Monstrous Progeny

Mary Shelley, mucked about with adapted by Nick Dear, Frankenstein (Directed by Danny Boyle, National Theatre Live via YouTube)

Years ago, there was a series of documentaries on the gothic horror novel presented by Christopher Frayling – Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Each of these narratives have passed into public consciousness, far beyond those who have read them – often via plays – and, with the arguable exception of the last, in forms that corrupt the author’s original structure. Despite at least two great franchises – from Universal in the 1930s and from Hammer in the 1950s – Frankenstein adaptations are travesties of Mary Shelley’s vision.

Frankenstein begins with letters from an Arctic explorer to his sister, M.S., who has gone in search of a Special Friend north of the Arctic circle – he didn’t have Grindr – and who meets a young not yet scientist (the word hadn’t been coined) Victor Frankenstein, who tells the explorer about how he had created life and then in turn hears about the Creature’s experiences… The Creature demands Frankenstein makes him a wife – he didn’t have Tinder – and then kills the wife, and then the Creature kills Frankenstein much ignored cousin and girlfriend and then there’s a chase across Scotland and other places what Shelley had been to on her holidays with that barking husband of hers, culminating in a bust up in the Arctic. The Creature then has a chat with the explorer and tosses himself on his creator’s funeral pyre.

Oh, spoilers.

If we’re lucky the adaptations begin with about chapter five, the creation seen, and Igor the hunchbacked assistant is added, and the budget won’t run the Scotland, let alone St Petersburg.

Nearly a decade ago, the National Theatre got Danny Boyle to dramatize the novel, with Johnny Lee Miller (the one from Trainspotting who never quite got to be a star) and the not yet entirely ubiquitous Venomous Cummerbund playing swapsies with the two main roles. I didn’t try to see it at the time, having fallen out with theatre, in part because of seeing a version at Hull Truck that wanted to be a musical and jumped the shark even before the dead Elizabeth Frankenstein sat up and asked how come all the women in the play were fridged.

But under lock down we haven’t yet suffered enough and the NT streamed both versions. I decided to go with Miller as Victor, which might have a mistake.

The adapter, Nick Dear, clearly doesn’t trust Shelley’s carefully structured narrative and begins at about chapter twelve, thus skipping over all that workshop of filthy creation and lightning conductor nonsense that we know and love and going straight to the Creature (him off Cabin Pressure) overacting his body and being bullied by all and sundry. Victor only has a cameo until the second half; the story is one of the Creature’s brutalisation.

The novel, sneakily, dramatizes Victor’s work, shows us the rejection, adds us a bizarre incest dream (or was that later) and allows us to witness the monstrosity from afar, until we get to hear the words from the Creature’s own lips. We are forced to re-evaluate how we feel. Instead, we only see that the bullied become monsters.

There are some nice inventions – the troublesome sequence in which the Creature learns to read from all the books that a bright, young daughter of radical parents should read, is fleshed out, with an all too brief cameo from Karl Johnson. There’s a conversation about Satan from Paradise Lost, which owes much to William Blake – whose illustrations adorn the cottage. But this is quickly left behind.

In the second half – although there appears to be no interval – we get to see Victor as jerk, which again rather simplifies the arc of sympathies from the novel. He creates a wife, off stage, and we lose the rather bizarre orgasm dream when he dumps the corpse in the lake.

You can see some of the book’s themes and ideas submerged at points, hammered out too obviously at others. I’d just like to see the book what Shelley wrote done the way what she wrote just the once – and not adapted by a bloke and directed by a bloke.

Man gotta usurp birth.

But there is another hand.

A play is not a novel. A novel is not a play.

There’s a fatuousness about reaching for the f-words – fidelity, faithfulness. The best adaptations often betray their incipits – look at the way Hitchcock bastardises the books and plays he adapts, to such an extent that we barely know that there’s only about one original story in oeuvre. John Huston is the literary slave – and sometimes he is chained to the original.

The trick is the right kind of translation, or the right kind of betrayal – and I’m not convinced this was it.

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