The context in which a text is placed changes its purpose and allows it to be interpreted in a variety of ways. The function, perspective and audience of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelly differs greatly to the film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh in many ways. Importantly, Kenneth Branagh’s film was made for a more contemporary audience, reflecting modern concerns where as Frankenstein the novel was written in the context of the 18th century and dealt with the questions at that time.
These differences can be seen through the ideas presented, characterization, setting and plot in each of the texts. In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the main concepts are the power of knowledge, the consequences of man playing god and nature vs. nurture, which is why in Branagh’s appropriation he also explores these ideas. Branagh’s film deals with these themes in a modern context and he relates them back to moral contemporary dilemma’s concerning cloning, robots and using science to postpone death.
In Branagh’s film he was able to present these ideas in a stronger form and give more meaning to the concepts because he had both visual and literary techniques to use, but in essence both texts communicate these ideas through characterization, setting and plot. Branagh’s appropriation deals with the inconsistencies within Shelley’s plot as well as aiming to stay true to the text and enhance the modern audience’s appreciation of the novel. The characterization of the main characters differs between each of the texts.
In Branagh’s appropriation, he tries to illustrate both the good and evil qualities in each of the characters and give purpose to Victor’s actions. In the film, although being on a quest for knowledge and power Victor is very passionate and romantic; however Branagh stays true to the novel by making him sometimes selfish, ignorant and curious. Through characterization both Branagh and Shelly comment on the theme of man playing god. They show through the deterioration of Victor’s character, that it is not justified in what he does and that he will have to deal with the consequences of his actions.
In addition, the ‘monster’ character also varies, in the novel he is portrayed of having gigantic proportions and an irrational temper. Where as in Branagh’s film the creature sometimes seems the more human of the two and is capable of “great love and great rage”. By making the monster more human and not of gigantic proportions, the modern audience can connect and feel sympathy for him, where as Shelley’s audience where influenced to only fear the monster.
Branagh’s monster is both mentally and physically alive, which shows the consequences of disrupting nature and changes the message to that which – everyone has some monster in them and has the capacity to feel the need for revenge or purpose. The last major change in characterization was of Victor’s wife, Elizabeth. In the novel she is portrayed as virtuous, innocent and obedient, all which where important characteristics of attractive ladies in the 18th century.
She is described as young and pale “a child fairer than a pictured cherub” who is greatly contrasted to Branagh’s depiction of the character. Branagh’s Elizabeth is not a normal gothic parallel, because she is dominant, seductive and feisty. Throughout the film she constantly questions Victor’s actions and is contrasted to Shelley’s description by having dark hair, gaunt features and dressed in red; a seductive colour. Throughout the film, Branagh uses setting and motifs, to explain some of the inconsistencies in Shelley’s plot and further emphasize the central ideas.
Shelley was never concerned with the scientific realism of Frankenstein’s actions which meant that she failed to describe Victor’s experiments, the scientific evidence behind the creation or the actual creation process, which led to discrepancies within her plot. Branagh aimed at dealing with her lack of detail, by filming a creation sequence which was true to the novel and answered the audience’s questions. The setting in the creation scene is very scientific and elaborate; it immediately makes you think of life and nurturing, with intricate details such as the amniotic fluid and electric eels.
Branagh makes the birth sequence plausible by dealing with the natural and unnatural elements, while maintaining the idea that what Victor is doing is very unnatural and immoral. During the film, Branagh also uses the motif of fire to comment on the theme of man not meddling with nature. Everything in the end is destroyed by fire such as the house, Elizabeth and Victor with the monster on the ice. The flames act as a destructive yet cleansing force, which supports the idea that man should not meddle with nature and must listen to the warnings.
The original plot of Shelley’s Frankenstein is changed for Branagh’s film to help enhance and communicate the central ideas of the story. Branagh tries to give more reason and justification to Victor’s actions by making his mother die in child birth and his mentor Dr. Walderman pass away. In the film, Victor is motivated by these tragedies and wants to find a way to post pone death “No one need never die”. The action of Justine not being allowed a trial for William’s death, communicates the idea that there is not justice.
It communicates to the audience that no one is considering their actions, and that innocent lives will pay for other people’s destructive pursuits. The most major change in plot by Branagh was Elizabeth being reborn by Victor. These change further enforced the message of man playing god and that Victor should let people die in peace and accept the natural processes. The fact that Elizabeth then killed herself because she realised the moral consequences, reflected the modern context of feminism. It showed the strength of women and that there was someone questioning victor, trying to be a voice of reason.
The changes that Branagh made in his appropriation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, allowed for the central ideas to be expanded and explored. He manipulated the original plot, characters and setting to relate to his modern audience and context but stayed true to the novels central ideas of the power of knowledge, the consequences of man playing god and nature vs. nurture. His appropriation dealt with the inconsistencies of Shelley’s original plot and effectively conveyed to the modern audiences, one of the most famous novels of all time.