Mary Shelley (2017)

I have always believed the movies.

Call me naive but I always thought when depicting a real life tale, what happened on screen actually happened. 

Then I saw Phar Lap (1983), which contained what I later learned was commonplace amongst film makers: combine a few facts and abbreviate them into one incident to shorten the tale.

When watching Mary Shelley (2017), my ignorance of this story – of the woman who wrote Frankenstein and married the poet Percy Shelley – allowed me to think what I was seeing was true and in chronological order. According to the Penguin Classics (1992) edition of Frankenstein, most of what happened in the film was true but a little jumbled.

Mary (Elle Fanning) was the daughter of William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and Mary Wollstonecroft and her mother, a noted philosopher/writer of very advanced feminist thinking in that era, did die 10 days after giving birth to Mary.


However, there are some differences according to the Penguin edition:

  • Clair Clairmont (Bel Powley) did exist but was younger than her brother Charles, not older as the film shows.
  • Mary had another sister, Fanny, who committed suicide in 1816. Fanny was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft by Gilbert Imlay.

–   Mary did not meet Shelley (Douglas Booth) while staying with the Baxter family in Dundee and he did not seek Godwin’s patronage to reconnect with her.  Shelley sought out Godwin’s patronage because he revered the man’s ideas but Mary was in Scotland at this time and she first met him and his wife Harriet on a brief visit back to London.

  • Several children were born and died during the relationship between Mary and Shelley. The baby Clara, whose death is pivotal to Mary’s writing in the film, actually died in Venice four months after Frankenstein was completed.
  • When Mary and Shelley travel to Geneva to stay with Lord Byron, they live in a neighbouring house, not as his guest in the same premises.
  • Frankenstein was begun in June 1816 and completed in May 1817. It was published in January 1818. The film shows the book written quickly and publication slow to happen.

Some of these differences are a bit disquieting but we got the message and I am pleased we did.

In the post-film discussion, it was revealed that Frankenstein is not a book about a man-made monster who terrorises the villagers after being created (thanks for this pearl to Greg Jude, the only club member present who had read the book). 

Frankenstein is a story of love sought but not returned. According to the film, this is what Mary thought of Shelley while writing it.

So Hollywood and Boris Karloff have a bit to answer for. Karloff became famous playing the ‘monster’ in Frankenstein (1931), a creature created in a laboratory. However, if not for the Karloff version we wouldn’t have had Fred Gwynne, playing Herman Munster, entertaining us for all those childhood days in front of TV.

But back to Mary. One could see the attraction of why a 17-year-old girl would fall for a handsome young poet, prepared to spin his pen in all kinds of romantic twirls to draw her to him.

As our host, Blow-in Bill, was so correct in saying: Shelley, Byron and their ilk were the

rock stars of their age. What daughter of free-thinking parents would not be lured into their world of substance imbibing, free love/lust while observing potential genius oozing from every pore?

In Mary Shelley, director Haifaa Al-Mansour, has directed a visually splendid film about an independent young woman living within but not being constricted by the expectations of her time.

London street scenes showed the city at its grimiest and the story flowed fairly seamlessly despite the greater than two hours playing time.

My only criticism of Mary Shelley was the near final scene when Mary is given credit for having written Frankenstein (it being published under Anonymous until Godwin intervened). After Shelley’s revelatory speech of this fact, Mary emerges from another room and the two embrace while the gathered London literati disperse to their chit-chat. It seemed a little bit of Hollywood had infiltrated a Saudi cum British film.

Score: 3.5

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