About five years ago, I was showing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to a room full of high school seniors. We got to the scene where the monster (Robert DeNiro), who is now at the point where he has Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) by the throat and is forcing the good doctor to make him a bride from the tattered remains of Helena Bonham Carter. The Bride of Frankenstein, so to speak, emerges from the 19th-Century life-giving apparatus and Victor and the monster begin calling to her, telling her to come to each of them as if she’s a puppy trying to choose between two owners.
I went on to ask my students about how Hollywood is forever getting Frankenstein completely wrong as I thought about how I missed how bad this movie was back when I saw it in the theater in 1994. After all, by putting the name of the author above the title–a trend that eventually died out after William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet because … Shakespeare Wrote Romeo & Juliet? Thanks for telling me, Baz–Kenneth Branagh’s film purported to be the definitive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel. And to a point, it actually works out pretty well–bride-dog moments aside, the basic structure of the plot is there–but in many areas it falls flat and that’s why I was wondering why I liked it when I was seventeen. Then I realized that like a few of my entertainment choices in the mid-1990s, this story begins with the phrase: “You see, there was this girl …”
While I know it shouldn’t, being on a date drastically changes your perspective on the film you’re watching. The night I went to see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was on my first official date with a girl I had been friends with for a couple of years, but we’d been hanging out a lot and that prompted me to do the math: our hanging out together + she knowing that I liked her = she might actually want to go out with me. This wouldn’t mean very much to your average seventeen-year-old boy, but I wasn’t exactly your average seventeen-year-old boy. I had spent the majority of my adolesence being painfully awkward around girls, acting immature and not knowing what to say. The more attracted I was to a girl, the worse that awkwardness was, and that is probably the reason I didn’t go on a single date until that night in November to see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So I spent most of the movie not concentrating on the film but trying to figure out how to properly behave so that the date went well and by the end of the night I could … well, I guess the experession “get to first base” would apply. In the blur of Branagh, Bonham Carter, DeNiro and Aidan Quinn (I remember his part because she squeed when she saw him), I worked on trying to find the right moment to put my arm around her, followed by trying to figure out a tactful way of taking my arm away when it started to go numb. It was ten times tougher than the calculus class I had every first period.
Not to brag, but I was successful. Okay, it’s not much of a brag because we walked from the movie theater to the corner near both of our houses and I spent what might have only been two minutes but felt like ten awkwardly and nervously chuckling and making small talk until I finally made a move and kissed her good night. It wasn’t my first kiss–that had come the previous summer when I was away in Europe–but it was my first “date” kiss, the first kiss that had the potential to lead to something more than a goodbye and a half-assed attempt at writing letters to one another for the first month after I got home. Never in my life had so much depended on one very chaste kiss at the end of the night; never in my life had a moment been so charmingly small town that they don’t even write those types of moments anymore.
I haven’t watched Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in its entirety since that moment in my classroom five years ago; I’ve been more or less permanently teaching sophomores since then and high-concept, high-budget horror from the 1990s isn’t as interesting to me as low-budget schlock from the 1980s. And I guess I’ll keep it that way because for once I don’t mind having a memory overshadow a movie.