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Tag: Kenneth Branagh

Classics Month II, or, It’s alive….ALIVE!

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Br...

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein’s monster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right,

Firstly let me get this out of the way as early as possible in order not to affect the rest of this week’s post. I’m not quite sure how to put this but….

YEAH!!

WE ARE BACK IN ACTION BABY!

THE PAGE BOY LIVES!!

The more sharp eyed may have put two and two together and realised that this week’s blog title fits with this theme and really quite nicely with today’s book, the classic Gothic horror novel from 1818, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Now in order to make this one a little special, this comeback blog is mixing things up a little, with not one, but two films under discussion, just as little treat to those of you who have stuck with the blog in the last few weeks whilst I haven’t done anything.

So here it is people! Frankenstein (1818) vs. Frankenstein (1931) vs. Frankenstein (1994)

Let’s begin with the book, as per usual I’m going to do my best to avoid any major spoilers but this is really one of those that you should have already read and so I hope that anything I can come up with is more jogging your memory rather than telling you something completely new. Ready? Then here we go…

The book is written in an epistolary style, somewhat unusually for the turn of the 1800’s as the more technically sophisticated third person style was starting to gain traction. Basically this means that we as readers encounter the story at a step removed. The novel opens in a letter written by a sea Captain, Robert Walton, who is writing to his sister back in England detailing his adventures in the North Pole in order further his scientific knowledge and in the hope of gaining some fame. The expedition, after glimpsing a mysterious figure in the snow comes across a man on the ice, bring him aboard and his story is told to the captain, who then relates it to his sister and thus to the reader.

The man is a Swiss scientist called Victor Frankenstein raised in a wealthy family in Geneva with his adopted sister Elizabeth. After his mother dies of scarlet fever Victor goes to university and becomes a scientist. Here, he discovers the secret of re-animating the dead and it is here that he creates the famous monster. In a classic ‘man shouldn’t play God’ moment Victor is horrified by what he has done and needs to be nursed back to health by his friend Henry. The rest of the novel revolves around this idea of the monster seeking Victor’s acceptance, Victor’s rejection of his own creature and the two vow destruction on each other.  It is brutal, costing Victor his best friend, his younger brother, his wife and even his father whereas the monster knows nothing but pain instead of love and that experience turns him into monster that he becomes.

A novel as rich in ideas as this one was initially not as successful as you might think, the literary star-maker of the day, Sir Walter Scott, called it a work of genius whereas the Quarterly Review labelled it ‘a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity,’ But quality will win out and the book swiftly established itself into the classics canon with its rich ideas, imagination and technical skill so it was only a matter of time before different mediums came calling.

So in 1931 the first major adaptation of the novel was released and if you know nothing about the book I can almost guarantee that his film informs what you know about the monster. Boris Karloff has gone down in cinema history in his portrayal of the monster, with his blank eyes, lumbering gait and the famous neck bolts. The plot is also a little different – Henry Frankenstein and his faithful assistant Fritz, bring the monster to life. Due to Fritz’s incompetence the monsters brain has been taken from a criminal. Simplifying the plot of the novel a great deal the film ends with the classic scene of the monster trapped in the windmill that is burned to the ground. As one of the first great horror movies it has become part of modern cultural history and been incredibly influential on film making. After all, you can tell if a film has made it when Mel Brooks makes a movie based on it.

Yet as an adaptation?

Well…it isn’t great. The plot is stitched together from the novel’s synopsis and it avoids the more nuanced approach that the book sets up in favour of an easy morality tale. That being said I feel uncomfortable laying into this film too much. Karloff gives a seminal performance and the film is a lot of fun to watch, particularly if you have any familiarity with the tropes of horror movies. The classic line of ‘its….ALIVE’ is just as fun as you think and though the plot is simple it still manages to generate a surprising amount of pathos.  With a certain application of retro nostalgia it is a whole lot of cheesy and enjoyable horror movie fun but in comparison with the book this film feels insubstantial and intellectually light-weight.

With this criticism in mind let me turn to the next adaptation, this time from 1994. To avoid the fairly merited accusation of me being a rabid fanboy I should fess up as quickly as I can. Yet again, Kenneth Branagh will be making an appearance here once more. As someone with a background in the classic dramatic position Branagh is no stranger to the challenge of fitting works from one medium into a new one. He takes the director’s chair here for the 1994 version and I think I may have already said too much about Branagh as a director in my Thor review, but I will try and say something new here. Obviously this is much more a retelling than the earlier film and the period detailing and costume is as accurate as you would expect it be.

The cast is, aside from one major problem that I will return to later, uniformly excellent. Branagh has the necessary flourishes of melodrama and gravitas to convince as Victor and Helena Bonham Carter does great work as Elizabeth.  The supporting cast features Ian Holm and John Cleese among others and they are all top-notch. What’s nice about the film, clearly a labour of love for it’s director, is that it makes the attempt to engage with the issues and intellectual themes of the novel such as the idea of nature vs. nurture, the nature of humanity and how who we are is affected by those around us. Whilst it may not manage it successfully all the time the fact that a horror film tries to engage with something deeper than, ‘oh…SCARY’ is something to be applauded.

At the top of the last paragraph I made it clear that there was an elephant I the room with this film and one that has to be addressed. Whereas with the 1931 had possibly the classic movies monster, this film has Robert De Nero. Yes. Robert De Nero. In makeup. As a monster. I cannot begin to express what a colossal piece of miscasting this is. Now, this isn’t to say that De Nero is bad, far from it. But for someone who is supposed to inspire terror just by his very appearance De Nero just doesn’t cut it. And for this movie, with the amount of screen time that De Nero gets this is a major flaw in the film.

In the films defence this is partly because of the films desire to explore the humanity of the creature and grapple with the philosophical issues in the novel. Whether that is enough to make up for the monster being, well, not that much a monster, is up to the viewer to decide.

I hope what has come through is that this novel is dependent upon ideas rather than action. A big, bold, plot driven story that uses the revenge storyline as a means to discuss the issues that interested the novel’s young and breathtakingly talented author. To say which film is better or worse is a little reductionist of me though in terms of which is truer to the book I would probably side with the 1994 version. Though if you haven’t seen these films, make sure you check out both of them.

I know, I know, I should have split more hairs here, that was what you were expecting. I must be a little rusty, but don’t worry – I’ll get back into it.

Anyway, I guess it’s just good to be back!

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Marvel Month II, or, ‘Why I love Kenneth Branagh’

Right,

Marvel month kicks off properly here, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who, when thinking about the Marvel Comics films, immediately jumps to a middle-aged Irish-man with a burning desire to be Lawrence Olivier. Ah, Kenneth Branagh – good old Kenny; big Kenny B, a man who has been nominated for an Oscar in five different categories, a man who was married to the wonderful Emma Thompson and decided to have an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter as well as playing the title role in five different films/TV shows. In short, this man is the ultimate classically trained and RADA educated LAD. (not in the misogynistic, horrific rape culture endorsing way, mind you – that wouldn’t be cool..)

Yes, I know that he has got his fair share of dross on his CV but you know something, I don’t care. I think Kenneth Branagh is simply flawless, and yes, that does include his version of Hamlet which is about five days long and earned him the honour of being one of three people who make a punchline in Blackadder. (A shiny penny to the first person to get the other two and no using Wikipedia! That’s cheating!)

So Branagh, (*swoon*) was the man brought onto the juggernaut that is the Avengers franchise to direct Thor. I will admit, however, that at the news I wasn’t delighted. I was distinctly sceptical. Branagh seemed too cerebral a choice, someone reliant on dialogue and character to really handle, what I assumed would be a big noisy blockbuster. Now this attitude, I freely admit, was based on a shocking lack of knowledge about Thor’s comics and a little snobbishness about the kind of work I thought was beneath King Kenny.

Thankfully the film soared over my expectations. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year so I won’t waste too much time re-hashing plot, but suffice to say it involves the Gods of Asgard and the war with the Frost Giants, a sibling rivalry between Thor and his brother Loki worthy of the greatest tragedies and, of course, scientists.  In keeping with all Marvel movies there is the inevitable build up towards the Avengers nerd-gasm coming this year but even considered as a separate entity rather than a 120 minute trailer for another film, this is a very solid movie. To a large extent the strength of the movie comes, in my opinion, from Branagh’s direction and the cast. The gods of Asgard are old school in the theatrical sense of the word – these are Gods of wrath, violence and all the worst traits of humanity with the power to destroy the entire world. The relationship between Thor, Odin and Loki has more than an echo of King Lear to it; helped considerably by the thespian legend Sir Anthony Hopkins chewing through the CGI scenery as the Allfather and the hulking presence of Chris Hemsworth as the adolescent and powerful Thor.  Tom Hiddlestone deserves all the credit one can heap on him as Loki and I am delighted beyond words he’s returning as the villain for the Avengers. Idris Elba adds another touch of gravitas as Heimdall, as well as stirring up some cheap publicity by having the gall to be a black actor in an action film!

As the previous paragraph may have given away, I think the films strongest scenes are the ones that focus on the realm of Asgard and the power dynamics of the Gods. Also of note is the sequences where Thor rashly plunges into a fight with the Frost Giants and his final confrontation with Loki really adds to the grand, Shakespearean themes the film is trying to aim for. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the scenes here on Earth, as to keep the films running time down, it feels rushed, (especially the love interest with Natalie Portman) and personally I never get the impression that Thor’s exile on earth is a real struggle to overcome. That being said, the film succeeds for the most part in marrying grand themes of betrayal, power and jealousy with an action packed story.

So, a good movie. But a good adaptation? Well, this is where the whole thing becomes a little more complicated…

As I said in the last column Thor has been around since the early 1960’s in comic form, and his legends have been around for literally thousands years. This is, not just a literary story – Thor is a cultural juggernaut, it surely isn’t possible to fuse Nordic legend into a comic form without being not just crass, but hugely insensitive.

Or so I thought. And then I started reading what I consider to be one of the finest comic runs I have ever read – The Mighty Thor Volume 1 337-382. Written and drawn by Walt Simonsen and lettered by John Workman it is an incredible piece of work. The look of the comic is like nothing else, thanks to Simonsen’s wonderful art style and the sense of scale and grandeur is done so well thanks to the jaw-dropping lettering from Workman. The dialogue too,  is just as good as the film’s and in some respects, much better. This Thor feels even more Shakespearean than the film thanks to the sometimes archaic syntax and tendency of the characters to think or say what is actually happening mid scene! What I love  about this run is the sense of cosmic scale that the creative team has achieved; whilst there are times where the dialogue feels clunky everything is given the time and the space to breathe, all of the action feels like it has a sense of great importance and the characters are given the page space to be given depth and characterised to an astonishing degree. Loki, especially, is shown to be an incredible villain, one who will happily destroy someone’s entire life just for the fun of it.

The problem is, of course, that the film adaptation has to be something unique to the Marvel comic as opposed to a slice of cultural appropriation in the obligatory cape and big hammer get up. To an extent I wouldn’t say this is what the film is; it certainly encouraged me to actually pick up the comics and see what Marvel writers wanted to do and the stories they wanted to tell. In a way, Thor’s problem is one I feel could be repeated by the rest of these films in Marvel Month. Thor is so well-known that, in a way, the adaptation is always going to fall short. We all know the name of Thor and many of us are familiar with the legends and mythologies of Nordic culture – the Norse gods have even named the days of the week.

Many people might think that there are so many different stories that could be told with  these characters and just as with Batman and Superman there will be people who demand different tales be told. The problem is, of course, that it simply isn’t possible to adapt what is a continuing narrative, you can’t adapt Thor in the traditional sense of the word, as the source material is still being generated. However…what you can do it take the original concepts, and they clearly are the original concepts from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and add to the ongoing narrative that is being told. Strictly speaking, this is a transposition of the original mythos, world and characters into a new medium. And it’s done well. Really well. It makes the world of Thor accessible to a huge new market.

The more I think about this, the more exciting I think comic movies are – it adds to the story and the characters in a way that traditional narrative couldn’t. Roll on next week, as Marvel Month continues!

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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