Many directors have attempted to take on the enormous epic gothic story that is Frankenstein. The novel, which is almost two hundred years old, is known widely to be one of the first tales of horror that is filled with a layered story. In 1994, Kenneth Branagh took on Shelley’s story to make it his own successful film. Like many directors, Branagh extended his artistic license, making changes where he saw fit. The changes he made could be for multiple reasons like personal choice or just to give the story a little something that the novel didn’t have. In his film, Branagh changes the main character Victor, who he played, in several ways.
One of the biggest differences between the novel and the film is the death of Elizabeth. Not only is the death scene itself different, but the impact and role Elizabeth’s death plays on Victor is widely altered. In Branagh’s film, the monster is found ripping Elizabeth’s beating heart out of her chest with the eyes of Victor peering down on him at the doorway. The monster, with the heart still in his hand, stares at Victor and tells him “I keep my promises” (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Neither of those events happened according to Shelley’s novel. Once again, these minor adjustments to the story can be traced back to Branagh. As the director, he is given the chance to implement his artistic spin on the story. Although, in the novel, the monster did not actually rip out Elizabeth’s heart, this change does not lessen the fact Elizabeth is dead. If anything, the brutal death of Elizabeth causes more trauma and panic to course through Victor’s veins. In the novel Elizabeth is strangled, no mess or anything too violent. Branagh’s addition of violence is not only meant to serve cinematic purposes, but is also used to enhance the drama and severity of the situation Victor currently finds himself in. The events that follow, in the film, are also more heightened with drama and intensity. With Elizabeth’s body, he storms back to Geneva and uses parts of Justine’s corpse to recreate his wife Elizabeth. Although this is highly elaborate and potentially over the top, the emotion that Victor portrays here seem to be more realistic than those he is said to have in the novel. In the book, Shelley briefly describes Victor’s feelings and in the moment Victor was “bewildered in a cloud of horror and wonder” (Shelley 227). Quickly after that Victor recounts the other deaths that have torched his life. Minutes after his wife’s death, Victor only begins to think about himself and how the monster’s killings have ruined his life. Shelley’s portrayal of Victor’s response to Elizabeth’s death show how selfish and careless Victor is to everyone that even comes into his life. In neither the book nor the film, Victor doesn’t seem to be given much time to just sit and let the death of his young wife sink it. It is however possible that Victor did not need much time for a reason.
In Shelley’s novel, when Elizabeth enters the story she is called a “pretty present for my Victor” by his mother (Shelley 26). This unofficial label of Elizabeth seems to be present throughout the rest of the story. Victor seems to view Elizabeth more as his property than as his spouse or even a true loved one. Entirely self centered, Victor doesn’t seem to fully develop and understand that Elizabeth is more than just his piece of property, something he needs to protect and value. This idea of Elizabeth being an item to Victor shows why Shelley doesn’t go off on any form of elaborate telling or expression of Victor’s feelings and emotions after the loss of his wife. After Elizabeth’s death Victor described his feelings by saying “in my Elizabeth I possessed a treasure” (Shelley 217). Shelley uses this to show that Victor is not upset because he lost his wife but rather that he lost a possession. Victor’s overall reaction to Elizabeth’s death is also slightly irregular. The death of a spouse can have long-term effects and permanently damage a person. According to Carnelley, Wortman, Bolger, and Burke, four social psychologists, the death of a spouse can cause a grieving period of multiple years. Losing a loved one can “deprive the bereaved person’s life of meaning” (Carnelley, Wortman, Bolger, Burke 477). With the help of their study, it can be seen that although Victor is upset from the many deaths in his life, he is still dedicated to kill the monster, in Shelley’s novel. The study however does show that Branagh’s interpretation of Victor is surprisingly more humane. He goes into shock and begins to act radically. Ignoring the fact that Victor cuts his wife and Justine open ultimately fusing them, Victor does this out of grievance. The film version of Victor doesn’t want to accept that his wife has died and he will do anything possible to bring his wife back into his life. Shock is the first stage a spouse experiences after an unexpected loss of their spouse, Victor acts without thinking in this time due to his flooding emotions.
Branagh’s version of Elizabeth gives Victor more depth and character than that which Shelley gives him. Yes, Victor is obviously more insane for using his wife’s corpse and sewing it to Justine’s corpse in hopes to bring her back, but that doesn’t nullify that fact that Victor would do anything for his wife to be alive and with him again. Film and novel, Victor regrets creating the monster; it’s hideous, murderous and calls it a “vile insect” (Shelley 106). However, in Branagh’s film, Victor decides that he longs for Elizabeth so much, that he will recreate her, much like he created the monster. Rushing back to Geneva, Victor menacingly works and stitches together his Elizabeth 2.0. Although highly dramatic, Victor shows significant character development and progress as he yearns for his wife’s attention. This new Elizabeth is mangled and distorted, can barely speak, and seems practically handicapped. All these malfunctions, and Branagh’s Victor still wants her; Victor will take any form, creation, adaptation of Elizabeth that he can because his love for her is so raw.
Regardless of the depth and change that Victor shows, the film alters Victor’s motive. For Shelley, Victor creates the monster then devotes the rest of his life to fix his mistake of creating the monster; he even remains focused on his honeymoon. Victor feels each death that the monster takes as another death Victor caused. Shelley mentions on many occasions through out the entire novel how the deaths of Justine and William weigh down on Victor as he drowns in guilt. This guilt is what powers and intrigues Victor during his honeymoon and for the rest of the novel. In Branagh’s adaptation, Victor seems to lose his motivation to bring and end to the monster and gets side tracked with his second recreation project; Elizabeth. Branagh’s retelling comes off more as a romance and loses the true theme that Shelley seems to have given the tale.
One possible reason for the change in Elizabeth’s death could be to add more high intensity and gore to the gothic classic. In Shelley’s writing, the novel does not go into great detail about the deaths that occur; “the murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck”, in explaining Elizabeth after she had been attacked by the monster (Shelley 226). In the film however, the monster is seen standing above Elizabeth with her heart in his hand while it drips blood. This exposure to the massacre impacts Victor differently than the death Elizabeth experiences in the novel.
In some ways, Elizabeth’s death caused the biggest shift between the film and the novel. The events following her demise are what really separate the novel from the movie. Victor’s craze to bring Elizabeth back is easily the biggest change to the story. Although this change seems widely bizarre, some critics thought it possible that Branagh’s bringing Elizabeth back to life was seen as more of homage to the 1935 success, “The Bride of Frankenstein”. It is unsure however because the new Elizabeth is not in much of the film as she realizes what she is and then kills herself.
In comparison, the two Victors that are created show a wide difference. Shelley wrote a story surrounding a man in search of the ability to create life. After he is successful at such, he begins to regret those decisions. Shelley’s character then spends the rest of his life in hopes of finding the monster her created and ending its life. Branagh’s Victor differs after the monster has begun to wreak havoc. This adaptation of Victor is given more of a heart, a soul, and more emotion than Shelley had written for him to have. Unfortunately for Branagh, the story suffers when Victor’s motive changes. Branagh created a different Victor that was not what Shelley had molded. Shelley’s timeless story was crafted with thought and care; with every step planned and every character developing or changing to while still keeping the storyline and theme strong throughout. Branagh however, uses his artistic license and drowns the main character in a pool of confusion and heartache.
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