Thrilling, Intelligent, Harrowing, Moving
Britain's National Theatre's moves its monster into movie houses
by Michael Mitchell
There’s a scene early on in the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein where two vagrants are sitting in front of a fire and one of them recounts a somewhat libidinous tale to the other. It’s a wonderful moment that distills a bit of what it is that has not only kept Mary Shelley’s creation alive since it was first published in 1818, but has also turned it into an indelible myth. For there we are, thousands of disparate people, sitting in state-of-the-art megaplexes (the production was screened in movie theaters all over the world), in venues that usually house the most bombastic and technologically advanced, yet dramatically poor, visual products imaginable, and what does it all come down to?
To the equivalent of listening to a tale being told ’round a campfire.
In this case, the tale is being retold by Danny Boyle, the man who helmed 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle directed a new stage version of Frankenstein for the National Theatre in London, England (written by Nick Dear) last year, which was diffused to movie theaters via satellite, and which is now being re-broadcast throughout North American cinemas this June.
Written almost 200 years ago, by a 19 year-old no less, it’s astounding how the story of a rogue scientist who animates a stitched-together corpse can still resonate so deeply. But that’s the main reason why it abides. The story. It’s also astounding as to how many adaptations of the work there have been and continue to be. This makes it doubly difficult to make it seem fresh, because a lot of people think they know what Frankenstein is about, but most people coming to Shelley’s tale only have a vague notion of what the actual novel is about.
—First, they usually think the monster is Frankenstein, and not the scientist who created it. In fact, the monster itself is never named.
—Second, they generally have no idea how much dark, disturbing and graphic content (the tearing apart of the monster’s female companion, the hanging of Justine, etc.) the novel is comprised of.
—Third, and most important, they have no idea how sentient, intelligent and eloquent the monster becomes by the end.
And the monster’s evolution is precisely what this version focuses on – from the opening minutes where we watch the creature learn how to use its limbs, to its stumblings through supposedly civil society, to its acquisition of language, to its eventual realization of what it is.
One of the main paradoxes of Shelley’s Frankenstein is that the monster ends up becoming more human than its creator.
Some criticism has fallen on Dear’s play for not fleshing out Victor Frankenstein’s role more, but they’ve misread the source novel, as the scientist’s lack of character and humanity is integral to the tale. He’s not underwritten as much as he is non-engaged. One of the main paradoxes of Shelley’s Frankenstein is that the monster ends up becoming more human than its creator. In effect, Victor, in creating something that is actually greater than man, is entirely too successful.
And the show itself seemed to be too successful (it was the hottest ticket in London, every performance was completely sold out). Make no mistake, it’s a magical production. At roughly two hours long, with no intermission, the time still manages to fly by. And there isn’t a lack of invention either: a full steam engine appears on stage; with a bit of dry ice we’re transported to a lake near Geneva; hundreds upon hundreds of light bulbs hang from the rafters and emulate electricity to a fantastic degree; and a patch of grass and a spot of water from the ceiling show us the dawn of one man’s awareness as clearly as anything in a $200,000,000 movie could.
this is by far one of the strongest adaptations of the original to date
While horrifying indeed, the play could have probably used a few more minutes to explore more fully the ramifications of what was happening to the two beings who seem opposed, but who are merely halves of a whole. There’s also the feeling that the horror could have been turned up a notch or two near the end. Although, to be fair, even though the theatre knew there’d be a mass movie audience, there’s a fair amount of horror on display.
Interestingly, even with a few possible tiny missteps near the end, with a main Frankenstein narrative finally dealing mostly with the journey of the monster, this is by far one of the strongest adaptations of the original to date. However, from Thomas Edison’s 1910 silent-film version, to Clive Barker’s grand guignol theatrical re-telling, to "Lady Frankenstein" (a crummy movie that manages to feature one of the, ah, bravest and most stupefying murder scenes ever filmed) to Kenneth Branagh’s swirling melodrama, The Modern Prometheus has still yet to be presented in a fully satisfying way in any of the innumerable adaptations so far—this one included.
Purists might balk at the ending, which departs from Shelley’s original one somewhat, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work, however. It’s just as bleak as the original, and just as dreadful. And after nearly 200 years of scientific progress since it was written, who’s to say that Shelley wouldn’t prefer the new ending now?
be prepared to watch the spectacle twice, as each theater is presenting both versions at least once
Of all the “horror” films we’ve seen lately at the megaplexes, it still says something that two men can stand on an empty stage and affect us in ways that torture porn, the remade Freddy and those ludicrous PG-13 horror movies can only dream of.
Adding another level to the duality of nature explored in Shelley’s novel is that the roles of monster and scientist were switched nightly by the two leads, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbach. So be prepared to watch the spectacle twice, as each theater is presenting both versions at least once.
It’s a thrilling evening. It’s intelligent. It’s harrowing. It’s moving.
It’s also a horror story that puts most modern-made horror stories to shame. See it while you can or regret it forever...