HorrorFest 2009: 'Frankenstein,' both Branagh and Shelley
Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.
Two things arrived in the mail in quick succession recently, and it seemed like a lovely bit of synchronicity. First up, Sony sent the BluRay of Kenneth Branagh's version of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," and I decided to brave it out and watch the film for the first time since it was released in theaters.
Second, Vintage Classics sent me a new paperback edition of the book, and I almost just tossed it on a shelf without looking at it. I've got several copies of the book in the house already, and I couldn't imagine why a new edition would be newsworthy. Then I happened to glance at it a little closer and I realized that I don't have this book in the house yet, and that it was indeed newsworthy.
Charles E. Robinson is sort of an expert on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He's spent much of his career helping to sort out the true creative origins of the book, and also trying to sort out what, if anything, is the definitive version of the novel. With this new edition, he's finally cracked it, I think, and the result is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the creative process and in historical mythmaking. In this new edition, Robinson presents two distinct versions of the book. The first is the original manuscript written by Mary Shelley, reproduced exactly here with punctuation and spelling issues intact. The second is the manuscript that was created by Mary Shelley and her husband Percy, working together, which is something I never realized before.
Makes sense, I guess. He was, after all, already an acclaimed and published author, and she was a girl who met him at sixteen, when he was already famous. There is no doubt that the spine and the soul of Frankenstein is hers when you read this new edition, but looking at the work he did suggests that the story might never have seen publication at that time without his help. Their collaboration made a huge difference to the overall finish of the book, and it is that version which first made its way into publication.
Mary Shelley continued to tweak the book even after its first publication, which is one of the reasons there has always been a question about which version is the "real" version, but here finally, the origins of the books ideas are laid bare.
It's a fascinating piece of literary detective work by Robinson, and a compelling read. Despite my familiarity with the material, it was still worth digging into, and I would hope that fans of the story and people who are just interested in the evolution of creative material alike would pick it up.
On the other hand, I can't imagine why anyone would want to own Kenneth Branagh's film. Dear god. At the time it came out, I had a very strong negative reaction, but I'll admit that it may have been colored by my love of the screenplay. Frank Darabont, a lifelong "Frankenstein" nut, had written what many in the industry called the most faithful film version of Shelley's novel ever attempted. His script is a thing of beauty, literate and dark and terrifying, with a Monster that is utterly singular among all the film adaptations of the novel. Watching it now, I think it's even worse than I originally thought, and I find myself unable to sit through the whole thing.
So what happened? I can tell you that the one thing that terrifies me about "Thor" is Kenneth Branagh in the director's chair. I don't know that I've ever seen a case where someone's interpretation of a script was more profoundly off from what I expected. Ever. Branagh seems to be of the camp (and, boy, does that word apply) who believes that horror films are not like "regular" movies, and they have to be loud and arch and hyperactive and you have to dwell on the gross at the expense of the moment. There is nothing subtle or smart about Branagh's approach, and it's like he just discovered camera cranes and Aerosmith videos the day before shooting began. I think this is a case of a mainstream filmmaker dabbling in a genre that he has no real affinity for, and he's not the first guy to make a truly terrible horror film despite being a talent filmmaker in other genres.
The new BluRay transfer is very strong, and if you like this film, you're going to want to own it in this format. It is worth the upgrade. I just have a hard time believing that a movie as tone-deaf as this one actually has fans. It feels to me like a near-total misfire, and when even Robert De Niro is hilariously terrible in his role, you know something's gone very, very wrong.
"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is available now on BluRay. Mary (and Percy) Shelley's Frankenstein was just published by Vintage Classics.
HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009.
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