The Truth Matters - a Review of Haifaa al-Mansour's Movie, "Mary Shelley". By Graham Henderson


Haifaa al-Mansour’s new movie Mary Shelley premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9 September 2017. For those anticipating a nuanced, balanced and careful study of the relationship between two of the world’s authentic literary geniuses, Mary and Percy Shelley, I am sorry, you will be disappointed. For all of its pretensions, this movie seems pitched as a sort of thinking person’s Twilight or maybe Beauty and the Beast: two hot, beautiful young people with perfect skin and hair are thrust together by chance, torn apart by circumstance only to be at last happily reunited. It is riddled with factual errors and the plot involves an almost complete rewrite of history. The real Percy and Mary, as depicted in Mary Shelley are essentially props whose lives may be casually rearranged to allow al-Mansour and her screenwriter to concoct a myth about the creation of Frankenstein. Were the movie to carry a warning, “based on a true story”, it would not go far enough. Mary and Percy have been done a disservice. The true story of Mary, Percy and Frankenstein deserves to be told – but it will await yet another day.

The real-life relationship between Mary and Percy offers us one of the very few examples of a male/female creative partnership between co-equals that was characterized by mutual respect and collaborative cooperation.  After centuries of binary analyses of Mary and Percy in which one or other of the two has been cast in invidious roles at the expense of the other, as Anna Mercer remarked, we have only just now reached the point where they are being seen for what they were: “two incredibly talented authors, who dedicated their lives to the study and writing of radical and innovative literature.

Indeed, a major conference founded on this concept takes place in London on 15 and 16 September 2017. As conference co-organizer and Shelley expert Anna Mercer wrote recently:

Our speakers will pay attention to biographical details in order to gauge how their shared lives (and also their shared travels) influence their texts, as opposed to the texts revealing truths about their lives. Can we remove the damaging opinion that the Shelleys’ relationship was something defined by scandal, infidelity, gossip, and anti-establishment teenage pursuits? They certainly would have wished we could do so. Let us return to their writings, and not the many, many biographical speculations created by scholars and other writers, some with good intentions, some without.

al-Mansour tacks in exactly the opposite direction, creating in the course of her movie a host of new biographical speculations designed to suit her theory that Frankenstein is largely, almost completely, autobiographical - reinforcing, as Anna Mercer recently pointed out to me, a lamentable sexist stereotype in wide circulation regarding female authors. This is hardly a feminist manifesto.  Sigh.

The proof is in the marketing! "The life that inspired Frankenstein"!! "Her greatest love inspired her darkest creation"!! That's right, with these women writers it always about the boy. Sheesh.

The proof is in the marketing! "The life that inspired Frankenstein"!! "Her greatest love inspired her darkest creation"!! That's right, with these women writers it always about the boy. Sheesh.

Sadly, to make her point, we are treated by the director to a veritable orgy of speculation that focuses on just the sort of “scandal, infidelity, gossip and anti-establishment teenage pursuits” which Mercer cautions us to avoid. I am increasingly of the view that acts of historical vandalism such as this are a variant on cultural appropriation.  A modern writer or director, with full knowledge that they are rewriting history, creates a narrative which is then offered to the public with absolutely no warning about the veracity of the story. The story appears to be true; it looks and feels real. Clearly this is irresponsible and misleading; but I think it is worse.  Mary and Percy had real lives - lives about which we know a LOT.  To warp and twist those stories to present a narrative about the creation of Frankenstein which suits the director's idea of how great works are created is a misappropriation of their lives; put bluntly, it is a fraud on history - a lie.

The characters, with the possible exception of Mary (but more on that later) are dismayingly two-dimensional: Percy is an “irresponsible narcissist”; Byron is a “blood-sucking devourer of souls”; William Godwin (author of one of the most important philosophical works of his century, Poliical Justice) is a pottering, befuddled shopkeeper; Claire Clairmont is a gold-digger in search of a “poet of her own”. There is even an evil step-mother thrown in for good measure: Claire’s mother, Mary Jane, whom Godwin married after the death of Mary's mother. There are some elliptical visual clues - we see a flash of the title page of Political Justice; there is a glimpse of Shelley's poem, Queen Mab in a gorgeous bound gilt edition that of course never existed); we see Byron swanning around a theater like a rock star; and so on.  But these flash by and despite them unless you know the historical background of these people, you would have no idea that some of these people were the intellectual titans of the age.

This is a movie that abandons virtually all pretense to historical accuracy in the opening 5 minutes. Now we all have come to expect this from the silver screen.  But it is one thing for directors in search of sensationalism and a “good story” to veer far from the truth (how often do we see the words “based on a true story”), but it is entirely another when the director in question has explicitly set out to tell the truth.  al-Mansour is unequivocal in this regard. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter director spoke of "finding inspiration in how Shelley defied what was expected of her." She said, “I think a lot of people know Frankenstein and, of course, the green monster, everybody knows that. But they don’t know her.” al-Mansour sets out to tell the world who the real Mary Shelley was. You can’t do this by manipulating the truth.

It occurred to me that it might be valuable to approach Mary Shelley simply as a fairy tale – a movie with made up characters and a moral. al-Mansour’s herself described the movie as a “coming of age story” about a “strong woman.” Does it stand up? Does the story-line make sense? Do the characters feel real? Is Movie Mary the “strong woman” al-Mansour purports her to be?

Well, here are our two protagonists as the film presents them:

Percy Bysshe Shelley. This character is a poet and is presented early on as a revolutionary. He is impossibly handsome and clearly aware of his charms – a ladies’ man!

Douglas Booth as Shelley. As an aside, Shelley was famous for wearing his shirts open at the neck. The movie could not even get this right.

Douglas Booth as Shelley. As an aside, Shelley was famous for wearing his shirts open at the neck. The movie could not even get this right.

What he is rebelling against is uncertain, though he clearly does not like religion. There is a scene in which he takes Mary into an empty church, steals the sacramental wine and drinks it from the chalice while lounging on the altar – he such a bad boy. Here are some of the “anti-establishment teenage pursuits” Mercer points to. Percy clearly has a gift for words – we hear a few snatches of some romantic poetry - but he is also something of an extroverted showman. He is explicitly characterized as an “irresponsible narcissist”. Percy is also dismissive of others – ridiculing or humiliating those who disagree with him – including Mary.

As for his relationship with Mary, in the course of approximately one year, he repeatedly lies to her, sleeps with her half-sister Claire, maybe sleeps with Byron (whose very public kiss on the lips Percy does not refuse), is psychologically and verbally abusive to Mary and demonstrates an alarming facility for mansplaining. Unlike the real Percy who remained with Mary until his death, Movie Percy abandons her for months in her hour of need after stealing the credit for her book. Yikes. This Percy spends much of his time drunk - swigging directly from the bottle (the real one was a vegetarian teetotaler). He plays an abject fanboy to Byron's rock star, which is such a disappointment given the deep, complex and abiding relationship these two towering intellects developed in real life - there is no hint whatsoever of this.  Oh, and according to the movie he literally causes the death of their first child. He’s quite a catch, isn’t he!?

But maybe he is smart? Well, while we occasionally see Percy scribbling on scraps of paper, there is very little evidence that he has produced anything of significance whatsoever. There are suggestions that he is famous. For example, he is implausibly identified as “the poet Shelley” and asked for an “autograph” by two star-struck young women in the park (he complies with what actually appears to be a ball point pen!). The real Shelley was of course almost completely unknown and how anyone could have identified him in an age before photography and celebrity magazines is difficult to ascertain. So, it would appear on the one hand that Movie Percy is “airport famous”. But on the other hand, we are treated to scenes in which we see him angry, sullen and despondent when his poetry is rejected by publisher.  So which is it? Airport famous or rejected-poet-in-the-garret? Movie Percy never discusses with Movie Mary any of the sophisticated philosophical theories for which his real counterpart was famous. Despite what appears to be a fetish for books, we never see him actually reading one - either alone or with Mary. This is something for which the real couple were well known; their book lists are legendary. Late in the movie, after he has read Mary’s novel, he bursts in upon her with empty praise for its brilliance and then offers one of the most astoundingly stupid, mansplained editorial suggestions in the history of literature.  Thus, the movie version of Percy which al-Mansour offers us is actually a bit of a dullard.

But does he have money? He certainly appears to: swaggering into Mary’s home and promising to lavish money on the Godwin family.  After eloping, he and Mary move into a fashionable address in Bloomsbury (something the real Percy did not do and could never have afforded). 

The characters in Bloomsbury where the Shelleys never lived.

The characters in Bloomsbury where the Shelleys never lived.

There they live in luxury until it turns out he has no means of support beyond an allowance from his father - which is promptly cut off causing the creditors to descend. Uh oh – he lied about that too.

Do I have any takers for this cretin?  al-Mansour has one: Mary Shelley. The question is why? Those familiar with the biography of the real Percy can readily understand why a precocious young genius like Mary would chose to be with him. She sought out an equal – just as he did. For all his faults, the real Shelley was nothing like the dim-witted, pretty-boy showcased in Mary Shelley. But what would be the motivation for Movie Mary to pick Movie Percy?

Mary Shelley. This character is a preternaturally brilliant and drop dead gorgeous teenage girl with aspirations to write.

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley, shown here having her hair carefully arranged, because, well, you know, people's hair in 1816 was perfect.

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley, shown here having her hair carefully arranged, because, well, you know, people's hair in 1816 was perfect.

She overcomes a tyrannical step-mother (I am not making this up) who opposes her interest in books and writing. She has a befuddled father who owns a book shop and seems to live with his head in the clouds but who offers her perhaps the crucial piece of advice in the film: that she, must “find her own voice” and ignore what other people have to say.  Movie Mary is presented as a character with a strong moral compass who reveres her dead mother and cares for everyone around her. She is driven, passionate, self-assured and inspiring. She is not cowed in the presence of Lord Byron, instead stands up to him at a critical point, getting, as they say, “right up in his grill”.  She forces Byron (played in a preposterously over the top manner by Tom Sturridge) to take responsibility for the daughter he fathered with Claire – in real life it was Percy who undertook this tricky and distasteful task.

It is widely believed that Frankenstein was written in response to Lord Byron’s challenge that his guests at the Villa Diodati (Percy, Mary, Claire and Dr John Polidori) compose a “ghost story”. In our movie, only Mary and Polidori rise to the occasion – Percy and Lord Byron being too piss drunk to do much more than fall about the room – at one point Byron actually leaps on a divan and imitates a baboon replete with monkey noises. Embarrassing. But Mary overcomes all of this! Back in London, and with zero support from her hopeless boyfriend, and her father’s voice literally ringing in her ears (“do it yourself baby!”), she writes all 60,000 words of Frankenstein in the course of a single night – pausing only for a midnight snack.  She triumphantly slaps it down on a bewildered Percy’s writing desk first thing the next morning. “Take that, you deadbeat” one can imagine her saying before she turns on her heel and storms out of the room.  Mary also, entirely on her own, arranges to have her book published, having faced down a blizzard of rejection notices (the world of early 19th century publishing being imagined as identical to our modern version – it was not). In real life it was Percy who found a publisher for the novel.

Boom!  What a superwoman.  Which begs the question: what does this superwoman want with that superloser. The movie provides absolutely no satisfactory answers.  But boy, does this gal want her man.

Mary Shelley, is, however, more than a movie about “boy meets girl” – or at least it pretends to be. It is about the creative process itself.  How the heck did one of the most famous novels of all time actually get written? Alas, al-Mansour seems to have replaced the “great man” theory of history with the “great woman” theory. Mary works entirely in isolation. In contrast with the real Mary Shelley who was an extraordinarily voracious reader, the movie Mary appears to read nothing. She relies instead on her own sources of inspiration. And here they are: the ghost stories of her childhood, the death of her mother and her daughter Clara, the abuse and abandonment she suffers at the hand of Percy, a demonstration of galvanism, an article on galvanism supplied by Polidori, and a dream in which a corpse is brought to life.  This raw material is sufficient to allow her to produce a complex 60,000 word novel in a single night. This is not how creativity works; at least not Mary's.

One of the grievous sins of this movie is that it utterly removes Mary from her intellectual milieu. she is presented as the archetypal lonely genius. Anyone who has an even remote familiarity with Mary, Percy and their circle will know that they had a thriving network of brilliant friends all of whom fed off one another.  This portrait brilliantly emerges from the pages of Daisy Hay's wonderful book, Young Romantics. For example, we know for a fact that Shelley played a large role in influencing the Wordsworthian character of Childe Harolde, Canto III. This famous Canto was written while the group was at the Villa Diodati during the summer of 1816. In the movie, Mary and Percy do visit Byron, but the entire episode is presented like a sort of weekend bachanal during which Percy and Byron are far too drunk to write a single world let alone discuss poetry. Mary was an active participant in this circle. In reviewing Hay's book, Michael Holroyd noted:

“The originality of this engrossing narrative comes from Daisy Hay's unusual focus on the passionate allegiances and literary influences between her characters. With great skill she weaves in and out of the lives of these poets, novelists, and philosophers, their husbands, wives, lovers, and children, exploring the dual nature of the creative impulse, its individuality, and the stimulus of kindred spirits. It is a most impressive achievement.”

These are facts.  And they are not unknown facts.  For someone like al-Mansour, who proudly notes that she was a literature major, to have missed a book like this is irresponsible.

The real Mary actively collaborated with the real Percy - and she was inspired by the writing of many famous people, including her mother and father and classical Greeks such as Aeschylus whose plays she was familliar with through Percy.  Aeschylus' play Prometheus Bound played a large role in the novel Frankenstein which was, after all, subtitled, The Modern Prometheus. Percy Bysshe Shelley himself actually contributed around 5,000 words to Frankenstein and made editorial suggestions - this is a small but significant role. This is not speculation and al-Mansour simply could not have missed this fact - an entire book was written on the subject by a distinguished professor of literature, Charles Robinson.

Note the credit.

Note the credit.

The actual manuscripts exist at the Bodleian Library at Oxford – and there you can see the marginal suggestions he made and the contrasting handwriting.  But nope! Not Movie Mary, she does it alone.  Oh, and she does it exclusively in pencil when every single version we have of the manuscripts is in ink.

A page of Frankenstein on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Percy's handwriting is the dark ink, Mary's in a lighter ink.

A page of Frankenstein on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Percy's handwriting is the dark ink, Mary's in a lighter ink.

The concept of great art as something created in a vacuum is an idea that has been dying a slow and richly deserved death. And in the case of Mary and Percy, we know for a fact that the two of them collaborated on Frankenstein.  This doesn’t weaken Mary’s claim to authorship – it enriches it.  Two brilliant people worked together; each respectful of the other’s genius.  What a story that would be!  Except that is not the story al-Mansour tells.  She had an opportunity to celebrate one of the more unusual creative partnerships in history. Instead, in order to uplift Mary, she felt it necessary smash Percy to atoms and deny his collaborative role in the creation of Frankenstein. Worse, it distorts Mary's actual creative process. We have her journals! We know that she laboured over the manuscript for months even years: polishing, honing, researching and rewriting. What agenda does it serve to lead people (particularly the young people to whom this movie seems to be pitched given the casting of heart-throbs) to believe that writing a 60,000 word masterpiece is something that happens overnight? Leonard Cohen famously took 6 or more years to write Hallelujah.

al-Mansour has effectively stolen Mary's world from her and replaced it with something almost sterile and antiseptic - despite all of the Hollywood melodrama. How much richer and more exciting was Mary's real life.

This sums it all up. Elle Fanning with her perfect hair and ever present pencil working in isolation seeking inspiration only from her own experiences.

This sums it all up. Elle Fanning with her perfect hair and ever present pencil working in isolation seeking inspiration only from her own experiences.

How bad does this get? At the end of the movie, Mary’s father brings together a group of people at his bookshop – ostensibly to celebrate the publication of Frankenstein but actually to allow for a staged confession by Percy.  Like so many of the scenes in the film, this never happened.  But who cares, this is Hollywood, right?


Settle in, boys and girls, here is how our fairy tale ends.  Mary, tipped off to the meeting by her father, sneaks into the gathering unobserved and hides in a corner.  Godwin thanks the assembled throng of aged, whiskered, white males for coming. He notes that the novel was published anonymously. It is further alleged that Percy capitalized on this by writing a signed introduction which he knew would invite the world to conclude he had written the novel. Mary and Polidori in a scene just prior to this, point blank allege that Percy stole the credit.

Godwin then offers a precis of the novel which incredibly casts Percy in the role of Victor Frankenstein and Mary in the role of the monster. He says it is a novel about:

…the absolute necessity for human connection. From the moment Dr. Frankenstein’s creature opens its eyes it seeks the touch of its creator, but he recoils in terror leaving the creature to the first of its many experiences of neglect and isolation. And if only Frankenstein had been able to bestow upon his creation a compassionate touch, a kind word, what a tragedy might have been avoided.

Wow.  Just wow.  At this point Percy slips into the room to applause. He pauses for dramatic effect, makes eye contact with Mary and begins:

“I know many of you wonder who could have written this horrific tale and why it was published anonymously. I see some of you suggest the work belongs to me. Indeed, you could say the work would not exist without my contribution. But to my shame, the only claim I remotely have to this work is inspiring the desperate loneliness that defines Frankenstein’s creature.  The author [voice breaking] of Frankenstein is of course, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin. It is a work of singular genius and she is indebted to no one in its creation.”

This we know, as a matter of public record, is a lie. But as a mea culpa, it is a tour de force and Movie Percy executes it with every ounce of his formidable masculine charm. We are now at the moment of truth, are we not? How does this powerful, vindicated woman respond to her abuser? Slap him and leave the room? Throw a drink in his face? Sue him? Surely if we are all honest with ourselves we are rooting for her to give him the heave ho. But no. In this perverse fairy tale, the abused must take back her abuser. Because, what?  That’s true love!?!?! Whoa.

In any event, Percy’s confession produces the desired cinematic result. Here are the last words spoken in the movie:

MWG:        Percy?
PBS:           Mary?
MWG:        I really thought you’d left for good.
PBS:           I never promised you a life without misery. But I underestimated the depths of despair that I regret you had to endure.
MWG:        I lost everything to be with you Percy. We set out to create something wonderful. Something beautiful. But something volatile seethed within us. Behold, the monster, galvanized. [referring to herself]. But if I had not learned to fight through the anguish, I would not have found this voice again. My choices made me who I am and I regret nothing.

Kiss and fade to black.

ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME. This? This is the moral of our fairy tale? Is this a role model for young women? If you are going to create a fairy tale which pays scant attention to the truth, why would you have your protagonist absolve her abuser in such an abject manner and take him back. This is not empowering. Surely a 21st Century happy-ending would see Movie Mary smack Movie Percy upside the head and walk out on him (or at least read the rat-bastard the riot act). That ending would at least have been consistent with the facts of the movie. That ending would have had me on my feet.  As it stands, the movie utterly fails to provide any motivation for Mary to take Percy back. That, ladies and gentlemen, is one helluva plot failure.

In addition to the wholesale rewriting and manipulation of history, errors abound, some of them egregious and some benign.  For example, one of the end title cards notes that Byron’s daughter died at the age of ten – this is not true, she died in 1822 at age 5.  For a mistake like this to have slipped by the people involved with the movie speaks volumes about their concern for the truth. The cavalier rearrangement of the truth to suit the movie’s plot line is characteristic of the movie.  It feels at times like the lives of Mary and Percy are reduced to the status of stage props to suit a theory held by the creative team of Mary Shelley. 

What makes this a truly bad movie is that is aspired to be so much more and fell so dramatically short.  Unlike a superficial and trite film like Ken Russell’s atrocious Gothic, Mary Shelley aspires to be taken very, very seriously.  And, sadly it will be taken seriously. Mary Shelley has the potential to corrupt the way people think about Mary and Percy for a generation. And this is unfortunate because the movie has appropriated and distorted one of the most important and nuanced creative relationships that we know of, and renders it in flat, monochrome colours. The protagonists of this film should be role models for no one. This is not how Frankenstein was written; this is not how their lives were lived.

Had al-Mansour confined herself to recounting the actual facts surrounding the creation of Frankenstein, her movie would have been so much more compelling and satisfying, because the story would ring true. Mary Shelley could have offered a much better insight into the creative process involved in the writing of Frankenstein and two of the greatest literary talents in the English language. It could have told the truth, and the truth matters.

Good lord.  What did we expect?

Good lord.  What did we expect?