I had the pleasure last night of seeing this Danny Boyle production beamed live from The National Theatre to a local cinema. The above article from the BBC is a great analysis of Shelley’s work, exploring themes that Shelley may have wished to convey. Here I want to give my own thoughts about the play, the novel and Frankenstein and his monster in popular culture.
Thanks to the Silver screen films of the 1930s and 1940s and Hammer in the 1960s and 1970s, we are used to Frankenstein’s creation being a large, lumbering, voiceless and inhuman emotionless murderer with green skin and a bolt through his neck. Kenneth Branagh sought to reverse this in the 1990s but for me there was something lacking about the performances of Branagh (who played Doctor Frankenstein) and Robert De Niro (who played the creature); De Niro lacked anger, and was not so much sympathetic as affable and a tad whiney. Branagh by contrast lacked the arrogance and mania that makes the character such a destructive force.
Boyle Goes Back to the Roots
In the version I saw last night, Johnny Lee Miller played Doctor Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch, recently seen on the BBC in Sherlock, portrayed the creature. The two lead actors rotate characters every night so tonight’s performance will have Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein.
Several themes described in the BBC article are explored, not least of all the most important theme: cause and effect. Frankenstein creates the monster in flesh and quickly abdicates his responsibility for doing so. Humanity as a whole creates the monster’s heart through the harsh treatment he receives for his appearance.
Something must also be said for the character of Elizabeth being played by a black actress in Naomie Harris (‘Selena’ 28 Days Later; ‘Tia Dalma’ Pirates of the Caribbean). Shelley wrote this in the years following the abolition of slavery in Britain and I’m wondering whether her casting was a conscious thing on Boyle’s part. Elizabeth (whom marries Doctor Frankenstein during the novel) is the only person that shows the monster any sympathy, offering to lobby Frankenstein on the monster’s behalf. She unfortunately meets a tragic end at the hands of the creature before she has the opportunity to do this.
Cumberbatch’s performance is heartwrenching. Even at his most enraged it is difficult to feel anything but the utmost sympathy for a creature who is a product of the cruelty he has suffered. In contrast it is increasingly difficult to feel anything except contempt for Doctor Frankenstein. The play forces us to ask ourselves toward the end “Which of them is the true monster here?” Frankenstein is the first true science fiction novel and the fact that we can still take something from it, and continue to find new ways of expressing Shelley’s work, demonstrates the timelessness of the story and of the characters.
Why I Love Frankenstein
As a writer, I must say that on the first and only occasion I read the novel, I found it to be a remarkable work (yet heavy going) and I can fully understand all of the interpretations in the BBC article even if I do not necessarily agree. We have the benefit of nearly 200 years of hindsight that Shelley did not.
Also as a writer, it is interesting to explore just how many horror themes Shelley placed into her novel:
- Meddling with forces beyond our control
- Similarly: Meddling with forces within our control but refusing to exercise caution (recklessness)
- The destructive nature of humanity and the capacity to destroy not only each other, but ourselves (Frankenstein is the agent of his own destruction, arguably the monster is only the tool)
- The Biblical sins of wrath and pride
- The cruelty that exists within each of us
Is this Danny Boyle stage play the definitive adaptation? Yes but with some notable differences. The play starts with the monster breaking out of a womb-like contraption and we painstakingly watch him learn to control his limbs, then stand and walk for the first five to ten minutes or so.
There is nothing of Frankenstein’s backstory and how he came to think about the project. Also, the end concerns only Frankenstein and the creature, there is no boat to rescue them. As for everything else, all I can really say is that this version resonates today by highlighting how we as a species give little thought to the consequences of our actions.