"The female creative experience hasn't changed that much in 200 years." Elle Fanning comes of age as a teenage Mary Shelley
Write a masterpiece aged 18, create a new genre and a character for all of time – and then history thinks it’s your husband who wrote it, and pays more attention to the monster you created than to your own name.
We speak, of course, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the joy of finally seeing a film on screen which shows why she wrote the novel, published two hundred years ago in 1818.
However familiar you are with the world of Jane Austen, who wrote her novels in the same decade as Mary Shelley, the narrative of the latter's life are not well known. As a teenager, Mary ran away with the (already) married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ostracized by her family and society, grieving the infant deaths of her children, and suffering Shelley’s infidelities (including with her own step- sister), Frankenstein was the result. As Elle Fanning, who plays Mary Shelley in the film points out, “Mary felt like she was the monster. She felt that Shelley was the creator, Victor Frankenstein, and she was the product of his creation.”
The film is directed by Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa Al-Mansour, who made the arthouse hit Wajida. After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the film received some lukewarm reviews. I think this is unfair – for a young female audience, the film should particularly inspire. Elle Fanning is, as usual, luminous. Mary Shelley was a woman at least a century ahead of her time, and the film is capable of lighting the right audience up with a desire to know who this remarkable writer was.
"Mary felt like she was the monster. She felt that Shelley was the creator, Victor Frankenstein, and she was the product of his creation.”
And if there’s one thing Haifaa Al Mansour relates to, it’s being ahead of her time in her native country. She had to direct Wajida from the inside a van under Saudi’s strict rules about women’s freedoms, and Mary Shelley producer Amy Baer felt Haifaa would relate to what Mary went through.
“The female experience of trying to find her voice creatively, and then professionally out in the world, hasn’t changed that much in a couple of hundred years,” Amy points out drily.
Elle Fanning recalls how the director “burst into tears on the first day she walked onto set. She had never been allowed her own set with Wajida. So Haifaa added so much heart to the film, she understood Mary’s struggles and what she had gone through. There’s an undercurrent of emotion in the film from Mary’s tragic life, how complicated and torn she feels, that feeling of being unloved.”
Haifaa Al Mansour had spotted Elle Fanning’s talent back in Super 8 days and was insistent that she wanted an actress who was in the same age range as Mary Shelley when the author wrote her first novel. Elle was 17 when she filmed the role.
“If Mary Shelley had been a man, we’d all know his name.”
“It’s a coming of age story and Mary was 18 at the time, and she’d experienced a lot. It’s funny because I feel that I became a woman in a way, making that film.”
The actress concludes that Shelley was an “awe inspiring woman” and that a biopic is much needed, “Simply because not many people know about her.”
“I remember Frankenstein was taught in school for me but nothing about her. I think it’s very personal and correlates very much to her life. It’s very modern you know – it chimes with what’s going on with women right now.”
“If Mary Shelley had been a man, we’d all know his name,” opines Haifaa Al-Mansour. “She’s the opposite to someone like Jane Austen, who wrote social commentary.
“It was important to assert Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein as part of the film,” she adds.” A lot of people say the tone of the book is masculine and there was a lot of attribution to Percy Shelley the poet. Creating a new kind of genre – that’s not what you expect from a woman. Yet the whole of Frankenstein is the direct result of Mary Shelley being a woman – the loss of her child, the legacy of her parents, her relationship of her husband. There is so much to delve into.”
Emma Jones Twitter: @emmapjones
Mary Shelley is released in UK cinemas by Curzon Artificial Eye on July 6th