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  • Mary Shelley: The Life that Inspired "Frankenstein." dir. by Haifaa Almansour
  • Michelle Faubert
Mary Shelley: The Life that Inspired "Frankenstein." Directed by HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR. IFC Films, 2017.

Mary Shelley, a 2017 film directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, treads ground familiar to readers of the Keats-Shelley Journal. Perhaps surprisingly, the film also treads ground familiar to fans of such B-horror films as Haunted Summer (1988) and Gothic (1986), both of which also focus on the biographical events that inspired the most iconic Gothic novel of all time, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, 1831). Perhaps of greatest interest to readers of this journal is whether Al-Mansour's new film improves upon its schlocky forebears; whether it provides an accurate portrait of Mary Shelley and the conditions that helped her to produce her most famous novel; and—dare we hope?—whether it can attract new admirers from the broader public to the literature of the Romantic period. My preliminary response to the first two queries is positive, albeit with a few caveats; my response to the last is a trepidatious, "perhaps!"

Al-Mansour's Mary Shelley delineates the early life of Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning), her tempestuous romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), and the well-known events of the summer of 1816 when they eloped to Geneva, [End Page 234] accompanied by Mary Shelley's step-sister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), daughter of Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), who married William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) after the death of Mary Wollstonecraft. That rainy summer, Mary, Percy, and Claire lived near Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and his physician John Polidori (Ben Hardy) at the Villa Diodati; Mary was then inspired with the idea for Frankenstein in response to the group's proposal of a ghost-story writing contest. The film's tagline, "Her greatest love inspired her darkest creation," announces the main conceit by means of which the screenplay writer, Emma Jensen, presents Shelley's complex story: that her love affair with Percy generated the raw materials out of which Frankenstein was created. The film focuses particularly on the pains and struggles that the couple endured around the time that Shelley conceived of, wrote, and published her most famous novel, in which the theme of social isolation is central. In essence, the film is a biographical portrait of Mary Shelley as she was becoming "the author of Frankenstein," the phrase by which she was often known in later publications—and which remains how many know her today, if they know of her at all. While this framework for the telling of Mary Shelley's life necessarily limits the narrative somewhat, such as in terms of chronology (the story ends soon after the publication of Frankenstein in 1818), it was chosen wisely to attract a broad audience to the film. The goals of accessibility and popularity also seem to have guided the choice to tell this story as a small-r romance. Yet even while the film seeks to attract a wide viewership, it takes care not to offend scholars of Romanticism with glaring inaccuracies.

The film opens in 1814, with a sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin living at the bookshop of her father and stepmother, with whom she often quarrels. When Godwin sends her away to live with the family of William Baxter (Derek Riddell) in Scotland, where she becomes fast friends with Isabel Baxter (Maisie Williams), she also meets the dashing young Percy Shelley. Their relationship develops quickly thereafter and the film follows the pair through their many struggles: with Godwin, who now wishes to renounce his and Wollstonecraft's ideas about the non-binding nature of marriage; with Harriet Shelley, the wife with whom Percy has a son; against creditors and poverty; against the challenges of Percy's lived philosophy of "free love," which brings his old friend Thomas Hogg (Jack Hickey) and Claire into their romantic orbit; and against Mary's deep melancholy, notably in response to the death of their baby Clara.

For the most part, the film presents these events accurately, which is no small feat, given the complex biographies of these larger-than-life historical figures. It also pays...


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pp. 234-236
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