and innovative filming techniques that serve to bring the viewer into Frankenstein's time and place, and more importantly into hearts and minds of the characters.

From pleasant family memories in the sweeping vistas of the Bavarian Alps of Switzerland (filming also took place on the Welsh coast but was mostly done on behemoth soundstages of England's Shepperton Studios) to the near-medieval inner city of Ingolstadt, we follow the young boy genius, Victor Frankenstein, on his voyage into manhood, a journey of discovery, of triumph and tragedy, and of love and revenge, of life and death… and life. For those unfamiliar with the original tale (and you would be surprised how many people fall into that category, even sci-fi fans), it will be an amazing journey of discovery of who Dr. Victor Frankenstein really was, i.e., the archetypical sci-fi protagonist, the prototypical anti-hero and protagonist, the often tragic figure who questions and rebels against the accepted dogma and practices of the day at great cost to themselves, and sometimes to the world around them.

Branagh's portrayal of this classic icon is spectacular, and De Niro's performance as the 'monster' created in his image is equally compelling. While the juxtaposition of these two characters' and their struggle to come to terms with the limits of their respective existences is the driving force behind the plot of this story, the film does not overlook some of the more underlying social themes that Shelly dared touch upon.

For any writer to explore such themes was risky, but for Shelly doubly so-- remember, 1818 was not the most enlightened of times in spite of the leaps forward society was making; the lady was a pioneer of not just science fiction but women's suffrage as well.

Mary Shelly's novel is as important today as it was then, if not more so, and this movie accomplishes the difficult task of making a statement about times past that is still relevant in the present-- the vitality of the story is never lost in the majesty of the film itself, and cast and crew should be proud to have been a part of producing something that stands as a true work of art.

It goes without saying that I feel this movie is a must-see if not must-own DVD for the sci-fi collector, but I also want to encourage a reading of the novel, especially for those who write speculative fiction. For such a writer to be unfamiliar with such a great work is akin to wanting to be a great trumpet player without knowing who Miles Davis is-- it can't be done.

At least-- it shouldn't be done.

© 2011 Daniel C. Smith

Daniel C. Smith has published over a hundred stories, poems, articles and reviews in venues such as Bare Bone, Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Star*Line, and Space and Time.

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