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Frankenstein films in the 1990s

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

           Intended as a companion to the highly successful Bram Stoker's Dracula (dir: Francis Ford Coppola; USA 1992), the aim of the film makers was to stick as closely as possible to the literary source. Although director Branagh, who also played Victor Frankenstein, and writers Steph Lady and Frank Darabont still changed some parts of the plot, they nevertheless ended up with a film that was at least made in the spirit of Mary Shelley.

            Mary Shelley's Frankenstein begins on the north pole, where polar explorer Walton's ship hits an iceberg. The crew then picks up a man travelling the icy polar regions, who reveals his name as Victor Frankenstein. Unlike most other Frankenstein films, Branagh has kept the frame narrative where the story is now told to Walton by Frankenstein. The film then shifts to Geneva and presents Victor Frankenstein's childhood and adolescence. Here the film differs from the novel in many details: In Branagh's version Victor's mother dies giving birth to William; his experiments with lightning have no equivalent in the novel; and Victor does not make the acquaintance of Henry Clerval before he enters the university in Ingolstadt.

Aidan Quinn as Robert Walton, complete with heavy metal hair-do

There Frankenstein meets Professor Waldmann, who once performed experiments similar to those of Frankenstein, but gave them up "because they resulted in abomination." When Waldmann is killed in a hospital, Victor takes the Professor's records in order to continue his works. He begins to assemble his creature using the body of Waldmann's murderer, Waldmann's brain and the limbs of various corpses. Waldmann's death and his involvement in experiments dealing with the creation of life were added by screenwriters Lady and Darabont. In the original novel Waldmann is simply a Professor of chemistry who encourages the ambitious Frankenstein. In Branagh's film, Victor intends to preserve the brain and spirit of the brilliant scientist, a plot device found in many earlier Frankenstein movies, for instance Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein.

True to the tradition of Frankenstein movies, and of course following the expectations of a cinematic audience, Branagh and the screenwriters had to show how Victor animates his creature. In a giant laboratory in the attic of his house he puts the creature into an aquarium filled with amniotic fluid and animates it with electricity produced by eels. When the creature finally comes to life we see Victor struggling with a naked, goo-covered man, who appears clumsy and can barely walk. Again and again the man staggers and falls until Victor, taken by horror, speaks, "What have I done?" Believing the creature dead he goes to sleep. Director Branagh comments on his creation scene: "The image I had in mind for the birth sequence is of a child being born to parents who then walk out of the delivery room and leave this bloodstained, fluid covered thing to just crawl around on its own." (1)

"It's alive!" - Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) awakens the fiend

Consequently, the film also provides an explanation why Victor is so horrified by his creation that he immediately abandons it. In his journal he writes, "Massive birth defects. Greatly enhanced physical strength but the resulting re-animant is malfunctional and pitiful, and dead."

Learning to read: Robert De Niro as the Monster
The following experiences of the Monster are massively shortened, compared to the novel. We only see the Monster being mistreated by the townspeople once; after that he flees into the woods, where he hides in a poor family's pigsty. He secretly supports the family by bringing in potatoes from their fields and learns reading by watching the mother teaching her daughter. Here the film completely drops the episode with the Turkish girl Safie. The Monster also does not educate himself with classical literature because in the film there are no books by Plutarch, Milton and Goethe. Instead the film introduces a brutal landlord whom the Monster kills when he rescues the blind grandfather. Branagh also drops the Monster's narrative. Instead the film's plot develops chronologically (except for the beginning), shifting between the Monster's and Frankenstein's adventures.

            The next deviation from the novel occurs in the episode concerning the murder of William Frankenstein. In the film the falsely accused Justine is not put to trial but immediately hanged by an enraged lynching mob from the city before Victor's and Elizabeth's eyes. This change mainly affects the character of Victor, who at this moment neither knows that the Monster is still alive, nor that it killed his brother. In the novel he knows exactly what has happened, but does not save Justine because he is afraid of giving away his horrible secrets. This goes hand in hand with the new conception Branagh had in mind for Victor Frankenstein, who now appears in a much more positive light than in Shelley's novel. Branagh comments:

"It is no longer a melodramatic story about a madman, I think that Victor Frankenstein is dangerously sane. This is an intelligent man who believes that he is doing the right thing. He is a good man, sort of a visionary." (2)

Victor Frankenstein first meets his creature after the lynching of Justine. The Monster only says, "I will meet you there, on the sea of ice." and disappears. Dropping the Monster's narrative of course makes the encounter between Victor and the Monster a much shorter one than in the novel. Later the Monster demands a female companion and Victor initially agrees to build a new creature. He immediately begins to work but changes his mind when the Monster brings Justine's dead body as raw material for his bride. In the novel it takes much longer before Frankenstein begins to assemble the Monster's bride. Branagh also completely leaves out the murder of Henry Clerval and Victor's journeys to England, Scotland and Ireland.

The Monster is going to break Elizabeth's heart (De Niro and Helena Bonham Carter)

            In their wedding night the Monster then kills Elizabeth by ripping out her heart. This final murder is the initiation for the most radical deviation Branagh and his screenwriters made from the original novel. Frankenstein, almost insane over the loss of his love, now assembles a female with the body of Justine and Elizabeth's head and brings her to life. This female creature, as ugly and deformed as Frankenstein's first creation, sets herself on fire when, confronted with the Monster, she realises that she is as pitiful and repulsive as him. This scene, in particular the dance of Victor with the horribly disfigured Elizabeth, is the grotesque climax of the extraordinary love between Elizabeth and Victor. Branagh wanted to emphasize the relationship between them and also show the development of their love. He said:

"It was important to me to have a very strong woman's role in a film of this size, and not just a token of love interest. [...] I wanted Elizabeth and Victor to be two equal partners." (3)

The story twist of bringing back Elisabeth and making her commit suicide was surely influenced by works such as Brian Aldiss / Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, which introduces a similar twist, of course one, that seems totally logical, although Mary Shelley had not thought of such a continuation.

Then the film shifts back to the north pole, where Frankenstein finishes his tale and dies. It ends with the Monster setting Frankenstein's funeral pyre on fire and drifting off on an ice floe and Walton heading back home

Branagh's faithfulness to the literary original particularly shows in his presentation of the Monster. Like no film before, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein presents the Monster as the victim of circumstances, as a pitiful creature, who is driven to evil by society and his maker. By casting Robert de Niro, an actor of average height, as the Monster and not making him an 8 foot tall giant, the Monster also physically appears more human. In addition, he is sophisticated and eloquent, "with the tone of a philosopher", as Branagh stated. "It should be clear that, for all the horror of his appearance, he is not in fact a monster, but a man." (4) De Niro's Monster is allowed to show emotions when he weeps at his creator's death bed or after having been beaten by the family from the forest. In the beginning he is like a child, whom the audience sees growing up. He quickly learns the ways of man and in the end consequently announces, "I am done with man."

Despite the changes in the plot it can surely be said that of all film versions Kenneth Branagh's movie is among those closest to Mary Shelley's novel. The movie preserves the central ideas of the novel, straightens the plot and removes implausible elements, for which the novel has often been criticised.


Click above to watch the original trailer in full color on youtube.com


Cast & Crew:  
Victor Frankenstein Kenneth Branagh
Elizabeth Helena Bonham Carter
Henry Clerval Tom Hulce
The Creature Robert De Niro
Robert Walton Aidan Quinn
Professor Waldmann John Cleese
Baron Frankenstein Ian Holm
Screenplay Steph Lady
Frank Darabont
Music Patrick Doyle
Cinematography Roger Pratt
Producers David Barron, Kenneth Branagh, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Fred Fuchs, James V. Hart, Jeff Kleeman, David Parfitt, John Veitch

Kenneth Branagh



Branagh, Kenneth. Mary Shelley´s Frankenstein: The Classic Tale of Terror Reborn on Film (New York: Newmarket Press, 1994) 20.
2 Salisbury, Mark. "Kenneth Branagh: Bringing Life to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.". Fangoria 138, November 1994: 30.
3 Branagh 1994: 146
4 Branagh 1994: 23


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