Frankenstein: The True Story a Pleasant Adaptation
By Kristin Battestella
Despite its title, the 1973 British co-production Frankenstein: The True Story does not wholeheartedly adapt Mary Shelley’s timeless classic in its two 90 minute episodes. Once the audience accepts this artistic license, however, the tale told here is a surprisingly serviceable, spirited, and pleasing presentation.
Upset over his brother’s death, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) studies with Henry Clerval (David McCallum), a scientist also seeking to circumvent death and achieve a new Adam with his experimentations. Frankenstein all but abandons his fiancée Elizabeth Fanshawe (Nicola Pagett) as he succeeds in resurrecting such a Creature (Michael Sarrazin) and educating this simple, kind soul. The suspicious Dr. Polidori (James Mason), unfortunately, knows of Clerval’s ideas and demands Frankenstein participate in a second, perfected female creation (Jane Seymour) – one the now ugly and rejected Creature hopes will remain beautiful and love him.
Frankenstein: The True Story and long time television director Jack Smight jump right into a confusing start with an accident, a funeral, young Frankenstein in London, and no onscreen clarifications on the passage of time. Slow traveling scenes belie the fast editing or feeling that scenes have been skipped while information is told not shown. The entire first half hour of rushed getting there montages and laboratory construction may well have been excised, for the plot really begins at Victor’s wonderful mad scientist creation – complete with an “It’s alive!” homage to up the ante along with ironically parallel incorruptible dead and mortal made immortal conversation. Dialogue from writers Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man) and Don Bachardy; interesting religious analysis on the sacraments, bread of life, and the Man made flesh; and questions of Man, God, and Prometheus strengthen the depressed, early surgeries and hospital settings. Bodies are stored in a shabby stable in conditions more barbaric than medicinal, and off screen amputations, screams, saw work, and haphazard sewing create the perfect horror mood. Deviations from the source novel are apparent, of course. However, with such a fine premise and examination on the human condition, it’s tough to do much wrong in Frankenstein: The True Story. Though the Creature is raised easily, the flaws in the procedure are soon apparent amid lovely schooling, friendly moments, and well paced studies. Narrating notes from Frankenstein explain the time and development nicely, and a competitive duality between the doctor and his new Adam layer the one on one scenes.
Could this created man outdo his father, a mere man playing God? By the second ninety minute half, the Creature is on his own, learning of the world, and meeting compassion in unlikely places. He both exceeds the possibilities of his predecessor but embodies Frankenstein’s own evils and abomination – a grotesque reaction that is not his fault. This time away from Victor for Episode Two has a much better focus on the Creature as he is taught to be feared and ashamed. Tragically, of course, contentment is not part of his destiny, as he returns to his creator demanding like companionship. The awaiting sinister does become a bit too presto with Chinese mysticism and metaphysical pastiche taking part in the inevitable second lady creation – firewater and bubbles work better than electricity, who knew? After positive explorations with the Creature, the interesting bride-esque plot may also feel unnecessarily tacked on, but this evil reversal sends home the disturbing consequences at play. We so easily love our pretty work but hypocritically despise one turned decrepit or use that originally pure beauty for our own vile purposes and corruption. Frankenstein: The True Story puts a topper on its science fiction and horror moralities with a wild coming out party and a stormy, icy finale.
I confess, I’m not much of a Leonard Whiting fan – I always preferred Michael York in Romeo and Juliet instead – and his Victor Frankenstein is somewhat dry and not as charming as the folks onscreen say. We don’t always believe his angry motivation, zest for science, or his love for Elizabeth. Presented early on as the idealistic explorer and brawn of a radical partnership more akin to a grave robbing sidekick, Frankenstein’s characterization gains momentum once he becomes the obsessed, desperate man alone. Victor toes the line in the supposedly good science advancement, but his ambition and potentially slick or shady intentions rise as he educates the Creature. Does he lament when one dies of fright at the sight of his creation? Perhaps, but he is more upset when the monster is no longer a beautiful success. Frankenstein is a parent vicariously using his child for scientific glory but ultimately regrets his embarrassing, shameful son – not that such turnabout stops him from being lured into a second, perfected attempt. The possibility and bane inherent in Frankenstein is indeed complex, and a more nuanced actor or finite direction may have better maximized the sympathetic or sinister extremes. Frankenstein: The True Story brings about Victor’s redemption a little too late, and may deviate too much instead of fully strengthening the interest here.
Fortunately, Michael Sarrazin (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) as the Creature progresses wonderfully from the seventies pretty perfection and a simple, childlike innocence to a refined achievement mingling in society and ultimately, his creator’s monstrous enemy. While Frankenstein claims his “foreign friend” knows no good language, the Creature impresses operatic friends by speaking French. His would be suave antagonizes Victor, who is actually more barbaric despite his supposedly enlightened work, and the regressing, Neanderthal appearance and perceived monstrosity of Frankenstein reflects in the Creature. His nature is not of his own making, and the Creature weeps at his deformity, growing suicidal and showing empathy where Victor has none. But of course, which one is made to seek violence and outcast by society? In contrast, Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) remains the beautiful object of the Creature’s affection in the latter half of Frankenstein: The True Story. Her ridiculously seventies yet lovely Prima is magically and swiftly resurrected before being well dressed and manipulatively educated as a deceptive seductress. Was Prima innately vile or designed and bred to be so? Why must beauty be used for evil while a would-be kindhearted monster must strive for compassion?
David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as Henry Clerval has no such morality, accepting payment of whatever alcohol remains in the bottle and casually taking amputated limbs away in his doctor bag to “brush up on his anatomy.” His devil on the shoulder catalyst to Frankenstein and quest to create a superior race or a Bible for the New Age would be wonderfully positive if not for his twisted intentions. Likewise, James Mason (A Star is Born) is an extreme opportunist with no need for delicacy as he commandeers any mind, body, or secrets as desired. What’s all the more sinister, unfortunately, is how he accurately sees the escalation of their life creating deeds, predicting our hatred for our ugly faces and the masks we wear to conceal them. Nicola Pagett (Upstairs, Downstairs), sadly, is the weak link in the ensemble as the wishy washy and perhaps even unnecessary Elizabeth Fanshawe. The pace drags when she is onscreen with Victor and nagging him to speak simply in terms that are “suitable to her sex.” She apparently accepts his abandonment on their wedding night but subsequently, dutifully ends up pregnant. Her love is meant to be a pendulum of good swaying Frankenstein for the better, but after the first half hour, the character goes unseen until the final act, becoming important but falling flat by the tale’s end. Thankfully, billed guest stars such as the fun, not annoying maid Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched), blind and kindhearted peasant Ralph Richardson (The Heiress), and pop up appearances by John Gielgud (Arthur), Doctor Who Tom Baker, and Mrs. Mason Clarissa Kaye accent Frankenstein: The True Story marvelously.
Carriages, footmen, and swans add panache to the idyllic English countryside setting of Frankenstein: The True Story as well – sparkly jewelry, empire gowns, frilly collars, and waistcoats harken to Mary Shelley’s 1818 publication more than the earlier 18th century recounting of the novel. The ladies’ hairstyles may also be too seventies, but lush interiors and woodwork have a surprisingly subdued color palette or antique, patina feeling. Candles, dirty tanks with body parts, and fantastic electrical mechanics mixed with old time telescopes, mirrors, and repurposed millwork make for a realistically tricked out laboratory along with crawling arms, cool goggles, sparks, and crackling sound effects. The Creature’s make up also evolves nicely as he is damaged, burned, shot, and made increasingly unsightly. Late ship bound action, splashing waves, and lightning help forgive some of the phony arctic designs and any dated visual effects or small explosions due to the of the time television budget. Considering the seventies small screen production, Frankenstein: The True Story holds up quite well with very little to date the material save for the awkward introduction on the DVD. The video has no features but does include subtitles for the complete, all-in-one three-hour presentation.
Is Frankenstein: The True Story uneven to start with rushed character development and unnecessary plotting that deviates from the source? Sure. Perhaps this miniseries didn’t need to be as long as it was, and some stray tangents and characters could have been excised for one swift telefilm. Fortunately, a solid examination of the Creature and a strong second half make up for any faults. While attempted twists may sometimes takeaway from the great drama and horrific examination of Man becoming God and die-hard literary enthusiasts may be upset that Frankenstein: The True Story is not truly an of the book verbatim, Frankenstein fans will delight in seeing these new spins on the tried and true theme. Shelley’s gothic science and spirit are here in a pleasant, period marathon of monsters and men run amok.