Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein

Recently, the question was raised about film adaptations of favorite books. Because of that and because I just recently reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I thought it would be fun to watch Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of the novel, which attempts to be closer to the book than many earlier adaptations.

Despite the movie’s attempt to be more faithful to the book than other interpretations, there are some key differences. For example, in the novel, Henry Clerval is a friend from Geneva who joins Victor Frankenstein at college in Ingolstadt after the monster is created. In the movie, Clerval is a fellow medical student that started about the same time as Victor. Another difference is that Professor Waldman dies in the movie and his brain is used for the creature.

Another key difference between the film and the book is that time is significantly compressed in the movie. In the novel, years pass between Victor’s arrival in Ingolstadt and the penultimate scene that occurs on the night of his wedding to Elizabeth. Also, The action happens over a much wider range of geography. In the movie, all of this seems to happen over the course of weeks and the settings are confined to Ingolstadt, Geneva, and the North Pole. Also, Branagh expanded significantly on the penultimate scene—the moment that leads Victor to chase the monster across the ice of the North Pole.

The time compression makes some sense given the scope of a movie as opposed the scope of a novel. For the most part I had no problem with that, though I might have enjoyed it more if they had found a way to compress it a little less.

An interesting element of the novel is that in spite of the fact that Victor is reanimating corpses, it doesn’t really explore the theme of immortality or life extension. The corpses are treated simply as inanimate matter. The movie not only explores this theme but pulls it to the forefront, which explains the reason for the change to the penultimate scene.

I thought the cast of the movie was great. Branagh himself played Victor, Helena Bonham Carter was Elizabeth, Robert DeNiro was the creature and John Clease was Professor Waldman, and that’s just the beginning of the fine cast. Many of them give over-the-top performances, but really that seems to fit the fact that the story is a Gothic romance.

The bottom line is that the book and the movie have key differences. Although I enjoyed the book more than the movie, I’m hard-pressed to say that one is “better” than the other in this case. The movie explored the important themes of the novel and even expanded on one that seemed neglected. It got the period right and provided gorgeous visuals of everything from the lab to the Frankenstein manner in Geneva to the Swiss Alps.

I hesitate to judge whether Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be enjoyable for someone who hasn’t read the book, but as someone who has, I found it an engaging way to spend two hours reliving a novel I enjoyed.

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6 thoughts on “Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein

  1. nrlymrtl says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I remember when this movie came out. I found it so much scarier than previous movies because Frank’s monster was so human in many ways. Your post has me wanting to dig Mary Shelley’s book out for a read.

  2. emurphy42 says:

    In the novel, Vic /isn’t/ reanimating corpses, though he imagines eventually getting to that point; he’s just studying them to understand how human bodies work, then building a crude copy (hence the large size – he can only do so good a job with all the tiny intricate bits). Or at least that’s what he wrote; it’s reasonable to theorize that he was lying to point would-be successors toward a dead end.

    “…I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless
    matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible)
    renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”

    • Thanks for the comment. I would argue that Shelley is so unclear on the point of animating corpses, it’s fair to imagine it either way — and it would certainly be interesting to see a movie interpretation where something other than animating corpses is done. That said, there certainly were experiments done at that period by Galvani and Dippel that involved the reanimation of corpses through electricity and evidence that Mary was aware of them and thinking of them when she wrote. The “lifeless matter” of the quote could indeed be something “built” by Victor, or it could be a corpse. I could see it either way.

  3. Interesting conundrum… Personally, I LOVE the novel and I don’t think I have seen any version stand up to the novel. I am sure it can be argued both ways! Thanks, Emily

    • Absolutely – and I don’t think Branagh’s movie is a substitute for the novel in any respect. In a head-to-head comparison, I would agree the novel is much better. That said, I think one thing that gets forgotten in this question of movies versus books is that sometimes a movie serves as a way to relive a favorite book in a short time and maybe expand on some issues raised or give us another authors viewpoint on those issues. In that sense, I think Branagh mostly succeeded with his attempt. I’d also argue that James Whales’s Frankenstein movies of the 30s were better movies — especially Bride of Frankenstein — but really don’t capture the book at all, except maybe thematically and some scenes were clearly inspired by the book.

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