When most people talk about Frankenstein, they’re usually referring to the 1931 Universal monster movie starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. In the film, Henry Frankenstein stitches together and reanimates parts from different corpses to create The Monster; a mongoloid of a man who repulses everyone with his frightening appearance and looming stature. Although the Monster is, at heart, a kind and gentle soul, his unusual looks cause distrust and anger from everyone who witnesses him. Eventually, the Monster is hunted down by a wild mob, and burned alive – a firm lesson in the consequences that come with playing god, and the dangers of scientific advancement. This version, although extremely iconic and important in its own way, is actually vastly different from Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel.
Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is more of a recollection of events told through letters, or from one person to another, rather than one fluid storyline that begins and ends the whole account. In her novel, Victor Frankenstein recollects his childhood, and tells of how his mother died of scarlet fever, prompting a curiosity in Victor regarding death, and reincarnation. In a twisted lab experiment, Victor recharges dead tissue, and creates life with his very own hands. Sadly, the angel of Victor’s creation could only be made real with larger-than-life body parts, warping Victor’s original vision into a horrifying Monster, who Victor immediately abandons as he runs away in fear. Although they temporarily part ways, the Monster, now self-taught and speaking with intelligent dialect, eventually finds Victor and demands he make the Monster a companion to ease his loneliness. Terrified, Victor agrees, but eventually destroys his female Creature, because the notion of sparking a whole new breed of unpredictable, fiercely strong super beings is much more petrifying than the thought of dying at his Monster’s hands. The Monster makes Victor pay for his betrayal, and the end of the novel sees Victor hunting the Monster down in an act of revenge, all the way to the North Pole.
Although both versions of this classic tale are beautifully layered cautionary tales about judging people by their appearance, and the limits of what man can and should do, Shelley’s novel focuses more on the dangers that come with knowledge, and modeled Frankenstein and his monster on the greek god Prometheus and his giving fire to the world of humans. While many interpretations of Shelley’s work have pulled more heavily from the Universal Monster movie, director Bernard Rose, director of the upcoming Frankenstein from UK Distributor Signature Entertainment, aims for a more loyal adaptation of the source material.
“The body parts stitched together is James Whale’s invention” Director Rose states. “Mary Shelley wrote about “creating life”. That is the fire that Victor steals: Prometheus-like from the gods.”
Bernard Rose was inducted into the world of Frankenstein through Whale’s feature, but after revisiting the book, it became immensely important for Rose to base his film mostly on the original text.
“I wanted to get back to Shelley’s original concept which was that Victor ‘created life’ not that he reanimated corpses – which is an invention of James Whale’s and not in the novel. I also wanted to give the Monster the voice that Mary Shelley wrote for him. In her conception the Monster is a sensitive intelligent poetic soul – he may be utterly immature and narcissistic but he suffers tremendous remorse for the violence that he imitates from the humans around him. He wants to love and be loved and is highly sensitive, but once treated with unrelenting brutality he wants revenge and death and destruction. Shelley intuited at the very start of the scientific era that the objective of science was to create consciousness. We are of course no closer to achieving this either through biotechnology or cybernetics. Compare the computer imagined by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey to our clunky and deeply stupid phones and iPads. This is why Shelley is still relevant in a way that say, Jules Verne is not”.
Starring Xavier Samuel, Rose’s film starts out with the Monster, now aptly named “Adam”, as he wakes up in random laboratory somewhere in modern day Los Angeles, unaware of how he got there, or who he is. Confused and infantile, the man these strange scientists keep referring to as “Adam” only finds comfort in his surrogate mother’s temporary embraces. However, when his authority figures leave him for dead after he escapes and is picked up by the law, Adam begins to lose faith in humanity, as the only interactions he encounters are filled with faces of disgust, irritation, and horror.
Making the story feel a tad more personal, Rose’s version is told mostly from the Monster’s point of view. “The film is really an adaptation of the chapters in the book where the Monster recounts his experiences to Victor – this seemed far and away the most moving parts of the novel to me and gave the film a unique perspective,” Rose explains. “He wakes up full grown in a laboratory and does not know who he is, where he is , what he is , how to eat, how to speak how to control his body. It also enables one to start the film with the Monster, not the usual dull wait for him to appear”.
When it came to casting the man to play the Monster, knew he wanted Xavier Samuel to tackle the legendary role. The confirmation, however, didn’t come from a previous film Samuel starred in (although Rose did enjoy his performance in Adore), but actually from a quirky visit to the park.
“What convinced me to cast [Samuel] though is we went out to the park and improvised some stuff of him eating dirt and bugs and experiencing nature for the first time” director Rose recounts. “I loved his physicality and the fact that he could be totally expressive without using words. It is like a silent film performance”.
While Samuel had to rely heavily on his physical performance to portray the Monster, Rose’s interpretation of the text also called for a deeply troubled emotional state; one who housed articulate, pensive thoughts inside of his ghastly, child-like vessel.
“The Monster is super intelligent and learns very fast but he has no experience,” director Rose relays. “He only imitates the words he hears and the things that are done to him. He is literally an adult baby”.
To help accomplish this heightened portrayal of the Creature, much of Adam’s dialogue is expressed in voiceover as inner monologue, taken straight from Shelley’s writing.
Pinning down his presentation, Rose comments, “I wanted to return the story to its original conception while removing the trappings of “gothic” novels and the Hammer Horror style depictions of the nineteenth century. The direct quotes from Shelley are the Monster’s internal voice that he cannot express”.
Bernard Rose’s latest provides a compassionate depiction of Frankenstein’s monster; the man reborn as a villain, and a victim to society’s prejudice. However, this isn’t the first time that Rose has expressed some sympathy for the devil. In his 1992 horror film Candyman, Rose provides an equally compelling defense for his antagonist, Daniel Robitallie, a black man who was mutilated and burned alive for being romantically involved with a white woman. When speaking on his ability to relate to these characters, Rose had this to say: “They are the ‘other’ and thus heroic, though misunderstood. They are more sinned against than sinning”.
With the eighty-eighth Academy Awards swiftly approaching, and the nominees once again displaying a lack of diversity, now, more than ever, are moves like Candyman relevant. “It’s shocking to me that Candyman was not just the first black horror villain, but one of the only – and it has been twenty-four years now” director Rose says, stupefied.
“The producers and distributors were very against this casting in 1992 and they would be more so now – for all the wrong reasons of course” Bernard Rose points out. “Anyone of any ethnicity should be able to play any role – good and bad, sexual and non sexual, PC and non PC. Anti-heroes are as important as heroes”.
Not only is Rose correct in a conventional sense, but this idea that antagonists are just as important as protagonists is especially true when it comes to horror movies. Villains become iconic, their characters are made into action figures, their faces are placed on t-shirts, and their appearances are mimicked when fans of their movies dress up like their favorite bad guys on Halloween. Casting black villains in horror films is just as crucial as casting black heroes, and the fact that it’s been over twenty years since a decent African American antagonist joined the ranks of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees is almost as frightening as the thought of a Candyman movie without Tony Todd. Just try to think of Candyman saying “Helen” without Todd’s booming, silky voice. It’s not possible.
As for other upcoming filmmakers who are seeking to go against the grain and make original, lasting content, Rose provided some heartfelt advice: “Don’t pander to the audience – challenge them – they prefer that”.
Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein hits DVD on February 23rd, 2016.