The Dark Truth Behind 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
It’s been more than 25 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hit the big screen. Starring Robert De Niro and Kenneth Branagh, this was the highest budgeted adaptation of the novel, and is generally considered to be the version most faithful to the original story. However, tension and secrets on set threatened to pull production to a screeching halt. Join us as we put the rumours to bed, and discover just what actually happened on the set of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
20. Francis Ford Coppola was originally supposed to direct the film
Initially, producer Francis Ford Coppola planned to direct Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a companion piece to his 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which starred Gary Oldman as the iconic vampire. The film was a big hit with rave reviews and box office takings of $215 million.
However, he eventually decided to hand the director’s chair to Kenneth Branagh, as well as casting him in the role of Victor Frankenstein. Branagh had enjoyed success as dual actor and director on several films, most famously his Shakespeare adaptations Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing.
19. Coppola denounced the movie when Branagh wouldn’t cut the first half-hour
Although Coppola hired Branagh to direct Frankenstein, tension built between them during production due to a series of creative disagreements. This came to a head when Coppola saw the first cut of the film and demanded Branagh remove the first half-hour, complaining that it was over-dramatised.
Branagh refused to comply which lead to a bitter falling out. Later, Coppola publicly denounced the movie, stating that he was embarrassed to be associated with it. He felt that Branagh had relied too heavily on metaphor, and the extravagant set and costumes failed to disguise the lack of depth.
18. Screenwriter Frank Darabont said it was the ‘worst movie I’ve ever seen’
Sadly, Coppola was not the only one to express their displeasure of the film. Screenplay writer Frank Darabont also came forward following the movie’s release, stating that he was not happy with the final product and that Branagh had mishandled the project throughout.
Not one to hold back, Darabont (who went on to write and direct The Shawshank Redemption) called Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” He blasted the lack of subtlety, and agreed with critics that it was “overly melodramatic.”
17. John Cleese was given a prosthetic chin and teeth to make him appear less comical
Kenneth Branagh wanted John Cleese for the role of Professor Waldman, but the producers were initially reluctant to cast him due to his background as a comedy actor. Eventually, they agreed to give Cleese the role on one condition: that he wear a prosthetic chin and teeth.
Producers felt this would make him look more like a serious authority figure, and he would be viewed as more ‘grave and sharp’.
The actor clearly couldn’t wait to rid himself of the new additions to his look and completed filming his scenes in just two weeks.
16. Nobody on-set was allowed to refer to Robert De Niro as ‘The Monster’
Reportedly no one on the set of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was allowed to refer to Robert De Niro’s character as ‘the monster,’ as the character is generally known. Instead, the cast and crew were instructed to refer to him as ‘The Sharp-Featured Man.’
Throughout the movie, Frankenstein’s creation is, quite aptly, called ‘the Creation’ or the ‘Creature’. De Niro received a mixed reception for his performance, with some claiming he relied too much on special effects and hid behind his gruesome mask.
15. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gérard Depardieu could have played the Monster
Before directorial reins were handed over to Branagh, Columbia Pictures were considering asking Tim Burton to direct the film, and one of the first actors considered to play Frankenstein’s creation was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Andy Garcia was also in the running for the role.
When Branagh signed on, he considered casting Gérard Depardieu as the creature, but it was ultimately decided the French actor was not as big a box office draw as De Niro. Branagh would later cast Depardieu in the role of Reynaldo, in his 1996 film version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
14. The gooey ‘amniotic fluid’ caused major problems on-set
The ‘amniotic fluid’ used in the scenes in which The Creature was brought to life was actually boiling gelatine. The slippery nature of this substance caused some serious disruption, as De Niro and Branagh kept slipping and falling over in the gelatinous mess.
This happened so often in fact, that a split ended up appearing in De Niro’s prosthetic suit. In order to keep production moving along at a swift pace, it was decided not to replace the suit, instead relying on sneaky camera angles to hide the damage.
13. De Niro studied stroke victims to play the Monster
True to his reputation as a method actor, De Niro was determined to fully immerse himself in the role of Frankenstein’s creation, and conducted extensive research to make his performance as convincing as possible. Happily, this didn’t involve being killed, chopped up and sewn back together.
Instead, tried to develop insight into how one might approach re-learning a language. To this end, the actor arranged to study stroke victims and their speech patterns, noticing would speak very deliberately and often struggle to get words out. De Niro tried to emulate this in his performance.
12. Helena Bonham Carter replaced Emma Thompson as Elizabeth
The role of Elizabeth was originally set to go to Emma Thompson, who was married to Branagh at the time. However, she had been offered the lead role in Carrington (1995), to which the pair decided she was better suited. Instead, Helena Bonham Carter landed the role.
Kate Winslet was also in the running for Elizabeth. Although she was turned down, her audition so impressed Branagh that he later cast her as Ophelia in his version of Hamlet. In a strange coincidence, Carter had also played Ophelia six years earlier in another film of Hamlet by director Franco Zeffirelli.
11. Author Mary Shelley may have been inspired by real events
The original novel Frankenstein (also known as The Modern Prometheus) was first published in 1818, when author Mary Shelley was just 21 years old. It has been suggested by some that this story, often considered the first work of science fiction, contains an inkling of truth.
During her travels around Europe with husband Percy Shelley, it is speculated that the couple heard rumours surrounding an eccentric local who claimed to have discovered the elixir of life, plus tales of alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel, who allegedly robbed graves and experimented on corpses.
10. Mary Shelley’s name is in the title because another studio had the rights to ‘Frankenstein’
One key thing that makes this adaptation of Frankenstein stand apart from others is the fact that author Mary Shelley’s name is used in the title. Producer Coppola claimed this was because he had a habit of implementing author’s names into his novel adaptations, as with Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
However, others have claimed that producers were forced to include the name in the title as Universal held the rights to the title Frankenstein. The studio produced the first feature film adaptation of the novel in 1931, with director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff.
9. 1950s Frankenstein actor Christopher Lee was not a fan of the film
While the Boris Karloff take on Frankenstein remains the best-loved, the story was also retold in 1957 by Britain’s Hammer Films as The Curse of Frankenstein, with Christopher Lee in the role of the creature. Lee was invited to the premiere of the 1994 film.
At this event, Lee was asked what the difference was between his film and the new film, to which he replied, “about 40 years and 40 million dollars.” Many fans have taken this as an indication that the veteran horror actor was not impressed with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
8. Several cast members later appeared in Harry Potter
As the cast is largely British, it perhaps isn’t too surprising that a lot of actors from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wound up appearing in Harry Potter. Most famously, Helena Bonham Carter played the evil Bellatrix Lestrange in the last four Potter movies.
On top of this, John Cleese played the role of Nearly Neadless Nick in the first two Harry Potter films, and Robert Hardy (Professor Krempe) appeared in four films as Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge. Finally, Kenneth Branagh himself played Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
7. Branagh broke up his marriage by having an affair with Carter on-set
As mentioned, actor and director Kenneth Branagh was married to Emma Thompson when work began on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and had initially wanted to cast her as Victor’s love interest Elizabeth before instead casting Helena Bonham Carter in the role.
It seems the roles rubbed off on Branagh and Bonham Carter, who began an affair during production which soon ended Branagh’s six-year marriage to Thompson. Branagh and Bonham Carter would go on to date for several years afterwards, a relationship which was well documented in the press.
6. Emma Thompson chose not to hold a grudge over the affair
Emma Thompson was understandably depressed after her husband left her, but she does not hold a grudge against the woman for whom her husband left her. To the surprise of some, Thompson has publicly stated that she considers Bonham Carter a ‘close friend.’
Thompson has suggested that she and Bonham Carter (who had previously acted alongside one another in the 1992 film Howard’s End) share personality traits that attracted Branagh, describing them both as being ‘slightly mad and a bit fashion-challenged.’
5. The film received mixed reviews from critics
Given how well-reviewed both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Kenneth Branagh’s earlier films had been, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was initially anticipated to go down just as well with critics. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, this did not turn out to be the case.
Although Robert De Niro’s performance earned some praise, overall Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was met with mixed-to-negative reviews, with many complaints that it was too over-the-top and not scary enough. Today, it sits on an unimpressive 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
4. It flopped at the US box office, but did okay worldwide
Studio TriStar Pictures had put a $45 million budget behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (even more than the $40 million put into Bram Stoker’s Dracula), so naturally they were banking on a sizeable hit. Alas, the film did not go down anywhere near as well with US audiences.
Domestically, the film made a mere $22 million at the box office, rendering it a major flop in the eyes of Hollywood. This is in spite of the fact that the film wound up making a profit overseas, with worldwide earnings that eventually totalled $112 million, making more than twice its budget back.
3. There are some revealing gaffes in the film
Considering how much tension there is reported to have been during production on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it’s perhaps not too surprising that a number of mistakes and continuity errors wound up being missed in the editing process and made it into the final film.
One of these mistakes can be seen in the scene in which William is carried in Elizabeth’s arms, appearing to bed either dead or unconscious. However, if you look closely you can actually see his hand reach out to grab the blanket thrown over his body.
2. Branagh’s Frankenstein makes claims which have been debunked by science
When it comes to building strange creatures from body parts, Frankenstein is clearly your go-to guy. However, despite his many years of practice, it seems that Baron Frankenstein wasn’t quite the expert you might expect. In one scene, he states that hair and nails continue to grow after death.
Whilst this is a commonly believed myth, the science behind it has been debunked in various studies and research trials. While it might appear that the nails and hair of a recently deceased person continue to grow, this is actually caused by the skin receding, revealing the hair and nail tissue underneath.
1. It was Hugh Bonneville’s theatrical movie debut
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the film debut of Hugh Bonneville. The London-born British actor has since risen to fame as Robert Crawley in TV series Downtown Abbey and its spin-off movies, and as Mr Brown in Paddington and its sequel Paddington 2.
Bonneville, who was 30 at the time, makes a brief appearance in the film as bullying medical student Schiller. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also should have been the first film of British actress Fay Ripley (later famed for TV’s Cold Feet), but her scenes wound up being cut.