Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a masterful motion picture. While it does take a few liberties with Shelley's classic novel, it does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the original story, specifically the humanity of the creature. While a little over-the-top at times and surprisingly gory, this film forcefully echoes Shelley's philosophical, moral, and ethical questions, and by so doing redefines the creature in its original image. What I have always found to be the most crucial scenes in the story are here displayed in all of their troubling glory, and perhaps it is the heightened intellectual nature of this film that explains why a surprisingly large number of people find disappointment where I find stimulating triumph. There are enough horror-laden scenes to capture the attention of the general horror lover, but the real substance of this story, for those who prefer their monster to serve as a complicated, amoral representation of man himself, is ambrosia for those who are more fascinated by the questions Frankenstein raises than by the horrors he unleashes.
The inspiration for young Victor Frankenstein's obsession with conquering death is delineated pretty clearly, given its most intense emotional charge by the death of his doting mother while giving birth to his little brother. His time at university is a little rushed, however, strangely incorporating the influence of a mentor whose work Victor vows to complete; where the older doctor halted his studies out of fear, Victor will push over the brink without hesitation. Victor's lab is a bit overdone, featuring all manner of miscellaneous gizmos, vials, and wossnames that look impressive with blue bolts of electricity (not generated by lightning, by the way) pulsing through them. The monster, as we first meet him, is less than impressive, and a prolonged scene of Victor water-wrestling a guy wearing a patently fake body suit inserts a little unfortunate levity into what should be a most serious scene. Victor's reaction to his creation is probably the weakest spot in an otherwise powerful film, as his sudden repudiation of everything he has ever worked for rings patently false.
It is with the entrance of the monster, however, that this film truly begins to shine. Mary Shelley's monster is not evil, nor is he a monster in the stereotypical sense by which he has come to be viewed by modern audiences. He is most definitely a victim and a creature deserving of much sympathy. Abandoned by his creator, his first interaction with mankind finds him fleeing a mob intent on hurting him for no reason apart from his ugliness. He takes shelter in a pigsty adjoined to a simple house in the country, and through a crack in the wall he not only learns to read and write, he gets to experience vicariously the joys and travails of family life. He becomes a guardian angel of sorts, secretly helping the family survive and prosper. At Christmas, in a truly touching scene, he finds a gift the family has left outside for their secret helper. One day, he gets a chance to actually interact with the blind old man of the house, sitting and conversing with another human for the first time in his wretched life, but all too quickly the family he had come to think of as his own, chases him away with blows and curses. If your heart does not break at the sight of the creature sobbing in the forest after this ultimate betrayal by mankind, you are the true monster. This whole scene is absolutely critical in terms of explaining who the monster is and why he does what he goes on to do, yet most film adaptations skip this scene entirely. Only now does the creature vow to seek revenge on the creator who abandoned him; only now has this ultimate victim become a monster in the form of amoral man.
The rest of the film is handled quite well, and Helena Bonham Carter is simply wonderful in her role as Victor's significant other. The ending goes beyond the scope of the original novel, and it does so in a strikingly grisly way, but the overall effect of this film is true to Shelley's original vision. Robert De Niro gives a particularly compelling performance as Frankenstein's monster, the look and feel of the late eighteenth-century setting is spot on, and the musical soundtrack complements the plot extraordinarily well. While I would prefer to see a movie strictly faithful to Shelley's novel, this exemplary albeit somewhat effusive adaptation hits the core messages of the story dead on and stands, in my opinion, as a truly impressive cinematic accomplishment.