Friday, June 24, 2016

Dream Cast - Frankenstein

TFW your dad is the sullen youth in your relationship

Just over a week ago, on a Thursday, I was getting ready to go to work. Having just finished Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice trilogy, I needed a new read for my commute. I grabbed my high school paperback of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein off the shelf. I'd been thinking about re-reading it for years, and recent Byronic research for something I'm writing and the fact that my sister watched and related to me the awful James McAvoy Victor Frankenstein movie made the novel fresh in my mind.

By complete coincidence (or was it - ominous music) that day, June 16, is the day some astronomers think Shelley first dreamed up the basis for her story.

From my vague remembrances of the book, I knew it was different than our popular conception of the Frankenstein story, but I had forgotten just how different it was. There's no castle, no Igor. Victor Frankenstein makes his first monster in his apartment at university and his second, unfinished monster in a crude hut in the remote Orkney Islands.

I had also forgotten (or just couldn't appreciate at the time) just how great the novel is. It's groundbreaking, compelling, thoughtful, and ambitious. Boris Karloff's monster is rooted in our pop culture, and Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein will always be a favorite of mine, but I found myself wishing for an adaptation more faithful to Shelley's vision. Not only in theme and message, but in the 18th century setting and the powerful landscapes she describes in Switzerland, Germany, and Scotland.

Like I did with Wuthering Heights, I spent a lot of free time picking out my dream cast for my dream Frankenstein miniseries. Here are the fruits of my imagined labors:

Robert Walton - Nicholas Hoult

Who is Robert Walton? Good question! Walton is our narrator narrating other characters' narrations, much like Lockwood (who?) in Wuthering Heights. I didn't cast Lockwood in my Wuthering Heights dream cast because nobody cares about Lockwood, but I'll shrug and go to bat for Walton.

Frankenstein is actually an epistolary novel, a series of letters Walton sends to his beloved sister. He's setting off on a dangerous quest to find a shipping route through the North Pole, and is so excited! But, he tells his sister, although surrounded by men, he's sad not to have a special guy friend whose eyes he can gaze into as he reveals his feelings. :( Fortunately, one almost immediately shows up on an ice flow! This Elsa-sent buddy is none other than Victor Frankenstein, who eventually tells Walton his story. Later, Frankenstein's monster will also get the chance to unload on Walton.

Why use an actor like Nicholas Hoult for this comparatively small role? Because I think it's important to see how Walton is hearing Victor's story and what lessons he takes away from his encounter with the Monster. Although he's been somewhat blinded by his affection for Victor, does his meeting with the Monster alter his opinions? Walton doesn't put any of those final thoughts on paper, so it would be up to the actor's face to communicate Walton's mind. Any wide-eyed young actor could be slotted in this spot, but someone like Hoult could add depth.

Victor Frankenstein - Paul Dano

One thing that stood out to me about Frankenstein, when re-reading, is just how feckless Victor Frankenstein is. He's not exactly a man of action. Yes, when he discovers the secret to life, he passionately and manically works on his creature, but when it isn't what he wanted, he decides his best course of action is...avoidance. He literally just abandons his new, awake, conscious creation on the table and goes to bed. When the confused, lonely monster finds him in his bedroom, he sleeps outside and waits for the thing to leave his apartment.

This response isn't out of character for him. We've already seen him shrug off communication with the people he loves most in the world simply because it's not what he wants at the moment. Later, when a servant in his household is falsely accused of the murder of his little brother - a murder he knows his Monster has committed - he half-heartedly argues for her innocence without implicating himself in any way. When the Monster demands that Victor make him a companion, promising he'll take his new friend far from human civilization and live a vegan life in South America, Victor agrees...and then procrastinates for a year on the project while worrying about it the whole time.

Yet despite the fact that this entire disaster - which all of Victor's loved ones end up paying for with their lives - is literally of Victor's making, the depths of his despair do provoke pity. Dano could handle the range of this character - from fevered curiosity to sullen passivity to mental breakdowns - without campiness.

Frankenstein's Monster - Richard Armitage

While a green-skinned, boxy-skulled Frankenstein's Monster has become the popular image, Mary Shelley describes a creature who was supposed to be handsome - ravishing black hair, good teeth - but comes off as horrifying due to his outlandish size, runny eyes, and yellowish skin that clearly belongs to a cadaver. With some special effects (makeup, Andy Serkising, or both), naturally handsome Armitage could pull off this unsettling mix of greatness and ugliness. Also, while the Monster is usually depicted as inarticulate and lumbering, Shelley's monster has superhuman speed and grace.

The differences between the original Monster and the pop culture Monster aren't just visual. Shelley's is intellectual and complex. Just two years after his "birth," he's not only able to speak, but is a clever, erudite man who can talk circles around the sniveling Victor. His capacity to do good seems greater than Victor's, yet he is the one who chooses to murder again and again - not Victor. Like his creator, he is excellent at rationalizing his actions to himself and identifies with fallen angel Lucifer from Milton's Paradise Lost. I'd love for an adaptation to show the tragedy and humanity of this iconic creature.

Elizabeth Lavenza - Lea Seydoux

The orphaned daughter of Italian nobility, Elizabeth is adopted from an impoverished foster family by the Frankensteins as their "niece" and betrothed to Victor when they are both small children. It's an odd arrangement (like, don't do this today), but she loves her family and they love her. She keeps the family going after Mrs. Frankenstein's death and passionately advocates for the falsely accused Justine.

As with Justine (below), Elizabeth's virtue and strength make Victor's selfishness all the more visible. It would be all too easy in an adaptation to make this character a wilting violet doormat of a victim, which is why I'd want an actress of Leydoux's mettle to take the role (and be backed with a great writer and director, since this is my dream).

Henry Clerval - Sebastian Armesto 

Victor and Elizabeth grow up with their best friend, the less financially fortunate but romantically minded Henry Clerval. Happy, generous Henry loves stories about knights and heroes as a child. When he finally attains his dream of going to university to study Asian languages, he puts it off for a year without a thought to tend to Victor, who has suffered a nervous breakdown. Henry is sweet and oblivious, happily prancing across Europe on a road trip with Victor, who gloomily frets and collects body parts.

When thinking of whom I would cast as this character, I couldn't help but remember how - in a matter of moments - Armesto made hapless, puppy-eyed Lieutenant Mitaka memorable in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Sadly, Frankenstein's Monster will finish what Kylo Ren started. :( 

Justine Moritz - Morfydd Clark

Justine, a young woman scorned by her mother and brought into the Frankenstein family as a servant, becomes an early victim of the Monster when he frames her for murder and she is sentenced to death. Her grief and bewilderment is heartbreaking, and it would be easy to make this minor character a one-note victim. However, her ultimate courage in the face of death is in contrast to Victor's continued cowardliness. I'd trust Clark, from Love & Friendship and Josie Rourke's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to show both innocence and strength.

De Lacey Family

After being abandoned by Victor and chased by terrified villagers, the Monster hides out near a cottage. The inhabitants are the De Lacey family, and Shelley gives them a rich backstory. They are an aristocratic French family living in exile in the German countryside, and they consist of the blind patriarch, daughter Agatha, son Felix, and Felix's Arab-Turkish fiancee Safie. Despite suffering hardships that have left them in poverty, they are a loving, kind, musically gifted group. By spying on them for a year, the Monster learns how to speak, how to read, and the basics of human history. He comes to love the family and desperately wants to be accepted by them. Alas, his introduction to them goes horribly wrong, and he is rejected out of fear again.

I'd cast grizzled, stately Hugo Weaving as De Lacey; Adele Exarchopoulous and Jamie Bell as his two dutiful children; and Mandahla Rose as joyful Safie.

Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein - Ralph Fiennes and Sheryl Lee

Mr. Frankenstein is a loving father who is distraught as he watches his oldest child descend into depression and then more severe mental illness. He's at a loss to determine the cause (no one suspects their child has learned the secret of sparking life and used it to make an eight-foot-tall creature that keeps killing people), but he doesn't give up on his son. At one point he has to travel from Switzerland to Ireland to pick up a hysterical Victor from a small-town prison, and he's completely supportive the whole time.

Even though Sheryl Lee's scene in Winter's Bone was brief, I was drawn to her warmth. I can see the Twin Peaks star as the matriarch of this adventurous, welcoming family. Given all that happens, it's probably a blessing this character dies of scarlet fever before everything goes to hell.

Image info:
Header image: Richard Armitage in Robin Hood, Paul Dano in War & Peace
All actor headshots: IMDB

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