A note on films

The 1816 Geneva summer and Frankenstein

The 1816 Summer

The meeting of Shelley, Mary, and Claire with Byron and Polidori in 1816 has been dramatized in three films (links from titles are to the Internet Movie Database). All are available from local video stores.

1. Gothic (1986). Directed by Ken Russell. Gabriel Byrne (Byron), Julian Sands (Percy Shelley), Natasha Richardson (Mary W. Godwin), Myriam Cyr (Claire Clairmont), Timothy Spall (Polidori).

This begins well but soon deteriorates, making out that the characters are all besotted by drugs. Overall a misleading and often grotesque travesty, despite some cleverly observed details.

Review by Rick Albright

2. Haunted Summer (1988). Directed by Ivan Passer. Eric Stoltz (Percy Shelley), Laura Dern (Claire Clairmont), Alice Krige (Mary W. Godwin), and Philip Anglim (Byron).

The film begins with the journey of the Shelley party over the mountains to Geneva and ends with their departure at the end of the summer. It captures quite well the tensions in the friendship between Byron and Shelley -- Shelley's stance that evil in the world is a result of social arrangements, while Byron believes evil to be endemic (see the opening of "Julian and Maddalo"). The focus gradually shifts towards the relation between Byron and Mary Godwin, since Byron cannot believe she is the wholly good person that Shelley says he loves. Byron is played with a dangerous, sardonic, weary charm around whom the other characters revolve. There is an experiment with opium that strains credulity, and implies that Mary created the monster to get back at Byron; but otherwise the dynamics of the story reflect what we know of the 1816 summer quite well.

Review by Richard A. Nanian

3. Rowing with the Wind (1999). Directed by Gonzalo Suárez. Hugh Grant (Byron), Lizzy McInnerny (Mary W. Godwin), Valentine Pelka (Percy Shelley), Elizabeth Hurley (Claire Clairmont).

About a third of the film is set on Lake Geneva. After a retrospective voice-over from Mary, it begins in 1814 with Shelley interviewing Godwin: he asks for Mary and is refused by Godwin, who is unexpectedly motivated by respectability. Shelley then elopes with Mary and Claire, an episode that the film conflates with the 1816 visit to Geneva. This is the first of several historical inaccuracies. The children we are shown, William and Allegra, are too old. Polidori is made to commit suicide at the Villa Diodati in 1816 instead of six years later. But perhaps the main weakness of this film is Byron, played by Hugh Grant, who tries to appear dangerous but appears only pettish. The main premise of the film, however, is the creation of the monster by Mary: brought to life by her imagination, it then materializes at odd moments imposing doom on the children and most of the other characters. If the Byron of Haunted Summer had really wanted to find the evil within Mary, he should have watched this film; her monster dooms him as well.


Frankenstein has, of course, been the stimulus to numerous films (the Internet Movie Database currently lists 82, apart from TV and straight-to-video versions). I've seen only a few, but find that none remain close to Mary Shelley's novel. As Atara Stein puts it, "there is no 'good' (overall) filmic adaptation of the novel" (Frankenstein adaptations).

1. Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Boris Karloff (the monster), Colin Clive (Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (Fritz).

This is the first and most famous version, with Boris Karloff sporting the bad sutures and neck bolt that have become the signature of innumerable modern monster imitations. The film does its own thing, which is entertaining, but in making the monster bad through being given the wrong brain (a criminal one), and killed in a fire, the film totally misses the point of Shelley's novel. But then it is said to be an adaptation of a play, and in some respects harks back to the first play derived from Frankenstein, R. B. Peake's Presumption (1823). The clumsy, fearful lab assistant Fritz can be traced back to the Fritz in Peake's play.

2. Frankenstein Unbound (1990). Directed by Roger Corman, adaptation of Brian Aldiss's novel of the same name. John Hurt (Dr. Joe), Raul Julia (Frankenstein), Nick Brimble (the Monster), Bridget Fonda (Mary W. Godwin).

I haven't seen this for a while, so this is Michael Eberle-Sinatra's comment: A scientist travels back in time and meets with Mary Shelley and her circle, as well as the "real" Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, on which Shelley bases her novel; obviously not as good as the novel, but still provides an alternative take on the whole summer of 1816 episode. -- Taken from the file on Frankenstein adaptations at Romantic Circles.

3. Frankenstein, or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Kenneth Branagh (Frankenstein), Robert De Niro (the Creatue), Helena Bonham Carter (Elizabeth), Ian Holm (Baron Frankenstein), Tom Hulce (Henry Clerval), John Cleese (Professor Waldeman).

This version has an excellent cast, and is filmed with a nervous energy by Branagh -- the camera almost never stays still. But Branagh can't let the material speak for itself but must be interfering. At the climactic meeting on the Mer de Glace he has Frankenstein and the Creature drop absurdly into an ice cave; Frankenstein re-animates Elizabeth to entrapment as a kind of zombie-monster. If you can overlook these offensive blemishes there are some memorable scenes: the approach of the Creature to Walton's ship is genuinely terrifying; and the attempt of the Creature to relate to the De Laceys has true pathos and aptly captures the moment he turns to the "dark side," vengefully burning down their cottage.

For discussion of other examples, see the Frankenstein adaptations at Romantic Circles.

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Document created August 10th 2003