For many years, Mary Shelley was dismissed as yet another good wife to a great genius. Now, the feminist trailblazer and creative genius behind Frankenstein is stepping out of the shadows and into her own brilliant movie…
“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings…”
So begins Frankenstein, easily the most famous of Mary Shelley’s novels. And now, at long last, filmmakers are bringing the author herself to life in Mary Shelley: The Life That Inspired Frankenstein.
The ever-talented Elle Fanning portrays the literary legend in the film, which takes us back to the years when a 16-year-old Shelley – then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – falls in love with Percy Shelley, a married man who steals her heart. When she forges a relationship with him, though, she becomes a victim of what we would, today, call “slut-shaming”: the author is ostracised by her family and friends, is forced to sit through a sermon preached against her and sees her in-laws campaign to take away her surviving child.
It is this rejection – along with the suicides of Percy’s estranged wife and then Mary’s half-sister Fanny – that triggers her fascination with all things macabre, inspiring her to write her gothic tale of a man who creates a monster.
“I have a fire in my soul,” says Fanning as Shelley in the trailer, “and I will no longer allow you or anyone else to control it.”
While Hollywood’s many, many previous interpretations of Shelley’s tale focus on the gory reanimation process, the mad scientist, the surge of electricity and the pitchforks, the original novel is largely concerned – as one might expect from the daughter of a famous women’s rights activist – with a number of distinctly feminist themes.
Shelley delves into Frankenstein’s psyche, exploring why he is so utterly incapable of killing the creature he has made, or even realising his duty to do so – and highlights the fact that he is more the mother of a monstrous child than the maker of a fake human.
It is this nameless – and inherently female – dread of gestating a monster which truly set Shelley’s work apart from her contemporaries. And yet, when Shelley published her tome in 1818, many assumed that the eerie tale was the work of her husband, Percy Shelley.
Their (obviously flawed) logic claimed that a woman could never hope to craft something so horrifying and challenging. That she would lack the imagination to spin a spine-tingling tale of cadavers and rifled graves. That she would have any serious contribution to a discussion around the principles of life – and this in spite of the fact that Shelley, having already given birth twice and losing her first child at 12 days old, probably knew more about such “principles” than anyone else present.
Naturally, this forms a huge part of the new biopic – and Fanning (as Shelley) responds to her doubters with a rallying feminist cry.
“It is my story and you dare question a woman’s ability to experience lust, betrayal, death,” she says.
“My choices made me who I am and I regret nothing.”
Mary Shelley — also starring Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams and Douglas Booth — is set to hit US cinemas in May. A UK release date has yet to be confirmed.
Want to watch something empowering in the meantime? Check out our list of films every feminist needs to watch in 2018.