Mary Shelley: The ‘Sturm und Drang’ that Inspired Frankenstein

The early life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein, is recounted in Mary Shelley (2018) a period drama/romance written by Emma Jensen and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. It was originally titled The Storm in Our Stars, and focuses mainly on the relationship between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and how their relationship inspired Frankenstein—the story of a mad doctor who reanimated a corpse using electricity. It left me wishing someone had shot a jolt of electricity into this sullen and mediocre film.

The year is 1814. Sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin (Elle Fanning) lives in London with her father, writer and book seller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), and stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). Mary greatly admires her birth mother, early feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died when she was a baby. Her rebellious streak sets her at odds with her more conventional stepmother, and her father sends her away to Scotland.

In Scotland, Mary meets 21-year-old poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), who follows her back to London under the pretense of becoming her father’s student. The two fall in love, but things get complicated when Percy’s wife Harriet (Ciara Charteris) shows up with their young son. Bucking social convention, Mary, Percy, and Claire run away together and face financial hardship and the death of their first child.

Meanwhile, Claire attracts the attention of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and becomes pregnant. Together with John Polidori (Ben Hardy), they spend a few tumultuous weeks together in Geneva, where Byron challenges them to a ghost story writing contest. This inspires Mary to begin writing Frankenstein. After becoming estranged over Percy’s deplorable personality, the two reunite in her father’s bookshop and live happily ever after.

Historically, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of radical political philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She met Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as a teen and they married in 1816 after Percy’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Mary Shelley is mostly known for writing the Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818), which was published when she was twenty years old. Percy died in a boating accident in 1822 and Mary returned to England with their fourth and only surviving child. She went on to publish several other novels, in addition to promoting her late husband’s work.

Mary Shelley plays freely with the facts. For example, although Percy did abandon his first wife to tour France and Switzerland with Mary and Claire, he did not shun their children as depicted in the film. The movie portrays Thomas Hogg as a rapist who tried to force himself on Mary—in reality they were close friends. Neither Mary and Percy’s marriage nor the birth of their second and third child, all of which occurred before Frankenstein was published, are depicted in the film. But none of these inaccuracies are too distracting, especially if you know nothing about Mary Shelley’s complicated personal life.

The main problem with Mary Shelley is not its historical inaccuracy, but its lack of creativity, energy, or spark. The couple’s romance meanders its way through the trials and tribulations of a conventional period love story with a predictable ending. The only really interesting scene was when Percy, Mary, and Claire attend the Phantasmagoria and meet Lord Byron for the first time, and where Mary sees a man animate frog legs using electricity. At last, there is a hint of inspiration and color in an otherwise dreary world.

Mary Shelley grossed under $2 million internationally at the box office and failed to connect with audiences and critics. It currently has a 40 percent favorability rating from critics and 47 percent audience score on RottenTomatoes. Filmmakers have been mining the romantic world of Gothic fiction since the inception of cinema, but unfortunately the lives of the authors who wrote it translate less compellingly on screen.

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