Adapted from: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Starring: Xavier Samuel, Danny Huston, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tony Todd
Written & directed by: Bernard Rose
There are many versions of Frankenstein across popular culture, from the sublime (James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece, Young Frankenstein, Penny Dreadful) to the ridiculous (I, Frankenstein; Victor Frankenstein. Shudder). They are characters seared into the public consciousness, even if Mary Shelley’s novel has become one of the most misremembered books as a result of this popularity; I shall never forget my father’s face as he observed, bemusedly, that Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version was one of the more accurate ones. But Frankenstein is so universal that it continues to be adaptable, to be malleable in the hands of other would-be creators. The myth of Frankenstein, like that of his Creature, has taken on a life of its own.
One of the most recent adaptations comes from maestro, Bernard Rose, who casts his eye over Shelley’s tale and brings it screaming into the 21st century. Viktor Frankenstein (Danny Huston) and his wife Marie (Carrie-Anne Moss) have created a human, an adult male, named Adam (Xavier Samuel). He arrives in the world like a newborn with limited communication and movement, learning as a baby would from his ‘parents.’ However, Adam suffers from some kind of necrosis of the skin, rendering him ugly and imperfect, failing to meet his creators' objectives. They leave him for dead and he is forced to navigate a harsh and intolerant world alone.
Though Shelley’s novel is a product of the Romantic movement and its author’s experiences, the reason it has endured and captured so many imaginations is because of the universality of its themes. The grotesque, intolerant humanity that the Creature encounters is, as recent events have demonstrated, still in existence, where communities reject those they consider to be different. Additionally, Shelley could not fathom the technological developments we have had since she brought her own creation into the world, but the science of Frankenstein has its roots in the contemporaneous ideas of Erasmus Darwin, his theories of evolution, and the experiments he carried out.
In bringing it up to date, Rose feeds in further biological developments that have dominated the 20th and 21st centuries. The nature of Adam’s creation appears to be some kind of genetic engineering, though like Shelley, Rose refuses to go into the specifics of the Frankensteins’ experiment. There are allusions to IVF and cloning in there, the idea of being able to create human being from scratch. Viktor and Marie rejecting Adam due to his imperfections also brings out an underlying eugenicist critique, a philosophical debate not yet in existence when Shelley was writing, but one which would come to characterise a lot of early science fiction. It proves to be a surprisingly easy update to make and the same ethical questions that run through Shelley’s narrative once again appear here.
Rose doesn’t delve massively into these, instead leaving up to the viewer to tease out the implications of the Frankensteins’ work. This is largely to do with the way in which Rose chooses to frame the story, showing it entirely through Adam’s perspective, which is more in keeping with our contemporary fascination with the outsider rather than Shelley’s with the figure of the Romantic hero. The film opens as Adam opens his eyes for the first time and following him through every trauma that he experiences, as well as the moments of joy too. He uses Shelley’s words, taken from the Creature’s narration, to help Adam tell his own story. The Romantic language contrasts nicely to the future LA setting, whilst also hinting at a much more intelligent interiority than his verbal or physical skills would imply.
The decision to focus solely on Adam is at once faithful to Shelley’s text and a departure from it. Perspective is something of a tricky element in Frankenstein, something which I will demonstrate with the help of this extremely technical diagram…
As you can see above, the novel starts with the narration of Walton, who relates - in letters to his sister - his encounter with a certain Victor Frankenstein. When it comes to Frankenstein telling his story, it is narrated by the man himself, but crucially, it is still being related by Walton in his letters. During Frankenstein’s narration, we have his meeting with the Creature who in turn takes over the narration to tell his story, which is related by Frankenstein back to Walton, who is then writing it down for his sister. Keeping up? In short, the Creature’s story is filtered through two people and we have to trust both Frankenstein and Walton to have related it back to us, the readers, accurately.
By shifting the focus solely on to Adam and allowing him to show us his experiences, Rose cuts through that complicated issue of perspective. He might directly lift parts of the Creature’s story from Shelley’s text, but he crucially gives them straight to Adam. They become his own words, his own story. From that moment on, we are seeing the world as he sees it and coming to understand how his behaviour is formed by it.
Because what people tend to forget amid the genteel Romantic language and the philosophical ponderance is that Frankenstein is a violent novel. The Creature murders people with his bare hands and describes the events in chilling detail. People attack and hunt the Creature without attempting to understand him first or speculate as to where he comes from. The violence is not just physical either, but emotional. The Creature longs for companionship, but Frankenstein refuses and the Creature’s actions reduce him to his own state of tortured isolation.
Rose’s adaptation brings that violence to the fore and uses it to hammer home the hostile world that Adam is thrust into by his unfeeling creators. The first ‘death’ he experiences is violent, as is his rebirth. When he is attempting to escape, aggressive acts follow him from the moment he leaves the room in which he wakes up. Even the gentler encounters, with a dog, a girl, and Eddie respectively, end in a destructive manner. It is the only way that Adam knows how to behave because they are the only behaviours he experiences. The world and its inhabitants make him monstrous; his behaviour is entirely learned by those around him and it is near universally horrible.
The Creature is offered more of an education than Adam ever receives during his lifetime; when escaping through the woods, he comes across a family and observes them to learn how to talk and read. He repays them by helping them out unseen when he can, a guardian angel of sorts. However, once they learn of his appearance, the violence descends. As a result, the Creature becomes more monstrous. Adam follows a slightly different trajectory. Violence is a defining characteristic of his experience from the moment he comes to life and, just as a newborn child lashes out when they don’t understand, Adam finds his only way of communicating initially is to return the violence that is inflicted upon him.
There are moments of such horror in the way in which Adam is treated, but Rose never shies away from demonstrating the things that Adam is capable of with his superhuman strength. But he learns from those around him, just as a child would, and when a child sees violent acts, they mimic them. The crucial difference is that Adam, like his literary counterpart, is utterly alone, without a parental guiding hand. It’s an extraordinary physical performance from Samuel, who has to unlearn how to do everything as an adult and recreate how it must be for a newborn. He brings an innocence to everything that Adam does, which further emphasises the tragedy of his situation; he simply doesn’t know any better and is stuck in a world where mob violence is the only way to treat a perceived outsider.
The brilliance of Rose’s adaptation is that it feels incredibly rich, a true and considered exploration of Shelley’s seminal novel that transfers the moral dilemmas, the compelling characters, and the searing analysis into a present day setting without it jarring. This piece likely won’t be the last I write on the film. I began with 800 words of notes and have used barely half of them. To have an adaptation of Shelley’s novel that understands it so well is a huge achievement and one which deserves more attention than it received upon its release last year.