Friday, November 16, 2018

Catherine Reef's "Mary Shelley"

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse, Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, and other highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Here Reef shares a scenario for adapting her latest young adult biography, Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein's Creator, for the big screen:
My Dinner with Frankenstein

On an unspecified date in the eighteenth century, on an Alpine summit overlooking a sea of ice, Victor Frankenstein encountered the intelligent creature he had built and endowed with life. This is a pivotal scene in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as the creature informs his creator (and the reader) about all that has happened to him since he ventured alone into the world.

Imagine a film built around this section of the novel but set more than two hundred years later, in 2018. A luxury resort has been built at that mountain site, complete with a four-star restaurant and vast windows that offer a stunning view of sunset on the glacier. Victor and the creature meet there for dinner.

For Victor, the encounter is a surprise. He has climbed to this mountain retreat to be alone with his feelings after the murder of his young brother William. Having anticipated his arrival, the creature has reserved a table and is waiting for Victor at the bar. Fearful of causing a potentially violent scene, Victor accepts the creature’s invitation to dine.

A host leads them to their table. We observe that Victor is dark-haired and slight and looks to be in his early thirties. The lumbering creature towers over him and everyone else in the room. Diners gaze down at their plates, having been made uncomfortable by his watery yellow eyes and shriveled skin. Once seated, the pair orders wine, and we listen as the creature tells his story.

He explains how he learned to speak and read by observing humans. He admits to bestowing kindness, secretly, on a country family, only to suffer hurt and rejection upon stepping forward to offer friendship. “I was benevolent and good; misery has made me a fiend,” he says. Victor urges hope and insists that love and charity dwell in the human heart, but the creature counters that humans’ eyes have been clouded by prejudice: “Where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster.”

A waiter unobtrusively serves dinner. Victor has ordered papet vaudois, a heavy meal of sausages, potatoes, and leeks. The creature, accustomed to foraging for acorns, has chosen a salad. Yet as they eat and the creature continues his story, it is he who displays a hearty appetite. Victor plays with his food, and when the creature declares “everlasting war” against humanity and especially “him who had formed me,” Victor’s face takes on the pallor of indigestion. His companion then confesses that in his rage he strangled William.

Victor sits sick and bewildered as coffee is brought to the table. Filmgoers hear his voiced-over thoughts, how he wishes he were at home with Elizabeth, his intended bride, curling up to read a good book and forgetting every care; how he believes that he bears responsibility for William’s death. The creature then spells out what is to happen next. Victor must return to his laboratory and fashion another being, a female companion for his first creation. Initially Victor refuses, but the creature leans close and taps a thick finger on the table as he whispers a threat, mafia-style: Comply, or “I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you curse the hour of your birth.”

The meal finished, a benumbed Victor separates from his dining companion, who has promised to be watching him. He wanders the grounds of the lodge, until sitting beside a fountain he gives way to miserable tears.

The movie now cuts to another setting for a final, brief scene, because we must remember that my book is about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s author. We see Mary, a twenty-first-century teen, type the words “miserable tears” on her laptop and click “save,” before she answers a call on her iPhone. “Hey, Percy,” she says. “What’s up?”
The Page 99 Test: Mary Shelley.

Writers Read: Catherine Reef.

--Marshal Zeringue