Can you name all the works of pop culture that draw from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus? Of course not — there are way too many. Aside from straight adaptations, like Universal Studios’ 1931 epic Frankenstein, the story of the crazed scientist and his lab-created, love-hungry monster has been played with since the book was first published in 1818. Mel Brooks parodied the story in 1974's Young Frankenstein. Recently, there was a three-episode arc about Frankenstein descendants in season 10 of Supernatural, and a critically panned action movie starring Aaron Eckhart called I, Frankenstein.
Ever since Mary Shelley let her book loose, Frankenstein’s monster has been traipsing through cinemas and Halloween costume stores, speaking for itself. But who speaks for Mary Shelley? On May 25, the first biopic about the incredible author comes to theaters. Mary Shelley is being positioned as a “classic coming-of-age story, mixed with a love story,” as the director, Haifaa al Mansour, told The Hollywood Reporter.
To be fair, the movie adheres to al Mansour's definition perfectly. Mary Shelley sketches, in idealized strokes, the main events that led to the creation of Frankenstein. We see 16-year-old Mary (Elle Fanning) traipse through the Scottish Highlands with dreamy poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). We watch her shirk convention and run away from home with Percy and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). And of course, we see that fevered burst of writing in the Swiss Alps that led to the creation of Frankenstein – an origin story almost as famous as the novel itself.
However, the movie's inaccurate timeline omits elements of Shelley's life that darken her story significantly. We can sum up the movie's tendency toward idealization through a real experience omitted from the movie: Allegedly, the real Mary Shelley lost her virginity on her dead mother's grave. The movie Mary Shelley wouldn't dream of it — she reads by her mother's grave.
The movie gets most things right, though. Shelley was born to two of England's most prominent philosophers, each imbued with a revolutionary streak they passed on to their daughter. William Godwin, her father, founded philosophical anarchism; Mary Wollstonecraft, her mother, was an early feminist who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Shelley never got to know her mother — she died 11 days after childbirth, leaving Shelley and her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay (who's not in the movie at all), to William. For her dreaminess, Shelley was never quite accepted by her father's second wife. She was, from a young age, a writer like her parents. In the introduction to Frankenstein, Shelley wrote, "As a child, I scribbled; and my favorite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to 'write stories.'"
Shelley's life changed forever in 1814, when the 17-year-old met the 22-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley in Scotland. He was married with a daughter, sure — but he ignored that when he became enamored with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. That year, Shelley ran away with her poet paramour and took her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, along for the ride. Shelley's father, Godwin, disapproved and cut her off. They lived like bohemian vagabonds, traveling through Europe and writing. Orgies ensued.
Sounds chic, right? Actually, it was fairly dismal. Percy Shelley's freewheeling idea of a relationship didn't quite match up with Shelley's more conventional expectations. Their relationship would be marked by loss, tragedy, and a lot of cheating. In 1814, Shelley got pregnant with her first child with Percy. Living in poverty in England, Shelley had a sickly pregnancy; their baby daughter died at two months old in February of 1815. While she was pregnant, Percy allegedly began an affair with Claire, her sister.
The movie concludes with the events of 1816, when Shelley began Frankenstein during a trip to Switzerland with Clairmont, Lord Byron, and John Polidori. At the vacation home, Percy, Byron, Polidori, and Shelley were supposed to write gothic horror stories; only Shelley completed hers. What the movie doesn't show are the other events that occurred while Shelley was writing in 1816 and 1817: the suicides of Shelley's 22-year-old older sister, Fanny Imlay, and Percy's wife, Harriet, which happened two months apart. In the movie, Harriet takes her life in the wrong year.
Despite the depiction of loss and poverty, the movie concludes on a high note: the publication of Frankenstein. Things got worst for Shelley after that, though. After Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818, the scandal-riddled couple married and moved to Italy. By the age of 24, Shelley would be left widowed and mourning the loss of her two children. Clara, their firstborn, died of dysentery. In 1819, 3-year-old William died of malaria. Percy Shelley drowned while sailing when he was 29, leaving Shelley to raise their only surviving son, Percy Florence.
Shelley returned to England, a social pariah due to her scandalous relationship with Percy. She continued to write, forever weaving her experiences with loss in her fiction, as she did with Frankenstein. In the book Mary Shelley in Her Times, Greg Kuchic writes he noticed a “tendency to find recurrent versions of her own traumatic experience of shattering loss and broken affection in the domestic histories of her subjects.”
Shelley's successful 1826 book The Last Man was created around the extreme loneliness she described in her journals. The Last Man was a dire, pessimistic imagining of the human race's demise by plague in 21st century (hmm). In her journal, Shelley wrote, "The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me." She wrote novels and travelogues for the rest of her life. In 1840, her production slowed down due to a brain tumor that affected her speech. She died in 1851.
Mary Shelley isn't a perfect movie. It doesn't quite drum up the radical spirit of Shelley, nor does it capture the revolutionariness of the Frankenstein text itself. But the movie performs an important task: It gets people eager to learn more about Shelley, one of the most fascinating women in English history.
Since we can't have nice things, Shelley's Frankenstein authorship is still being debated. In 2008, Professor Charles Robinson claimed Percy Shelley heavily edited Frankenstein. In the book The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, published in 2007, John Lauritsen tries to prove Frankenstein couldn't have been written by a woman. We might not ever know the extent of Percy's influence over the book — but we do know that Shelley was a trailblazer in her own right.