A special romantic catch-up with Jokerside’s favourite morality tale this Valentine’s Day! Love has a crucial place in Mary Shelley’s tale and Jokerside takes a look at 2015’s Victor Frankenstein on film and The Frankenstein Chronicles on TV through many glasses of pink sparkling wine. They’re needed. ❤ ❤ Spoilers abound ❤ ❤
WHEN JOKERSIDE LAST TOOK A LOOK AT CURRENT FRANKENSTEIN ADAPTATIONS TWO YEARS’ AGO, IT WAS A SUITABLY MIXED BAG. THE LONG-GESTATING AND HORRIFICALLY CONCEIVED I FRANKENSTEIN HAD DISAPPOINTED CINEMAS TO THE TUNE OF $70 MILLION. While on the small screen, scribe John Logan had sculpted one of the greatest Frankenstein adaptations in the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful.
Frankenstein’s creature is of course, never something that could or should be kept down. At the time, work was underway on Victor Frankenstein, a new big budget take on the legend, pulling together the great and good of BBC’s Sherlock, box office Brit and a script from Chronicle scribe, and son of a horror directing legend, Max Landis. It promised the biggest big screen splash since Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 gothic prize, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Hopes were very high. And on the idiot lantern, more promise lay in the rejuvenated ITV zeroing in on classic gothic horror. Alongside a dedicated stab at Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a mysterious six part series called The Frankenstein Chronicles. The potential of these properties at the close of 2015 was huge, but as both took a barely faithful root to the story, could it be seized in a huge, stitched and unstoppable hand?
Victor Frankenstein (2015)
It can’t be understated: the chance for Victor Frankenstein to astonish and amaze were immense. Max Landis’ script promised a new take, taking the slant of Igor, a part of the myth that might be film’s greatest addition. Cast as Igor was Daniel Radcliffe, he of extraordinary and erratic acting choices since his Harry Potter days, and James McAvoy, an actor fully capable of recapturing the arrogant vigour of Peter Cushing’s great Baron Frankenstein of the Hammer series. And best of all, Victor Frankenstein sucked up the great and good of Sherlock, the BBC’s astonishingly successful modernisation of the great consulting detective. Memorable Moriarty Andrew Scott took the role of devout adversary to the mad scientist, while Paul McGuigan took up the directing reigns. McGuigan’s work on Sherlock almost defied belief, you only need to compare his episodes to the original pilot to see the skill and talent he brought to one of genre TV’s biggest properties. All in all, there couldn’t be a better choice. The stars were aligning, and Promethean man did they take a long time to do so. It was announced in 2011…
Fall of man
Meet your makers
And once again, it can’t be understated: Victor Frankenstein, languishing as a flop that couldn’t achieve half of I Frankenstein’s box office managed to miss by a mile. It’s a classic morality tale of its own where in spite of the great talent involved hardly any of the individual pieces connected. The blame for its poor box office, $6 million under its budget, can partially fall to theatres, particularly independent British chains, that failed to support its release, as much Victor Frankenstein is yet another low flying warning shot at the British film industry that scripts need to be worked and worked and reworked again. Some of the dialogue and all of the opposition is toe-curlingly horrendous. And it’s a damn shame. Before we get onto the ‘Luuuurve’ that defines this peace, it’s impossible to ignore those problems.
In an adaptation that updates the action to full on Victoriana and roots it in London away from the early 19th century central European setting, Victor Frankenstein never promised fidelity. Least of all because it chooses to follow the story of Igor, forming the moral heart of a story where he’s saved by Victor and has the chance to save his friend in return. But if you’re going to transport Frankenstein, it needs a reason. It must come down to more than the grimy, evocating vistas of Imperial London. That said, McGuigan’s usual supreme eye for the visual is a bit off. Amid the hectic editing, the flourish isn’t there in what should be joyous romp of Grand Guignol. In the opening sequence, Frankenstein helping Igor escape his circus prison for the thrill as much as opportunity, there’s much leaping, fire and explosion, most of it with very little cause. At one point a strong man even tears a book, just because he can. This is a tale of grotesques and the chance to widen that circus metaphor is lost almost immediately as both Igor and his obsession Lorelei are sucked into society. The swagger of a multi-layered update managed by Guy Ritchie’s successful and stylish Sherlock Holmes adaptations isn’t given a chance to develop.
Out in society, the quality of the dialogue plummets into light character definition and awkward plot propulsion. Unsurprisingly, the only character who can almost rise above it is McAvoy’s Frankenstein, greedily grabbing all the great with disconnected, moustache twirling arrogance.
However, this Frankenstein is neither the earnest and misguided delusional that Branagh portrayed, nor the brewing callous Baron of Cushing. A hedonist, his drunken blasphemy and questioning of morality in front of shocked Victorian ladies tire very quickly. The attempt to flesh his motivation out is flat, particularly given the by the numbers appearance of Charles Dance as his terror of a father. Is any horror safe from Dance these days? The later reveal that his dedication comes from the loss of his brother not only feels bolted on, but in opposition to the amoral character we’ve seen earlier.
But his motivation is the least of the film’s worries. Andrew Scott, such a charismatic actor is once again hamstrung by English malevolence that seems to leave him unable to move his neck as Inspector Turpin. His character journey, defined by blunt grasps at Christianity and endlessly repeating a mantra while his psyche slides doesn’t provide the strong moral argument the film needs. His short and ill-built raid on Frankenstein’s premises, almost out of nowhere, may bring all plot strands to a sudden head but creates false drama. Turpin’s loss of his hand and inexplicable loss of his eye as his career and mind fall away, usurped by his hitherto unambitious deputy doesn’t add up. Most bizarre of all is how he’s confident enough to scratch his face with his fake hand just days after the incident. That’s bound to send him back to hospital.
The signs are there in the rapid plot development (Igor’s ball attendance and adjustment glossed and packed with coincidence), vanishing characters (Lorelei’s benefactor) and the motivation of almost every character (is Finnegan’s motivation to shift from mocking antagonist to provide the Doctor with huge resources and SPECTRE level of personnel really the quest for a weapon?) to show that something’s gone very awry in between script, shooting and edit. Probably all three, although the script should have sifted and distilled its themes far better.
The major let-downs are so destructive to the Frankenstein adaptation that it’s unbelievable they got through. Just as Frankenstein’s early claim about Igor’s hands seems misplaced, the film never displays Frankenstein’s genius. There’s the sketching, but little hands on work that previous adaptations have managed so well. That’s an unnecessary difficulty, but the real horror comes on the far too ‘logical’ solution to creating life. In creating a literal superhuman with two hearts, two lungs, super-strength and a gigantic physique, Frankenstein may be tapping into the supernaturally Promethean aspect, but the film completely misses the point, particular when framing it around the Doctor’s need to reanimate the idea of his lost brother. The point is that he creates man, not a superman.
“Isn’t that rather obvious?”
Oh yes, the main event. There has to be some love at the heart of what’s surely a gothic romance. This Frankenstein has considerable time for showing off and celebrating, but little interest in the distractions of women. There is no Elizabeth, and even Frankenstein’s odd menace as he bids Igor and Lorelei farewell at the early ball is as inexplicable. It’s surely intended to pave the way to the reveal that Frankenstein has the original Igor encased in ice (in true Hammer fashion), which says a lot about the film’s approach to Bechdel testing, but goes nowhere. Lorelei, the swan taken from the circus, saved and somehow the fulfilled object of Igor’s desire, played by Jessica Brown Findlay looking younger than even her Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, is given an entirely cod script. The heart of the piece has to be that relationship. Lorelei is the cause of the riff between Victor and Igor, but she’s not compelling enough to do much more than rescue Igor from two deaths. While there’ a neat balance in the vigil each holds over the other at opposite ends of the piece. Lorelei is won, dragged through the drama and then claimed come the end. A situation, Frankenstein inadvertently takes all the credit for.
All the wrong reasons
“At the heart of a scientific enterprise…”
The parallels and ideas bobbling around are stunted by Victor Frankenstein’s garbled intent. Meta runs through the modern language of the piece, with constant references to the original text. The creature Frankenstein creates is called Prometheus here, adding much to the knowing lines that people will always remember the creature itself and not Frankenstein.
But Victor Frankenstein is a morality tale with precious little morality. It fails to prove its concept and settles on an extraordinary finish that effectively makes Igor the creature of the piece, the one everyone shall remember. Falling short of the Baron’s stubborn immortality in the Hammer series, a living, uninjured and rather joyous Doctor almost skips off into the Scottish hills, astonishingly vindicated come the close. Without the desire to have it all, love and God-like abilities, Frankenstein is less than the sum of his parts.
Unfortunately, as a record breaker for all the wrong reasons (the lowest opening gross in over 2,500 American theatres), Victor Frankenstein will never get a sequel.
With yet another spectacular fall on the big screen, it will be intriguing to see how other studios take the slide of big screen Frankenstein properties at the moment. Particularly over at Universal, where their plans to build a shared universe between horror properties is slowly taking shape with a very special space reserved for The Bride of Frankenstein.
The Frankenstein Chronicles (2015)
“Where men find themselves reflected”
Similarly transposing the myth to London is ITV Encore’s The Frankenstein Chronicles. But this time, that relocation is very much the point for all the publicity that hailed it as a reimagining of the Frankenstein myth.
With a wonderfully atmospheric start that manages to blend the music of Sherlock with the look of recent Dickens adaptations, The Frankenstein Chronicles is very much a product of its time. But it also carries the breadth of its influences on its stitched sleeve from the start. That opening, set in the Greenwich peninsula of London is pure Great Expectations. It’s London of 1827, dodging the Victorian era by a few years to remain Georgian, and instead of a startled Pip Pirrup on Bugsby’s Marshes, there’s the grisly discovery of a young girl’s corpse, with twitching, stitched hand “Parts of at least seven children. Disarticulated and reassembled” as they say.
The heart of The Frankenstein Chronicles is Sean Bean’s grizzled, plain-talking John Marlott, a name carrying a cunning reference to Bean’s famous role in Sharpe, and the kind of bullish and moralistic policeman familiar from many a 19th century police drama. For the Chronicles are indeed a police procedural, with Bean appearing in almost every scene. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, where neither Igor not the good Doctor are really allowed to fall into society, but always sit beyond it, Marlott’s rough and ready copper fall into the mysteries of high society are at the root of the story. And for all the intricacies of the plot it boils down to a resolutely simple whodunit, or whoisFrankenstein?
Scripted in literature
“To find her, you have to know the truth of the beast”
Rooted to the twists of the tale, and as interesting as historically-stretching, is the blend of William Blake and none other than Mary Shelley alongside Robert Peel and countless other historical characters. None come off particularly well. But intriguingly, set a decade on from the publication, Shelley, played by the ever-excellent Anna Maxwell Martin, is dogged by her novel. As the roots of that come to bear on the present, throwing up a number of medical red herrings it’s a shame that Marlott’s character is the only person in the country never to have heard of Frankenstein. A lot hinges on that, but still, we find out he’s been quite preoccupied. Cu: many shots of him poring over the tone.
Credit to pulling in William Blake, albeit briefly, and casting Steven Berkoff in the role. It’s a nice acknowledgement of Blake as influence on Shelley, and her as influence on the story itself.
Chronicles ramps up references wherever it can, from the reappropriated monastery hospice to the heavy influence of Dickens which carries through the episodes far beyond the opening nod to Great Expectations. Soon Marlott would take a Nancy under his wing and tussle with her Bill Sykes. Come the peak of Episode four, a journalistic expose makes no bones of the links to Jack the Ripper and the threat of a surgeon-like serial killer in London’s midst.
Rooted In history
“Not only the future of medicine, but the prospect of a world without God”
It’s an interesting and strong conceit, with the grizzled fearless undercover copper uneasily mixing with the aristocracy against the backdrop of Peel’s dedication to push through his Anatomy Act. Passed in 1832, that Act gave surgeons greater remit to dissect corpses, tackling the public outcry over grave robbing. Of course, it eliminated much of the everyday horror that fuelled by the likes of Burke and Hare and inspired much gothic horror including Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula. “Medical science has grown beyond their comprehension” – the associated superstition and the suspicion of hoaxes the truth adds considerable substance to the tale. And it’s satisfyingly odd when it becomes key to the extraordinary series finale.
It’s unfortunate that significant clues as to the villain can be found by looking at who is fictional and who real in this universe. Also, that Marlott is afflicted from Syphilis from the off. We’re left in no doubt as to the seriousness of the disease – with a graphic representation of the tertiary phase – and while the affliction’s symptoms add a crucial ambiguity to what’s real and what’s not, it follows similar patterns laid down by the well trailed occurrence of consumption in Penny Dreadful earlier in 2015.
“The monster, the one who took the children”
Like Victor Frankenstein, and very much an indication of where Frankenstein finds itself in the 21st century there’s great exploration of who’s actually the monster. There’s a broad field to choose from and although it serves up a Frankenstein figure, it’s bold enough to actually remove the figure where Victor Frankenstein suffered by putting him front and centre.
“It’s a life”
There’s a poor pun, given without irony, but bound to raise an ear in a Frankenstein tale. In all it’s a rather complicated and sprawling plot that really all boils down to love. It’s interesting to catch the older Mary Shelley, abandoned by life, to drip in the morals surrounding abortion and then a rather feeble love story between the girl Bean saves and his idealistic young deputy. It’s the shocking resolution to that which leads to Marlott’s downfall. And there’s even time for the unlikely love affair between Marlott and sister of the villain of the piece, the far out of his league Lady Jemima Hervey. Lady Hervey herself pledged in a loveless marriage and quite probably come the end, the unluckiest character in the piece. She, as with Marlott are merely pawns in a large game of political machination versus the work of an utter mad man.
“His great obsession. Creating life from death”
From the start the other unlucky contender, Marlott, is too haunted. By his disease, his past and the growing mystery of his lost child and wife, he’s too dogged to be anything other than doomed. “Come back to us John, don’t forsake God…” – “God’s forsaken me…” come the hallucinations, apparently prophetic glimpses and warnings.
“I don’t believe one can discover the secrets of live by cutting up the dead…”
Come the end, the drawn out twist conclusion is remarkably unexpected considering the signposts that followed Marlott everywhere. It really plays the misdirection well. And come the inevitable, the misconceived love story suddenly shifts focus. This isn’t about the love of Frankenstein or Igor, but love felt for the creature itself, Hervey’s “Adam”. It’s particularly poignant as we see Marlott ripped back from the afterlife with his wife, one of the key sequences sitting up there with the Marlott’s deduction that the young corpse he found had crawled to the river, not washed up. Lord Hervey’s most successful creature becomes the method for the mad man’s sister’s absolution (she also being its aunt) and even little Lyca/Alyc, the search for whom lay at the heart of the story, is returned safe and well. The love that emerges come the end wanders more into the territory of King Kong, but also manages to capture the gloomy sentiment of Shelley’s novel astoundingly well; quite the opposite of Victor Frankenstein.
Effectively shot, if highly bleak, Chronicles mainly suffers from its over-earnest seriousness – even come the extreme melodrama of the organ scenes at the end. There’s no relish in the Frankenstein of the story, even when he appears. The script and over produced grime and authenticity is similar to the slight stiltedness of BBC and Amazon’s Ripper Street. It packs in the horror jumps, which taught me to be scared of open doorways, but not an ounce of necessary humour. The ending is sequel friendly for what was originally conceived as a miniseries and I wonder if they’ll get the chance to correct that. The situation the leads find them in suggest it would be a tall task to add even a mote of comedy.
Shelley’s continuing role
“To the unflinching eye of the intellectual soul”
Flashbacks reveal Shelley’s influences and the despair that came from experiments at James Hogg’s abode. And aside from that experiment with galvanisation not producing a monster from, the friends’ playing with dark science comes across a bit like Flatliners. Still, it’s particularly striking as we see little other evidence of the villains hard at their own evil work. And it’s the flashback that kicks the series into gear and intriguingly turns this programme into the real creature of her inspiration. Given her sudden, awkward and disappointing exit, a sequel would do well to expand Mary Shelley’s role.
Most of all, the flawed but worthy The Frankenstein Chronicles must be awarded added points for painting it’s inspiration in such a terrible light. As Mary Shelley says of the book that dragged her family name into disrepute and left her an outcast: “It has caused great misery in this world and I must make sure it doesn’t cause anymore”.
Well, indeed. Frankenstein, making the world a better place for 198 years.