Mary Shelley and the Real Suffering Behind a Horror Classic

Mary Shelley's Haifaa Al-Mansour and Douglas Booth talk the new Elle Fanning film, and finding the youth and pain that birthed Frankenstein.

Despite being the mother of modern science fiction, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has rarely gotten her due in the mainstream. Of course most know she’s the author of the legendary Frankenstein novel, one of the most adapted works in movie history. Yet her most well-known cinematic representation remains a wicked cameo in Bride of Frankenstein; and on the academic side too, Mary Shelley is often reduced or downright dismissed by many a (male) professor as English poet Percy Shelley’s wife—a conduit for his Early Romantic brilliance.

This is a narrative that writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour and the cast of Elle Fanning’s new Mary Shelley biopic hope to finally correct in the wider imagination. Indeed, right down to the casting of Fanning, who had turned only 18 during the last day of production, Al-Mansour sought to revitalize in the popular image of a young woman who was also just 18 when she began to write Frankenstein during a particularly rainy and gloomy summer on Lake Geneva.

“We wanted people to realize how young was Mary Shelley when she wrote the book,” Al-Mansour says during a joint Tribeca Film Festival interview with actor Douglas Booth, who plays Percy Shelley in the film. “Imagine if it were a young man who wrote that book; he would have been on the cover of every Time Magazine today.”

Indeed, but one of the best aspects about the new Mary Shelley film is how clear it makes it that only a woman could write that novel. While Frankenstein is rightly credited as the birth of turning to a fictional approximation of science for literary inspiration, this new biopic rightly focuses on the often overlooked humanist aspects of the book. Mary, the daughter of philosophers and early feminists from the Enlightenment era, read poetry on her mother’s grave every day… and dreamt of a more sweeping life. When she runs away though, at 16 years of age, with Percy Shelley—who was already married and had a child at the time—she gets more than she bargained for… including the tragedy of seeing her first child born and then buried within that first whirlwind year.

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It is that life experience, Al-Mansour and Mary Shelley posits, that informed the creation of her loquacious and sympathetic fallen angel. Frankenstein’s Monster is neither the monster that Hollywood turned him into, nor is he “the Byronic hero” centuries of literature academics have imagined. He is the personification of loss and childhood abandonment as understood by a young woman who’d be considered a child today, even though she had by that point been abandoned by her father and lost her own newborn babe.

“It is not easy to come up with a great work of art,” Al-Mansour considers. “You have to suffer in life and you have to make choices that are difficult for you as a person. Because that’s what makes it more mature and more everlasting. It is not simple. Life is not simple, doing the right and wrong things.”

That includes the representation of Percy and, perhaps especially, Lord Byron. Considered the first rock stars of the modern era, these poets were the pinnacle of the Early Romantics era, galavanting around Switzerland and Italy together. And always treated as almost an appendix was the accompaniment of Mary and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont. The quartet’s most famous holiday is present in Mary Shelley too, with Bel Powley playing Claire and Tom Sturridge embodying an appropriately strutting Lord Byron. Yet as told from Mary and Claire’s perspectives, the men are not so much “Byronic heroes” as they are zealous young men who in spite their sense of enlightenment still put women into boxes.

Says Al-Mansour, “We wanted them not to be black and white and we wanted to see them doing mistakes.” It is something Booth was happy to lean into, as well as extrapolating why these very young people were still so good for each other in spite of the flaws history might be papering over.

“I think they loved each other deeply and they were flawed as a couple, massively flawed,” Booth says. The actor even likes that some audiences might wish for the courtship, which helped spawn Frankenstein, to end. But he adds, “There was a great love and respect between the two of them. Whatever his flaws were, Percy, he believed in her; he always believed in her when others didn’t and he pushed her.”

It’s one of literature’s most intriguing love stories that, from all its suffering, offered us a novel that still lives on a clean 200 years later since the Shelleys’ summer at Byron’s lakeside house. Below is our full interview with Al-Mansour and Booth, as we consider why Mary still captivates to this day—and why her story should be remembered as more than just the Monster’s.

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So when did you first come into really knowing about Mary Shelley, either Frankenstein or the early Romantics?

Haifaa Al-Mansour: I was a literature reader, so I had a class on woman writers and Mary Shelley was one of them. And of course we read Frankenstein, I read it in Arabic as a kid also. I never studied her since I finished the paper. I never got back into her life until they sent me this script, and it was amazing to get closer to her and see how much she suffered as a woman. And how much of the book is very much a result of her life and all that she went through.

Douglas Booth: For me, it was Frankenstein. And really until I started looking at this project, I knew I was very ignorant about, definitely, her age, how young she was when she wrote that. Completely surprised me. And about what she went through in her life that resulted in her writing Frankenstein. You know, the things that happened to her. It wasn’t just a story she just sat down and said, “I’m going to make up a story.” No, it was a bunch of things that happened to her at such a young age. You know, the pressure created this diamond of a book.

Whenever I mention Elle Fanning was playing Mary Shelley, people are like “Isn’t she young?” Well, she was 18 when she wrote it. So…

DB: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

HAM: And that is one of things why we wanted to cast Elle.

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DB: And she was. She was 17 turning 18 while we were filming.

HAM: Yeah, and we wanted people to realize how young was Mary Shelley when she wrote the book.

DB: She turned 18 like the day after we finished shooting.

That’s interesting, because n college I had a literature professor who claimed most people only know Mary as the wife of Percy. Which was not my experience, some scholars, I think, try to undermine her image in history.

HAM: Oh yeah, I definitely think she was under-recognized. Like, she wasn’t appreciated as a writer. And yeah, Percy wrote amazing philosophy.

DB: She created science fiction.

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HAM: She created science fiction, she’s way bigger! … And it is really appalling. Like, why? Because it’s a younger woman that created that amazing book. Imagine if it were a young man who wrote that book; he would have been on the cover of every Time Magazine today.

There would have been more biographies and biopics about him.


While related to that, how do you tackle such a larger-than-life life into a narrative feature?

It was tough, because so much was being done by those young kids. At the time, they’d done so much. They traveled across Europe, they had so many affairs, and so many things that were happening. They were meeting also larger than life characters. Like Byron, and all that. So we had to be very selective in choosing the events. And our guidance was we wanted to show the correlation between her life and the book. And how everything that happened in the book is a result of everything that happened in her life.

And Douglas, how much research did you do into Percy once you got the role?

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DB: I did quite a lot. If I’m playing a real person—which, I’ve played quite a lot of real people actually—there’s often a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of material out of there. There’s a great biography, like six or seven hundred-page biography, and I was in India before we shot. And I remember sitting there, and I just sat there and got through the whole thing; figured out who this person was, what made this character the person he was when I started playing him; learned a lot about his childhood, tried to get my head around his ideals, what he was striving for. So, when I got to set, I had created a set of memories in my head, a set of ideals, a set of stuff that I live by.

And when I got to set, I could just turn up and have the pleasure of just being present and playing his character, opposite of such talented actors like Elle and Bel. So I just did a lot of research and reading.

Obviously I also had to do a bit of spoken word. So I worked with this young, really talented young Egyptian poet. She helped me. I remember looking, I was like, “I wonder what it sounds like spoken.”. Because when I first read it, I didn’t know how to speak this. I didn’t have a clue, and I remember putting on YouTube, and all the stuff on there was [disaffected and dry]. Like I was falling asleep.

The BBC approach.

DB: Yeah! And he was a rebel and he was a revolutionary, and he was modern and exciting at the time. So, when he walked at that party I didn’t want—obviously it had to be true to the period, which I think it is. But I wanted when Mary looked at him across the room, she thought “Who’s this guy just standing there?” He’s just saying it. He just gets up there and says it, from the heart.

It’s an old comparison to make that Byron and Percy were the rock stars of their day. How much did you want to lean into that or maybe try and steer away from it?

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DB: One hundred percent lean into that, one hundred percent lean into it. I think we created an energy where we felt with me, Bel, Elle, and Tom, that we all really got on and we had a great chemistry. You know, we were stuck in Luxembourg bored. [Laughs] There was nothing to do apart from hang out, go for dinner and have drinks, and Elle, she was 17. We just had a great time. I felt that; we were this kind of merry band.

We had some freedom with the costume design. I’ve done other period pieces, everything’s so strict. “No, no, no, it’s three buttons here. This is the period. It’s 180-something.” Well, we kind of tore that book up a bit because of what he had to play with. I don’t think Percy really cared. He just always pursued these thoughts. I had a little bit of freedom with the costume and how I wanted to wear things, and how I wanted to wear my hair. Yeah, we lent into that a bit.

How did you want to both approach his relationship with Mary?

HAM: We wanted them not to be black and white and we wanted to see them doing mistakes, but we still would be with them, and that was very important. With his ex-wife and his daughter, and the relationship and all that, it is very problematic. But it is what they’re doing; it’s not the right choices, not the morally correct choices. They chose sometimes to break away and that comes with a burden on anybody. The existence of that child and the other wife carried it on them, doing that, it was difficult on them, and we wanted to show that, because it is not easy to come up with a great work of art. You have to suffer in life and you have to make choices that are difficult for you as a person. Because that’s what makes it more mature and more everlasting. It is not simple. Life is not simple, doing the right and wrong things. And that is for us, was very important to bring.

On paper, Percy can be a bit of a cad or very callous in how he treats Mary but I feel like you are certainly trying to add layers to that.

DB: I think they loved each other deeply and they were flawed as a couple, massively flawed. For the audience to stay, I really cared that the audience cared for our relationship. Whatever happened, like sure people come to the screening like, “Fucking leave him, what are you doing? Just get out of there,” but there was a great love and respect between the two of them. Whatever his flaws were, Percy, he believed in her; he always believed in her when others didn’t and he pushed her. He didn’t always get it right.

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There’s that scene where she comes back from trying to get the book published and she goes, “They said, look, they’ll publish it but with a foreword by you.” And, I’m, “Babe, that’s great, it’s good.” She’s like, “Do you still not get it? Do you still not understand?” But he was a great champion of her, and the audience needed to really believe that they’re desperately in love to stay with us on the journey.

I am not aware of what the actual gravestone looks like, but I know Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s grave is kind of legendary in this whole story and I wanted to ask is that where you shot that whole sequence?

HAM: No, we didn’t shoot, it is in England and we couldn’t afford to shoot in England. [Laughs] But I knew we wanted a cemetery that has life. And we looked around a lot with Paki [Smith], the production designer, and we looked at places, and cemeteries are not romantic. Sometimes they’re really plain. But we went to this place and it was amazing, it was almost like ruins, and there are flowers from coming between, and light. It’s very gothic and very beautiful, and we fell in love with it once we’d seen it. We recreated the grave, it was like one that we built, it’s not one of the existing ones, but everything else was real, and it was wonderful to see it. It was really magical to be in that space.

DB: My only regret is that we didn’t make love on the gravestone.

HAM: We should have done that. [Laughs]

That’s the legend.

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DB: Yeah, a two-minute steamy sex scene right on top of that grave. [Laughs]

You said you cast Elle for her youth, but could you talk about working with Elle and what you saw in her to bring this—this is woman who led a very harrowing life by the time she was 18, 19.

Yeah, it’s not only because of her youth, but also because of her acting… We wanted someone who can bring an effortless and subtle performance into the character. And Elle is amazing at doing that. Otherwise, it would be very melodramatic, it’s going to be very sad, and I don’t want to portray a victim. We want to have someone who goes through a very difficult, harsh life and comes out of it with something amazing.

And to create that you needed someone who can bring in elegance and carry it through. You don’t feel like she is weak or she’s a victim as much as you understand where she comes from and you relate to that and relate the book and her life at the end. And that is why I felt Elle is amazing. I was following through Super 8 where she did a great job. And we cast her right after Maleficent, and she wanted to do more adult roles, and it was a perfect timing for us, age-wise. But also the quality of the performer and the performance she gives.

How much did you want to subvert or play against expectation, because you did the famous “Ghost Story” sequence in Geneva, but it doesn’t necessarily play the way mythmaking suggests.

It’s not about the monster. That is one thing we really decided from early on, that it is about her, and once we knew the monster’s there, people of course want to see a horror film, and it is not that. We wanted, we made a deliberate decision to, just bringing him in her mind.

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And when most people think of Frankenstein, they think of the science parable. The monster is even called a Byronic hero. So how important was it for you to make it about her own sense of loss superseding our understanding the mythology around the book?

It’s about a young person finding her voice and that is what we wanted. We thought she’s under-recognized, like nobody knew, that is what we wanted. We sought it out. That is our aim. But also we wanted, we didn’t want the monster not to be present at all, because it is her creation, so we wanted to show a little bit of it, but not in a way that it has a life of its own that hijacks her life again, because it did. It did take all the recognition, it took all the fame, and why she went into the shadows and we wanted to leave those shadows behind.

Mary Shelley is now playing select cities and on VOD today.