FRANKENSTEIN directed by Danny Boyle (UK, 2011)
Film version of National Theatre Production written by Nick Dear.
Many people think the title of Mary Shelley’s classic gothic horror story of 1818 refers to “the creature” but it is the misanthropic scientist Dr Victor Frankenstein who is the true monster.
This becomes crystal clear in Danny Boyle’s impressive stage production which boasts sublime performances in the key roles from Benedict (Sherlock) Cumberbatch and Trainspotting’s Sick Boy, Jonny Lee Miller.
When this ran at the National Theatre, these two actors alternated between the two roles, a device that emphasises that they are both social misfits – one out of choice, the other through circumstance – as well as showing how their fates as father/son or master/slave are indelibly intertwined. The film version has Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as his creator.
There are no elaborate props or fancy special effects; for instance, the stage is practically bare for the bold opening scene where the newly created being struggles to walk and find a voice.
This is a brilliant piece of physical theatre which involves miming movements that can be likened to the first steps of a child and the struggle of accident victims to regain balance and mobility.
The ‘creature’ (he has no name) is befriended by a blind man who teaches him an appreciation of nature, poetry and music. He develops a particular love for Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic poem built around the biblical story of the fall of man.
This shows him to be an intelligent man with a sensitive nature but, as the elephant man knew to his cost, a nobility of soul is no protection against those who are repulsed by his physical appearance and feel justified in treating him as no better than an animal.
The makeup department give the creature some fierce-looking scars but they haven’t gone so far as to put a bolt through the neck. This makes his mistreatment look even more like the result of cruel prejudice on the part of the perpetrators. His plight is therefore akin to the social alienation faced by those born with deformities or disfigured by serious injuries.
I think Mary Shelley’s novel remains poignant and topical because it more than a straightforward horror tale of monsters and men. Nick Dear’s accomplished adaptation highlights the fact that it is also a vivid allegory which explores the ethical dilemmas regarding scientific intervention or experimentation on human beings.
Zealots might even see in it a validation of their reactionary views on abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research. Such an interpretation would be misplaced in my view. It could be argued that any action by doctors to keep people alive and well is to some extent interfering with nature or playing at God. The issue here is really about where one should draw the line and you don’t have to be a religious fanatic to be repulsed by Doctor Frankenstein’s misuse of fresh corpses.
He doesn’t appear to be care or be aware of any ethical issues and having succeeded in making his creation, he callously leaves the resurrected ‘man’ to fend for himself. This neglect is akin to that of a parent who takes no responsibility for the upbringing of a child. It’s even worse, in fact, because at least a ‘normal’ human being can expect to find guidance, support and friendship from peers whereas this creature is completely isolated. When he tries to integrate he is treated at best as a freak, at worst as a monster.
Yet when asked what it feels like to be in love, the creature answers with a depth of feeling that contrasts starkly with the cold-hearted Frankenstein. The irony, which is not lost in this brilliant production, is that the so called monster is way more ‘human’ than the scientist.