There have been a lot of Frankenstein adaptations made over the years, and every single one of them, with the exception of Young Frankenstein, is terrible. These films tend to have little in common with Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel asides from a re-animated creature and an overzealous creator. Pop culture has marred the story to the point that most people are unaware that there is actually no hunchbacked assistant and that Frankenstein is the name of the man, not the monster. Shelley’s story is a multi-faceted warning about the dangers of ambition and isolation, themes that tend to be overlooked by the big screen versions. That is, until one man stepped up to the plate. That’s right, I’m talking about Kenneth Branagh, who took Shelley’s themes to heart when he directed and starred in perhaps the most over-ambitions renditions of Frankenstein to ever exist. It’s not great. In fact, it’s pretty bad. The film itself manages to mirror the plight of the pitiful creature – scarred and ugly in appearance, but with some worthwhile traits beneath that gnarly surface. Here are five reasons why Branagh’s effort is simultaneously terrible and worthwhile.
1. Kenneth Branagh wrote a book detailing the level of awesomeness that he had achieved through this particular remaking of Frankenstein. I’m not kidding. I own it. I bought it for five cents on Amazon and it was worth every one of those five little pennies. The fact that this book of narcissism even exists is probably how Branagh got the Gilderoy Lockhart gig in the Harry Potter franchise, as Magical Me is not that far off from this literary gem.
2. If you don’t understand the novel’s symbolism, this movie repeatedly and obnoxiously beats you over the head with it. Branagh is heavy-handed with the themes and symbolism of Shelley’s novel, to the point that I almost feel a little embarrassed for him. Novel-Victor has some mommy issues, but Movie-Victor could give Norman Bates a run for his money. Novel-Victor has been argued to suffer from post-partum depression, so Movie-Victor’s creation sequence is entirely reliant on all of the birth imagery Branagh could muster. Not to mention the very sexual creation method – electric eels swimming through tubes to shock the creature into life. Nothing is implied, instead everything is explicitly stated. This might be good for befuddled students, but those passionate about the novel will be extremely annoyed.
3. The highly choreographed creation scene is everything. A pulsing sack of electric eels. Acupuncture needles. A sarcophagus full of amniotic fluid with a stitched together corpse. And Kenneth Branagh prancing around in the most glorious red silk robe ever. I like to call it “the robe of science.” This scene has the feel of one of those strange interpretive performances on Dancing With the Stars, the kind that make you wonder how and why anyone would ever be inspired to craft such a routine. Well someone did, and if you watch any moment from this movie, it needs to be this one.
4. The creature is sympathetic, articulate, and Robert DeNiro. I would have never picked DeNiro for this role, but it is truly one of his most underappreciated performances. His creature is Shelley’s creature, brought into existence through no fault of his own, and abandoned immediately by his deeply flawed father and creator. He learns to speak and read, and viewers can understand why he seeks revenge. The creature is consistently portrayed as a mindless, stumbling monster with a soft spot for flowers and a fondness for murder. In truth, he is “born” a blank slate, it is Victor’s rejection and the resulting circumstances that have made him into what he is. That being said, you do see all of DeNiro in this movie, and I mean all of him. You’ve been warned.
5. Shelley’s novel is a framed narrative, and Branagh kindof somewhat pulls that off. Most films completely disregard the detail that Victor is not the primary narrator. Victor tells his story to an arctic explorer named Walton, and Walton writes down this story in a series of letters to his sister. And then you have the creature telling his story to Victor. This is the only adaptation that I have seen to even include Walton, so I’ll give Branagh a few points for that.
Branagh is trying to appeal to an audience that has read the novel. “Trying” is the operative word, because the whole movies just feels like he is overreaching. Much like Victor Frankenstein himself. Bam. That just happened. Nevertheless, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is just bad enough to be good. The robe of science makes it all worthwhile.