November 4, 2013

Frankenstein: From the Stage to the Screen

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What is the difference between the creator and the created? How do the two shape each other? Frankenstein, adapted for the stage from Mary Shelly’s novel by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, attempts to answer these questions in a novel but straightforward way. The 2011 run of the play at National Theatre starred two actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternated between the roles of Viktor Frankenstein and his creature. The audience coming to the performance would arrive at the theater not knowing which actor would be playing which role. Shelley’s novel is well-explored territory, but Dear and Boyle succeed in bringing fresh life to an old story.

This adaptation of Frankenstein begins with the birth of the creature. Doing away with the traditional bolt of lightning, thecreature spends his first few minutes onstage in a womb-like structure, the “incubator.” With a burst of light from the bulbs overhead, the first flash of the creature’s consciousness, he spills out onto the stage. The creature is essentially a newborn in an adult’s body, barely able to walk and without the ability to speak. Frankenstein is horrified by what he has created and abandons the creature. Outside, the creature discovers the wonders of the world: the stars, sunrise, bird song, rainfall. He also discovers the world’s cruelty at the hands of villagers repulsed by his appearance. The creature is briefly taken in by De Lacey (Karl Johnson), a blind professor who teaches the creature not only to speak but also to read Milton. When De Lacey’s son (Daniel Millar) throws the creature out, the creature’s rage is awakened; he attacks the De Lacey family and sets off to find Frankenstein. The creature attacks a member of Frankenstein’s family, which draws Frankenstein to the mountains to confront his creation. They strike a deal: Frankenstein will create a female companion to provide the creature with the love he cannot get from anyone else, and the creature will disappear from civilization forever. Frankenstein leaves his fiancée Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) in thecare of his father (George Harris) and sets off to Scotland to carry out his task. At the last minute Frankenstein breaks the bargain, and the creature swears his revenge. The creature’s crimes mount until Frankenstein’s life is desolated, and the creator decides he must devote his life to destroying the thing he created. They head north, leaving civilization farther and farther behind as they disappear into the land of ice and snow. The two sustain each other: Frankenstein lives to pursue the creature; the creature lives to lead his master on.

Cumberbatch and Miller’s performances as Frankenstein and the creature are truly extraordinary. While the trading of roles between the two could just be seen as a gimmick to increase ticket sales, it did allow the actors to share the well-deserved 2012 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor. I personally prefer Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Frankenstein, as Cumberbatch is more suited to the unique physicality of the creature and Miller perfectly captures the Frankenstein’s dark, reckless ambition, but either way, these are tremendous performances. With these two masterminds matching wits on the stage, the other, finely acted, characters are secondary. Karl Johnson and Naomie Harris especially bring moments of needed humor and warmth to the play. If there is a third star of the production, it is the soundtrack created by Underworld. Moving from grating and mechanical to hopeful and even wistful, the score brings gravity even to scenes where there is no dialogue.

Dear and Boyle, to their credit, managed to spin a new twist on an old story. Often, Frankenstein is referenced in discussions of destructive genius, the dark side of scientific innovation and the limits of human power. By focusing intensely on the development and the perspective of the creature and the relationship between Frankenstein and his creation, Boyle and Dear draw out themes in the story that are often neglected: love, duty, how our relationships with other people form us. Frankenstein had a responsibility to care for the person he created. If the creature has received the love he so desperately craved, he could have been a completely different person. Nothing, especially a man spliced together from the bodies of many others, is created in a vacuum, and the actions of people involved play a huge role in what that creation will become.

Unfortunately, the misogyny runs rampant in this adaptation. Elizabeth and the female creature exist solely to be the shadows and romantic interests of their respective partners. Elizabeth is the brunt of many sexist remarks, often coming from Frankenstein himself. The creature’s nakedness when he burst from the womb represented his vulnerability and innocence in a harsh world. But the female creature’s body is immediately sexualized, with Frankenstein commenting on the beauty of her breasts and wondering aloud if she will want to sleep with him after she is brought to life. Both Frankenstein and the creature are reluctant to harm the other, but that does not prevent them from attacking the other’s woman, attacks which include a completely unnecessary and painful rape scene. The play uses two scenes of extreme violence against women just to advance the character development of two men. The two attacks are mentioned in the original text, but the graphic nature of the adaptation is inexcusable.

Despite these flaws, Frankenstein remains a powerful production years after it was first featured on screen. Popular demand brought to movie theatres across the world not once but twice, in both 2012 and 2013, and the National Theatre would be remiss if they did not show it again.