Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Monster, Neal Bell’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, presented by the Boston Center for American Performance. I absolutely love Frankenstein, so I went into the evening excited, but also a little bit skeptical. Shelley’s prose is lush and descriptive, and one of my favorite aspects of the novel. I was concerned about how that would translate to the stage. Additionally, I was haunted by visions of Kenneth Branagh’s horrific 1994 film entitled (unintentionally ironically) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Branagh claimed to have made a movie that was true to the novel and reclaimed the story from the twisted pop culture version it had become. When most people think of the character Frankenstein, for example, they assume it is the monster, not the creator. Instead of doing this, however, Branagh butchered the story, adding gratuitous scenes of violence, sex and Helena Bonham Carter’s reanimated corpse. So, needless to say, I was concerned.
Overall, though, the play pleasantly surprised me. Even though there were small things I took issue with (why does William seem to stay the same age the whole time as the other characters grow up, for example? And does Victor really need to be able to literally talk to animals?), I feel that the tone of the play is very much in keeping with Shelley’s novel. It is dark and unsettling, asking questions about life, death, parental responsibility and the boundaries of humanity to which is provides no easy answers. And why should we want a piece that attempts to provide simple answers when clearly none exist?
I did miss Shelley’s prose, as I knew I would, but the design of the production almost made up for it. The soundscape expressed aurally much of what Shelley describes, and helped transport us to vocations as diverse as an Arctic tundra and a stream in the woods. The lights, too, helped create different moods—Victor’s laboratory is so creepy, just as it is in the novel, whereas the early childhood moments feel free and not foreboding.
I also appreciated Bell’s fleshing out of the character of Elizabeth. I struggled with her in the novel—she has almost no depth or characterization outside of her love for Victor. She is the classic Gothic heroine, the damsel in distress. The creature kills her on her wedding night, so she dies a virgin. In the novel, she represents all that is good and pure; essentially all that Victor is rejecting in his pursuit of godliness. Though this is great symbolically, as a character, Shelley’s Elizabeth is given nothing to do besides wait for a man. Bell’s Elizabeth, however, is much more complex. She is allowed to feel sexual desire, though she is still killed before she can fulfill it. She has complicated feelings about Victor—she loves him, but she refuses to be something that he owns and studies. This Elizabeth knows that marriage is a partnership and that she herself is more than an object. I found this to be an incredibly refreshing make-over for the character.
When looking at Monster next to Dead City, one sees two very different models for adapting novels to the stage. Both are successful, though, because they honor the tone and themes of their inspiration. Details can be changed, but if the adaptor remains true to the spirit of the source, both pieces can be enhanced through their relationship.