Frankenstein (TV, 2007)
From Death Ray 08.
Writer/Director: Jed Mercurio
Starring: Helen McCrory, James Purefoy, Julian Bleach, Lindsay Duncan, Neil Pearson, Benedict Wong
Classic monster story gets 21st Century update for a world burdened by fresh problems but still dogged by the same old fears.
At heart, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a reaction to the terrifying pace of change brought on by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, a dread of Cartesian madness unleashed upon a godless world by over-eager scientists who seek knowledge without wisdom. It’s a metaphor for the horrors of science and industry untrammelled by moral judgement, a horror that haunts us to this day.
We alone among the animals can construct detailed suppositions of what the future may hold, and Frankenstein is full of the fear of that future. Fear of the consequences our own actions, fear of our failures, fear of what our children may become. Frankenstein‘s abandoned monster is not just representative of a fear of the thundering now, but also of a rejection of the unwelcome future.
It is a story of terribly irresponsible parenting that destroys both father and child. It’s an eternal theme with an Anthropocene twist, and partially responsible for the story’s remarkable longevity.
What Jed Mercurio’s retelling of this tale is about is less clear.
The third in a recent rash of versions of the big three classic horror novels (Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde being the other two), ITV1’s Frankenstein moves the action into the near future, where the eruption of a supervolcano has caused a period of intensely unsettled weather (just one of several nods to the book, written in the Year Without Summer, caused by a volcanic eruption). As the clouds boil red and flicker with lightning, Victoria Frankenstein (Helen McCrory), a scientist at the Windmill Research Institute, is hard at work on the creation of organs grown from stem cells. The story begins (though not, we note, the actual film) with her pushing on with activating a lab-cultured heart despite being told not to by her boss Professor Andrew Waldman (Neil Pearson). So far so Frankensteinian. But, like so many other adaptations of vintage SF stories, a reason has to be found for such meddling. Many of the science mavericks of the 19th century, real and fictional, pursued knowledge for its own sake. Victor Frankenstein created his monster because, essentially, he could. There was no other reason, and this, along with his later cowardice, makes his hubris all the more damning.
But a modern audience won’t buy such all-consuming drive without emotive cause. Cool intellect is not enough, especially for ITV, the story has to have heart. So Victoria gets a dying son, named William (the same as Victor’s monster-murdered brother). Her quest to save him gives Mercurio a neat, modern justification and method for creating the monster, but immediately muddies the waters regarding the whole meddling with God’s natural order debate. Because at least Victoria’s motives are pure eh? This Frankenstein is all about the kiddies, something our overly-sentimental, brat-pampering nation can get all choked up on.
And that’s the big problem with this adaptation. It’s got its feet in two camps. It retains plenty of the science fear of the original, even working in climate change in a woolly way, but then in parallel to that it evokes an explosion of emotions regarding motherhood, and these two strands undermine one another. Victor’s parenthood was in every way an abomination, carelessly conceived and sought for all the wrong reasons. Victoria’s actions, though deeply unethical, are completely understandable. Bang goes one of the most powerful parts of the myth.
But all this happens later. The very first thing we’re treated to the sight of is Neil Pearson woodenly delivering the woeful line “We tried to create life we could control, but we created something we couldn’t control”, before being eaten. When a one-off teleplay feels the need to grab you with action from the middle of the story rather than the actual start of the tale, you suspect that the team was worried the beginning of the story is not gripping enough (though it may be Mercurio monkeying around with narrative conventions for the hell of it).
Some themes of the Frankenstein myth fare better. Though the actual process of creating the monster is only alluded to in the book, it has exerted a grisly fascination on audiences and has been a big feature of most adaptations. Mercurio, with his medical background, gives us a convincing conception. As William’s organs begin to fail and his condition rapidly deteriorates, Victoria steps up her research programme, attempting to brew up a whole suite of fresh innards. In order to make sure they are not rejected by her son she introduces a sample of William’s DNA into the maturation tank. But this causes the stem cells to organise into a human form, essentially a clone of her son. Exposure to x-rays as the research team attempt to map what is happening cause mutation. Add a lightning strike to the laboratory wind turbine, and a monster is created…
The beast is effective, a smooth-skinned, massive creature that blends ET, the elephant man and newt-like features into a half-formed embryonic horror. Massively powerful, it lacks Shelley’s monster’s eloquence, but suffers the same emotional pain, and as in the book its rejection provides the catalyst for its violence. Well designed and presented through a blend of CG and prosthetic effects, it is freakish and disturbing to look upon. Rarely given a full screen shot, it’s a masterpiece of FX, directorial suggestion and Julian Bleach’s awesome performance. The production scores another point in using the monster in ways that are properly tense and creepy. On the whole, in fact, the show is imaginatively shot.
Frankenstein’s maternal reaction to the thing, a mix of outright horror at what she has created (its deformed face looks like her son) and her nurturing instinct, intensified by a need to replace William, is also well handled, a grieving female counterpoint to the original Victor’s behaviour as an angry, guilty father. But it doesn’t go anywhere, there’s never a more powerful statement than a glare from the now giant monster at the conclusion. The book’s creature could at least accuse its father verbally, intensifying his guilt, something taken further in Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, as his Baron knows full well whose intellect speaks to him.
McCrory’s Frankenstein isn’t even that guilty. Once her need for the experiment is past, she realises she’s over-reached herself and requests that the “XU” be terminated. But clichéd Greedy Science Corp.™ represented by Lindsay Duncan’s glacial blonde, sees potential in its continuation (even wheeling out “imagine what formidable troops they’d make”), and overrules Frankenstein’s decision, leading to the monster being born while its mum is off on compassionate leave. Then, when the creature goes mental, it’s whisked away to another lab run by Clerval (James Purefoy), Victoria’s ex-husband, where it is experimented on – mostly meaning Victoria trying to make friends with it.
The sequestration of the monster by Clerval’s quasi-governmental organisation is a bizarre turn of events, and just one of several moments in the story where the motives of the cast shift illogically. Other examples include Duncan’s Professor Pretorius being both for and against the experiment at different times, Frankenstein’s twice-evidenced kleptomania and a friendly security guard turning out to be a crack secret agent. Clerval has the most switches of personality, and bounces like a spinning top from bastard ex, to grieving father, to wicked scientist and finally to defiant new dad. It’s not terribly believable. And when the cops arrive, having worked their way through the cover up at the Windmill lab, it’s off in a helicopter to a beach where the grotesque family frolic in the shade of an enormous power-station. Purefoy’s last line – as lame as Pearson’s – and his needless death ups the ante on the silly stakes.
The film then quite abruptly stops, leaving you with the sense of a much greater story untold, almost as if this is a pilot for a series. Perhaps the forthcoming DVD director’s cut will add more depth, but we suspect, like the monster, that it will remain a half-formed thing.
Did you know…?
Jed Mercurio used to be a junior doctor, working for three years in a hospital before becoming a writer. He’s behind the BBC2 TV series Bodies, and the novels they were based on, the series Cardiac Arrest, and film The Legend of the Tamworth Two. His other major SF effort was Invasion Earth which he wrote and produced for the BBC in 1998. In that, mankind was powerless to stop a race of beings who existed in a higher dimensional space than ourselves. These ‘nDs’ harvested the creatures of our 3D universe for their body chemistry. Like Frankenstein, Invasion: Earth also has an unresolved climax.