Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

August 26, 2001

Comparison between Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Assuming Leila May's “Sibling Rivalry” is accurate
By Alexis Norris

    The movie Frankenstein directed by Kenneth Branagh can be compared to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in several significant ways.  Though the film was marked negatively with overacting and frequent uproar out of proportion to the action, it is interesting to note the scenes from the novel relating to  brother/sister relationships that Branagh changed or omitted in the film.
    Women are portrayed very differently in the movie.  The first brother/sister connection that was revealed to us in the novel-- in the letters Walton writes to his “dear sister” Margaret Saville-- is omitted in the film.  If there is a romantic, more feminine side to Walton it is hidden and he is pictured as the typical explorer, masculine and determined, perhaps because he has no feminine influence to soften his hard edges.  This was most likely left out of the movie because it would only confuse the viewer and make the events more complex.  This, however, was only the first of brother/sister relationships left out of the film.
    Women in the novel  were portrayed as pallid, vapid creatures whose sole purpose was to serve as man's mirror image.  Elizabeth is the perfectly passive sister patiently waiting for Victor's return.  She rarely acts on her own, and the one time she does (at Justine's trial) she is ineffectual.  Though calm on the shallow surface, internally she is suppressing a desire that will soon spill forth.
    Bonham-Carter is the exact opposite.  She is vibrant and energetic and clearly a pleasure seeker.  Rather than serve as Victor's mirror image, she is the aggressive one in the relationship.  Rather than demurely wait for Victor while he plays God many miles away, Bonham-Carter goes to seek Victor herself.  This utterly destroys Leila May's brother/sister theory because Elizabeth is not the model sister.  Rather than suppress her desire and allow it to grow into something monstrous she acts upon it.
    In reality such an assertive woman would have been frowned upon in the male dominant nineteenth century.  An aggressive woman was looked upon as a kind of monster; a thing derived and distorted from its proper form.  It would have been scandalous for Elizabeth to go to Ingolstadt without a chaperone and to wander the streets alone. Perhaps Branagh sensed that audiences wouldn't sympathize with a weak, outdated version of the feminine ideal and therefore chose Bonham-Carter to over-act a boundless enthusiasm for life so that she would be pitied in the contrast of her gruesome death and miserable transformation.
    Bonham-Carter's portrayal of Elizabeth creates an entirely different relationship between Victor and Elizabeth and an entirely new vision of Victor as well.  While in the novel Victor's fondness for Elizabeth should be viewed with contempt as it is only another manifested desire to leave his mark on impressionable clay, Victor's relationship with Bonham-Carter is almost respectable.  Even though Bonham-Carter enters the Frankenstein family in nearly the same manner as Elizabeth in the novel, there is much less of a “sisterly” feel about her and more of a sexual vibe.  In the novel Victor flees from Elizabeth all throughout (if subtly) because he dreads the sororal desire he elicits; he dreads the final union that will take place on his wedding night.  However, in the film Victor only avoids Elizabeth when he is ashamed of his scientific experiments.  The rest of the time he seems more than eager to consummate the relationship.
    Why does Victor penetrate Bonham-Carter in the film, while in the novel he goes out of his way to avoid his marital duties?  Most likely it was sheer voyeurism on Branagh's part.  However, assuming there was a deeper intellectual meaning, as Victor did not share a sister relationship with Bonham-Carter he was “allowed” to have a sexual relationship with her.
    Ironically, soon thereafter Victor leaves her alone after hearing the monster's flute and the monster murders her rather gruesomely.  The situations in which Victor leaves Elizabeth alone while the monster is in dangerous proximity are both equally stupid in the novel and the film.  The only note of confusion is why Victor would let the non-sister Elizabeth die.  In the book it is obviously because he dreads incest, but in the novel Victor has nothing to fear.  It might be suggested that Victor had used Elizabeth and was now discarding of her, but this is disproved when he attempts to reanimate her.
    The monster viewed another brother/sister relationship in the novel.  His first impression of a harmonious relationship is that of Felix and Agatha.  As this is his first impression of any sort of relationship, it will be indelible.  This favorable impression of brother/sister relationships is further reinforced when the monster reads “Paradise Lost” and learns of Eve, the first sister, and the intrinsic togetherness she shared with her brother, Adam.
    In the film the important nature of the monster's education is entirely omitted.  He learns of human relationship from a normal husband and wife and finds no instructive books.  This should affect the film but it doesn't.  The monster still requests that Victor make him a companion, which would make the companion the monster's sister.  This fact is not stressed, however, and nothing about the monster is drastically different as a result of his alternate education.
    Kenneth Branagh omitted nearly all of the brother/sister relationships in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  That he could still place Shelley's name in the title is ludicrous, as the brother/sister relationship is one of the major themes of the book.  It is understandable why he did so.  Just as incest was a horrifying comprehension in the nineteenth century it remains so today.  Viewers who sensed incest between Victor and Elizabeth would not have sympathized for them at all--their gruesome deaths would have been deemed just.
    Technically, if there was no suppressed sororal desire from Elizabeth there would not be a monster.  The monster in the novel was created by Elizabeth's suppressed desire for her brother, and the Elizabeth in the film acts upon her desire.  Not only does she act upon her desire but also she doesn't view Victor as her brother.  Leila May's theory topples in the face of Kenneth Branagh's movie.  Conversely, it appears Kenneth Branagh viewed Frankenstein as more of an opportunity to display over-zealous acting than to interpret define the book.