Masculine Re visioning in Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelleys Frankenstein by Joe Back Mary Shelley's tale of unnatural creation has generated and influenced texts ever since the 1818 publication of Frankenstein. Innumerable films present, in various fashions, the figure of Frankenstein's reanimated Creature, which now resonates as an archetype of Western popular culture. One hundred seventy-six years following Frankenstein's emergence, Kenneth Branagh presented his cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley's seminal work in 1994's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein stages a much different work than that which its title claims to represent. Although Branagh alleges his "intent was always to arrive at an interpretation that's more faithful than earlier versions to the spirit of [Shelley's] book" (Branagh 9), his remake digresses from the original Frankenstein in a number of significant respects. While Branagh's adaptation affords perhaps the most accurate retelling of the plot of Shelley's text, the lens by which he interprets the tale bends the focus, elaborating upon certain underlying narratives while suppressing or overlooking others.
Far from being the definitive cinematic imagining of Shelley's work, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein demonstrates an attempt to revise and rewrite the story in order to place emphasis on more culturally masculine concerns and anxieties. By looking closely at key deviations in Branagh's interpretation and presentation, one can observe a systematic re envisioning which seeks to displace and usurp Shelley's argument against masculine ideals. It is Branagh's most audacious departures-particularly in the events surrounding Elizabeth's role toward the end of the film-that reveal the underlying motives behind subtle attempts to dominate the narrative; that which Branagh attempts to suppress in the film explodes the text from within. In this light, the character of Elizabeth can be read to represent both the authorial authority of Mary Shelley's voice and the conflicts Shelley embedded within Frankenstein. Using psychoanalysis as a method of comparative discourse, one can see more clearly the variances and motives between Shelley's and Branagh's texts. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein continues to infatuate readers largely because of various, complex, and interrelated concerns riddled throughout the text.
The meanings and ramifications of Victor Frankenstein's frenzied drive to corrupt the process of creation impart a protean web of effects and call for various, often contradictory, readings. One cannot exclude the historical and personal contexts in which Shelley wrote Frankenstein, for they help elucidate much of the ambiguity throughout the story. Shelley's circumstance as a young female writer in the early nineteenth century not only influences and informs her work; her unique mental and physical positions act in defining the subtle statements of her novel. Stephen Behrendt contends that Victor Frankenstein and his monster reflect Mary Shelley's anxiety over the public role of authorship in a male-dominated society. "As objects of discourse, women were continually reminded of their 'proper' and 'natural' place in private familial and public extra familial interaction" (Behrendt 71).
Victor's "unnatural" process of creation-a man assuming the maternal role of biological life-giver-mirrors Shelley's socially constructed sense that she behaved unnaturally in assuming the role of artistic creator. Victor's hysteria and the Creature's disfigurement embody Shelley's horror at her own articulation-a horror unconsciously generated by the dictum's of a patriarchal world. Victor demonstrates his hysteria when he confesses that "a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the consummation of my labour, and my eyes were shut to the horror of my proceedings" (Shelley 162). This dual consciousness-frenzied enthusiasm mixed with horrific disgust-may articulate Shelley's own experience of being a woman writer in the eighteenth century. However, Shelley deliberately uses hysteria, having Victor's passion defy the orthodoxy of male rationality and self-control.
Hobbs writes, "Shelley employs the condition [of hysteria] to uncover what is being repressed in and by Victor's code of masculinity. She calls into question her character's aggressive version of masculinity by shutting it down with an extreme inscription of the feminine that silences him when he wants to speak and paralyzes him when he most needs to act. Victor's hysteric symptoms illustrate that his body will address the message that his brain would deny: even rational 'noble spirits' must attend to their emotions" (Hobbs 160-1). Victor's unwillingness to testify on Justine's behalf is evidence of Shelley's statement against male egoism (selfishness), enacting through him a cowardice that defies the masculine order.
It also symbolically identifies Victor with the murderer, his creation, in that the creator is now complicit in the Creature's crimes, who perhaps acts out Victor's secret wish to take revenge on William, a sibling rival for familial affection. Branagh's treatment of Shelley's text, however, leaves absent the ambiguity of Victor's simultaneously heroic and villainous role, which generates sympathy for Victor's tragic flaws and na " ive ideals as well as disgust for his moral ineptitude and masculine selfishness. In effect, Branagh's treatment works out as a silencing of the feminine protest. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein portrays a vastly different characterization from Branagh of Victor Frankenstein. Branagh states his intent "was to render the character of Victor Frankenstein less of an hysteric" (Branagh 17). In other words, Branagh wished to ensure the mental stability, unified identity, and manliness of the role he planned to perform.
His direction of the film amplifies the effect, creating a film more masculine than the text it represents. Victor's faults are those of the tragic hero-"a man playing God" (Branagh 146) -the perfect titular character in a film aiming for an epic signature in cinematic history. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, an "epic adaptation" like Branagh's version of Hamlet, works to "diffuse the intensity of an otherwise deeply disturbing drama" (Lehmann 21). While Branagh's film certainly does not lack intensity, it dilutes the complex, and often contradictory, themes found in Shelley's work in order to present a more logical and less morally ambiguous narrative. In order to resolve the discrepancies between Branagh's vision and Shelley's text, the film rewrites certain segments of Frankenstein. One such revision involves the execution of Justine Moritz.
Shelley introduces Justine through a letter Elizabeth writes to a deeply distressed Victor: "This girl had always been the favourite of her father; but, through a strange perversity, her mother could not endure her, and after the death of M. Moritz, treated her very ill" (Shelley 60). Elizabeth (and thereby Shelley) demonstrates Justine's status as an inverted reflection of Victor; she is female, poor, and without loving family or social opportunity. Not only does Justine's family story represent an opposite to the wealthy Victor's tale of a dead, loving mother; Justine represents the "creature" protected (taken in by the Frankenstein, unlike the Creature, who Victor abandons), which inversely associates her with Victor's monster (and Victor with her mother). When Justine is later accused of William Frankenstein's death, Victor remains silent as to his role in creating a monster, thus condemning her to die in his stead. His logic is unreservedly cool and frighteningly inadequate: "A thousand times rather would I have confessed myself guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine; but I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman, and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me" (Shelley 77).
Through Victor's inaction, Shelley emphasizes the dual role he plays and the murderous results of egotistical rationalization and reliance on social mores. Branagh, however, chooses to absolve Victor of these unmanly crimes. In the film, Victor never has the chance to proclaim Justine's innocence because a mob quickly lynches her without trial. Instead of Shelley's depiction of a man adhering to flawed ideals, Branagh's portrayal shows a Victor Frankenstein cut short from a heroic act by a hysterical rabble.
By repositioning the violence and irrationality onto a lower-class mass, Branagh eludes the point behind Shelley's inclusion of Justine's execution and ensures Victor's stability as a heroic character. Branagh stresses Victor's heroism by placing emphasis on the quest-like nature of his scientific pursuits. Victor does not so much act as an unusually cruel mother, but as an idealized hero committed to a paternal legacy. To establish the patriarchal narrative in which Victor wishes to participate, Branagh multiplies and refines Frankenstein's father figures. In Shelley's text, Victor's father is a lawyer; in Branagh's film, he is doctor, which provides for a sense of an inherited vocation. Confirming Victor's choice of vocation as being a conventional transition from father to son, Branagh sets out to define the whole narrative by this paternal relationship.
As Victor progresses from Geneva to Ingolstadt, Branagh creates multiple father figures: Branagh develops professors Waldman and Kempe as substitute fathers in the film, whereas they are hardly more than passing faces in the original text. In the book, Waldman merely encourages the young and eager Victor; but, in Branagh's film, Waldman becomes a fatherly predecessor in Victor's "other researches," extending the function Branagh creates for Victor's biological father. In a twist, Branagh provides a more "psychoanalytical" reason for Victor's determination-disgust with the maternal process of giving life and a desire to supplant that process-by having Caroline Frankenstein die in childbirth. In the book, she dies of scarlet fever, which symbolically conjoins femininity with passion (redness and heat) rather than, as Branagh depicts, with pure biology. Branagh instills Victor with more manliness by reigning in the character's hysteria and portraying him as seeking to supplant the female creative process-much as Branagh is attempting to supplant Mary Shelley's creation with his own revision. One can also read Branagh's infusion of maleness into Victor's glorified role during the scene in which he creates his monster.
Mary Shelley avoids specifying the manner in which Victor provides his creation with life, allowing plenty of room for conjecture. Branagh's take on this process comes off as remarkably conventional. The scene presents a male fantasy of creation-phallic eels provide the necessary electrical currents, and the evenly constructed copper casket (the conspicuous tubing penetrating it resembling massive male genitalia) from which the Creature bursts forth replaces the biological womb of "natural" (i. e. , "female") creation. The scene intensifies the maleness of Victor's creation and represents Branagh's subtextual intent to rebirth the Frankenstein myth for the cinema-sans any noticeably feminine influence (while Helen Bonham Carter plays a crucial part in the film's production, her role is not nearly on par with the prominence Branagh gives himself).
Branagh aims to divorce the film from Shelley's text (seen in the focus on definitiveness coinciding with deviation) and focuses on a male delivery of his creation. Just as Victor gives life to his male offspring without the help of any women, Branagh hopes to rebirth the legendary presence of Robert DeNiro as the Creature-an act of participating in the paternal narrative set forth by his cinematic predecessors. DeNiro, coupled with the film producer Francis Ford Coppola carry quite a bit of cinematic and patriarchal weight, given their participation on the set of an epic movie concerned wholly with father-son relations, The Godfather II. As well, Coppola directed an associated horror film, Bram Stoker's Dracula, two years previously, thus creating yet another fatherly precedent up to which Branagh had to measure. Branagh's obsession with renewing the narrative and presenting "an interpretation that's more faithful than earlier versions" (Branagh 9), instead reveals the influence of earlier texts and undermines the fantasy of single authoritative adaptation.
An influenced and collaborative text emasculates the fantasy of a sole, unified narrative, thus associating affective persuasion with masculine conception of the feminine. This clarifies the motives beneath Branagh's alteration of Elizabeth's origin, role, and demise. Branagh's most radical-and telling-deviations from Shelley's tale revolve around Elizabeth, who Branagh ironically (and perhaps unconsciously) transforms into the voice of Mary Shelley. In the original text, Elizabeth is a sister-like figure who exists as Victor's love in name only-he demonstrates little passion for her; what affection he does show feels sterile. Shelley portrays their predestined marriage as a forced conjunction, which reflects upon Victor's own ambivalent sexuality ("I love my cousin tenderly and sincerely," Victor assures his father, although such love, exciting only "admiration and affection" hardly seems erotic [Shelley 148]). Branagh claims he wanted to portray Victor and Elizabeth as "two equal partners" (Branagh 25) -a noble attempt, but one which is inherently flawed if Branagh hopes for literary or historical accuracy; outside of class distinctions, eighteenth century women were not equal to men, and Shelley's does not present Elizabeth as equal to Victor, who tends to her as he "should on a favourite animal" (Shelley 30).
Branagh also goes to great pains to ensure that Victor appears heterosexual and mannish: Victor's broad chest is on display in various scenes of shiftlessness, which associates Victor to his father, who had removed his upper garments to deliver William. The character of Clerval is constructed to siphon off, so to speak, any associations between Victor and homosexuality in that Branagh shows him with less conventionally masculine qualities than he does Victor. Branagh presents Victor's attraction for Elizabeth without the degree of ambiguity that Shelley invests in their relations, and he portrays Elizabeth and Justine as sharing a sexual desire for Victor (Branagh 71). While this emotional m'enage starts off as only a slight deviation from Shelley's text, it compounds after Elizabeth's death (which comes about through the violent penetration of the Creature's hand, which represents by displacement upwards an usurpation and perversion of Victor's marital victory). While Branagh partially succeeds in remaking Elizabeth as a more developed character, she ultimately becomes a body only, a vehicle to further a story focused squarely on a grotesque tragic hero.
Demonstrating a grief that verges on hysteria, Victor puts the two female love objects together, transferring Elizabeth's head onto Justine's body. Whereas in the book the Creature requested a bride for himself, in Branagh's adaptation the impetus for the creation of a female monster stems from Victor's sudden loss (and, by intimation, perverted sexual desire). The appearance of a mutilated female form-the reanimated Elizabeth as a mute Medusa-like figure-is perhaps the film's most horrific moment: that is, horrific relative to the male Victor. Freud describes the terror the Medusa's head invokes as deriving from the male psyche's associations between decapitation and castration ("The terror of the Medusa is thus a terror of castration" [Freud 273]), so Elizabeth horrifies because she is a threat to the masculine order and certainly a disturbance to the ideals of cool reason. This is not to say mutilation as such horrifies only men, but a disfigured female body presents to the male gaze a perversion of stereotypically heterosexual desire; the commingling of a sexual wish simultaneously fulfilled and distorted creates an uncanny and terrifying effect.
Far from being Victor's equal, Elizabeth exists only in relation to his story and becomes the embodiment of the contradictory elements Branagh endeavors to unify and suppress in his retelling. Since Branagh represses much of the accusations against masculinity (i. e. , Romantic egoism and the ideals of male exploration and science) Shelley puts into her novel, the charges erupt at the end to provide for the film's overt attempt at shock. Thus, Elizabeth as a beheaded automaton dancing lifelessly with a quite-mad Victor presents an uncanny mirror of a tale Branagh tries not to tell: the source of Victor's hysteria.
Earlier, in the mansion parlor, Elizabeth scolds Victor's egoism ("Don't you think of anyone or anything but yourself?" [Branagh 117]), which arranges Elizabeth as a moral voice that reminds Victor of his hubris and resurrects Mary Shelley's use of Victor to represent and comment upon the ramifications the masculine order and masculine ambition. Therefore, Elizabeth's final presentation as a kind of Medusa speaks volumes regarding the shortcomings of the film. The scene demonstrates that the Elizabeth of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is very much an unequal character in relation to Victor (because she is in relation only to Victor), and yet her accusatory pointing at Victor can be read as an accusation of transgressing against Mary Shelley herself, whose authorial voice has been dissembled by Branagh's refashioned narrative. (Branagh uses Shelley's "voice" at the film's opening only to reinforce the movie's authenticity. ) The scene also reveals the cinematic influence of previous works, especially that of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, which fictionalizes the creation of Frankenstein and in which Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Shelley and the Creature's intended Bride. Elizabeth, bearing a multifaceted role (opposite of Victor, Creature, and Shelley), tears asunder Victor's laboratory as Shelley's presence makes itself known in a text that tries to subvert and contain it.
In the end, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein returns to its creator, enacting revenge on Branagh's designs by underscoring their defects. In translating Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the big screen, Kenneth Branagh and his screenwriters transmit the subtle veiled themes that Shelley's narrative embodies in Victor's hysteria. Although Branagh tries to avoid the "psychologically inconsistent" (Branagh 19), his tale is cornered by the source material to surrender its original depictions and hidden meanings. Shelley's voice bursts through the polished presentation in which Branagh attempts to contain anything that takes away from the manliness of this venture, pointing out that Branagh's solipsistic handling of Victor Frankenstein and the Frankenstein legend excludes female subversiveness to a fault. However, just as Victor's body addresses a message his brain would deny, Branagh's film sabotages the facade of masculinity he tries to create. Shelley invests her text with an irrational element in order to critique the ideals of a male-dominated society, and Branagh's attempt to repress that voice turns out to be a play in futility.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein explores the costs of remaining within a gender role defined by reason and control. Victor's attempts to hide unmanly emotions reveal Shelley's exploration of the otherwise female affliction of hysteria as a condition contingent on social circumstance; that is, only certain "proper" spheres, consigned to the socially constructed notions of the feminine, allow for displays of emotion. Branagh calculated attempts to rewrite Victor Frankenstein as "less of an hysteric" serve to undermine Shelley's authorial arrangements. The nomenclature of Branagh's adaptation, having the full title Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, has two-fold reasoning: as Heidi Kaye notes, the rights to the name "Frankenstein" are still owned by Universal Studios, and Branagh wished for this adaptation to be more literary and closer to the "sprit" of Shelley's work. One should expect differences in similar narratives present in different media-the nature of film does not allow for the in-depth exploration of a character's thoughts and, therefore, Branagh had to engage in forms of essentializing in order to create an entertaining visual experience. However, the choices Branagh makes in his representations tells more about his concerns and dispositions than it does Mary Shelley's.
The title of the film is a misnomer. While Mary Shelley's Frankenstein presents the events portrayed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein more accurately than any other film in cinematic history, the film truly is Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein-the creation of a twentieth-century man employing the textual vestiges of a nineteenth-century woman.