I wrote a long piece for the Guardian that ran yesterday, on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, its context and legacy, and the new stage version at the National Theatre adapted by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle.
The essay took up a healthy double-page spread in the paper, but obviously even with 2000 words to spare you end up cutting out a fair when you’re discussing a subject with this much, ahem, life in it.
In respect of what message(s) Frankenstein carries for the wisdom and ethics of scientific/medical exploration – naturally I would have liked to say a few words about Mary Shelley’s framing device of Robert Walton, the polar adventurer-navigator leading a full ship’s crew in search of the Northern Passage when, his way obstructed by ice, he alights upon a frostbitten man chasing a half-glimpsed giant across the arctic terrain...
Walton is seeking paradise, he dreams of conferring ‘inestimable benefit...on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole...or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet’. Of course he is also endangering his crew. As such Victor Frankenstein is a man he ought to meet. They are two masculine loners, obsessed by their own brilliance and taken by surprise when their great trespasses redound upon them. Frankenstein has enough dearly-bought wisdom to tell Walton to learn from his example, to see ‘how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge’, how wrong-headed is ‘he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.’
And yet at the death Frankenstein is back in dangerous self-delusion, excoriating Walton’s crew as they turn mutinous: ‘You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species… And now, behold, with the first… mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away…’
Then his dying words: ‘I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.’
So Frankenstein is seen to be in two minds as to how far and boldly a man should go in the spirit of discovery – and as I say in the piece I think Mary Shelley felt the same.
In his adaptation Nick Dear gets rid of Walton and starts proceedings fifty pages into Shelley. As he told me, he was very keen on the Walton material but found that it ‘didn’t get us swiftly into something that was meaty and bold.’ And the latter is how a play ought to be. Dear certainly does frame the debate for the audience through Victor’s refrain throughout the play: ‘We can only go forward. We can never go back.’ The ironies are there for us to mull over.
Nick Dear also offered some very interesting thoughts on the special challenge of adapting iconic often-done material: ‘I don’t really want to know what anyone else has done, ever’, he told me, saying that he hadn’t read any of the previous Frankenstein play-scripts. Danny Boyle was equally mindful of the cinematic heritage. According to Dear he first wrote his opening scene with ‘the creature lying horizontally on a slab, as in the movies. And one of Danny’s first notes was, ‘No, I want to have him upright on a frame, so it looks different...’
In respect of the movies: of course there is not a great deal of Mary Shelley in the famous Hollywood version of 1931, in which Boris Karloff – gaunt, hulking, square of skull, bolted at the neck but resolutely mute – sealed the iconography of Frankenstein (see below #1). Kenneth Branagh dug a ditch for himself by directing and starring in the 1994 movie entitled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though his honourable try (even retaining the Walton figure) was gratuitously maligned, and had at least the virtue of a characteristically noble performance by Robert De Niro as the Creature (see below #2). Christopher Isherwood was bold enough to entitle his 1973 2-part television adaptation Frankenstein: The True Story, an amusing conceit given that Isherwood turns the tale into one of super-aesthetic homo-eroticism. I must say, though, that I’m a huge fan of Isherwood’s version, in which Michael Sarrazin is both movingly pitiable and ghoulishly malevolent (see below #3).
On that note, a last word from Nick Dear on one of his key departures from Shelley, namely the Creature’s realising of his chilling threat to be with Victor on his wedding night:
“... I thought, in a Victorian sense, [the creature] wreaking revenge on Victor Frankenstein by terrifying everybody and showing up and looking horrible might have been sufficient. But I suppose I was looking for ‘What’s the worst thing he can do to Victor, the really worst thing...?’