Saturday, October 15, 2022

Stubs - The Strange Life of Dr. Frankenstein

The Strange Life of Dr. Frankenstein (2018) Starring: Jean-Claude Carrière, Béatrice Chéramy, Christopher Frayling, Gwyneth Jones, Laurent Lantieri, Miranda Seymour, Fiona Stafford. Directed by Jean Froment. Writer: None Credited. Produced by Matthieu Belghiti, Thibaut de Corday. Run time: 55 minutes. France. Color. Documentary, Horror, Sci-Fi

Written when she was only 18, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first true science-fiction story. The documentary The Strange Life of Dr. Frankenstein examines not only the writing of the novel, but also how it relates to Shelley’s life, science, literature and the theme of Man's quest for the secret of Life.

Mary Shelley's  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)

The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and the philosopher and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary began a romance with one of her father's political followers, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married. Even though her father forbade the relationship, Mary and Percy, along with her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, traveled to Europe. When they returned to England, Mary was pregnant. Over the next two years, the couple faced being ostracized, constant debt and the death of their prematurely born daughter. They weren’t married until after Percy’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide.

In 1816, the couple spent the summer with Lord Byron and John William Polidori near Geneva, Switzerland. The four of them often indulged, which according to the documentary included opium wine. During one such night, Byron apparently suggested that everyone write a horror story, something that Mary Shelley had a hard time coming up with. However, one night, she had a dream and conceived the story.

When it was originally printed, the novel was not a big success. However, within a couple of years, there were multiple Frankenstein plays on London’s West End. When Hollywood became interested in the story, it was the play that they used as a blueprint. The Creature we all think of is more based on actor Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and the makeup used on him in that film rather than how Shelley described the 8-foot-tall Creature in the novel:

"His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips."

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster differs from the book's depiction.

The documentary also explores how the novel reflects the scientific thought of the time. Electricity, which was fairly new at the time, was used in experiments to rejuvenate dead animals and even one scientist’s experiment on an executed inmate. While he wasn’t able to revive the dead man, he did manage to get his eye to open. These quests to prolong life were not lost on Shelley when she wrote the book.

The book differs from the films as Dr. Frankenstein is scared of what he’s created and runs away after the Creature becomes animated. The Creature for his part makes a life for himself in the woods, where he comes to appreciate nature and discovers fire. He becomes more civilized by observing a family who lives in the wood. Learning the language by observing them, he even teaches himself to read.

It is when he approaches the family that he becomes a monster. They reject them because he looks different so he burns down their home. Later, when a child screams at seeing him, the Creature smothers the child.

He returns to his father, who agrees to make him a bride. Working in secret, he puts together a woman but his own fears of the possibilities of her creation stop him from finishing his work. In revenge, the monster kills Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth on their wedding night.

It is now the doctor’s turn to seek revenge and he chases after his creation through Europe, then north into Russia, with his adversary staying ahead of him every step of the way. Eventually, the chase leads to the Arctic Ocean and then on towards the North Pole. At one point, Frankenstein gets within a mile of his adversary when he collapses from exhaustion and hypothermia.

Rescued by Captain Walton, the doctor eventually vows to go back after the Creature but dies before he can. It is then that the captain discovers the Creature on his ship and mourning at the death of his creator. The Creature then resolves to kill himself and drifts away on an ice raft, never to be seen again.

Documentarian Jean Froment presents the story of Frankenstein and the importance of the book through interviews with British writers Christopher Frayling and Gwyneth Jones; British Literary Critic Miranda Seymour; English Professor and writer Fiona Stafford; French Surgeon Laurent Lantieri; and French novelist Jean-Claude Carrière. All of these interviewees add their expertise and share their knowledge of the story of the author and her book. The film is narrated by French actress Béatrice Chéramy. There are also scenes from the film Frankenstein, as well as other historical footage. Please note that some of the footage used may be disturbing.

While the documentary doesn’t negate watching and enjoying Frankenstein, it does provide you with more background into the novel it is based on and the times in which it was written. The Strange Life of Dr. Frankenstein makes for some interesting viewing and I would recommend it to anyone who might be a fan of the story and wants to learn more about it.

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