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Review for Frankenstein (2004)

Posted on 2011.05.17 at 00:05

Frankenstein (2004) (TV miniseries)

     Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has always fascinated me. The first time I read it, I was twelve, perhaps a bit too young to grasp the complexities of the story, but I found it enjoyable and haunting. Throughout my academic career, I must have read it at least five times more for various classes, but rereading it was never a chore as I always found something meaningful with each new study. Being able to look at it with more mature eyes, I realised that what touched me most deeply each time was the Creature's eloquence when he describes his experiences to his creator. There's such dignity in his words, such an astounding view of a refined and noble mind, and there is no mistaking his heartbreaking desperation to be loved. Even in the midst of the Creature confessing to having caused the deaths of William and Justine, even when he proclaims that if he cannot inspire love he would instead cause fear (Ch. 10), it is nothing but a cry for affection, a last despairing plead of a child to his parent to care for him. It gets me every time.

     So I've spent a long time trying to see every version that was made, even the ones that are marginally related like the innumerable Hammer Horror films with Peter Cushing, which really have more to do with my B-horror cult-love for Peter Cushing than for my search in trying to extract something meaningful in relation to the story of Frankenstein. The Boris Karloff version (1931) is delightful film noir, the haunting shades of grey making a spectacularly expressive face for the Creature, but what is most meaningful to me of the original story, the Creature's display of intellect and quiet nobility, is completely obliterated, having reduced the Creature to nothing more than a grunting monster who plods his way across the film set terrorising the other characters. While there are many other versions, the other one of note, Kenneth Branagh's film (1994), did a pleasant job with Robert DeNiro as the Creature, although I was more impressed with Branagh's performance than with DeNiro's who still sounded, looked and acted like "DeNiro playing the Creature." I found it disappointing and completely unmoving.*

     I had been meaning to see the 2004 film/series/version for some time, but like many things on my to-do list, it got pushed to the back until one of my friends told me it was her favourite version. So I made it a priority. I wasn't certain what to expect having never seen Alec Newman, Nicole Lewis, or Richard Rowlands in anything prior. While I've enjoyed William Hurt and Donald Sutherland in other roles, I knew that despite having high billing, they couldn't be relied upon to carry the story, being cast in periphery parts. Although some people may disagree with me when I say this, and I think they might have just cause to debate, Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein didn't matter to me although he's on the screen more than anyone else, as I thought that the lion's share of what would make or break this version depended on Luke Goss as the Creature.

     I'd seen Luke Goss only in one other role, that of Prince Nuada in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I wasn't a huge Hellboy fan, liked Ron Perlman in some stuff, wasn't too keen on the first film, but saw the second because I'm a completist... and as everyone in my acquaintance knows, I did a complete 180... and you guessed it, all because I thought Prince Nuada was one awe-inspiring character. Still and all, Luke Goss may have nailed Prince Nuada, but I wasn't entirely convinced he'd be up to the task of a character from classic literature which had been performed a hundred and one times before him. I was eager to find out.

     ...And find out I did. 

     I thought it was a very faithful adaptation of the book, a thing which pleased me greatly. While I am not against a creative industry taking artistic license with a story since this can often produce something unique, unusual and very much appreciated, a faithful rendition of Frankenstein was something which had been sorely missing from the index of films and other visual media. I had my pet peeves though. I thought Alec Newman played Victor Frankenstein as a much too whiny and angst-ridden coward, forever brooding, even before he had anything to truly brood about. With Nicole Lewis playing a sufficiently dull version of the angel-of-the-house Elizabeth, I could not help but find myself bored with most scenes in which she played a part, to the point that I began paying more attention her very noticeable dark roots in her otherwise fair hair than to anything she was doing on screen. William Hurt, while mostly enjoyable, is the only one to sport a heavy accent, a thing which he would have been better off without. I thought Donald Sutherland's character was a bit too self-righteous, but I suspected that was more a flaw in the script than in his acting. I know reading the above, it sounds like I wasn't terribly impressed, and I suppose, with much of it, I wasn't, but it was faithful to the story, had beautiful surroundings, and explored the original story's themes and aspects with greater depth. I did like it overall.

     The treatment of the Creature features largely in why I view this version so highly. I appreciated the fact that, rather than going for the shock- or horror- factor as most other visuals tend to do with masses of unnecessary scarring or unusual metallic neck ornaments, the Creature's physical appearance was taken directly from the book:
"I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips." (Ch 5)

The appearance of the Creature is therefore not monstrous by definition but, rather, unnatural and disturbing. I definitely gave this significant weight as a visual of 'monster' undermines the humanity of the Creature, and despite whatever else he may be, he is human, subject to the same emotions and needs. Full points for that.
     However, the Creature is not just some grunting prop whose sole requirement is to visually disconcert the audience. Of ultimate importance was the portrayal. In this, how could I have ever been fool enough to doubt that Luke Goss would be anything other than spectacular? Everything that I had found powerful and emotive in Mary Shelley's novel, the same aspects which had fallen so flat or been removed all together in other versions, Luke Goss delivered flawlessly. The performance was so moving, so heart-wrenching, so honest. He made DeNiro look like a novice. I was awed. There was one scene however which felt too cliche although it was in no part due to the acting, only to the script, in which a mob forms and drives the Creature out of town -- I couldn't help but start singing The Mob Song from Disney's Beauty and the Beast ("It's a beast! One as tall as a mountain. We won't rest 'til he's good and deceased. Sally forth! Tally ho! Grab your sword! Grab your bow!" etc. There's always a mob, pitchforks at the ready, isn't there?). Still, despite a cliche scene, there is nothing cliche about Goss' performance. Having made the Creature's fragile hope of love and acceptance palpable, when the Creature is rejected, the audience cannot help but feel just as devastated and shattered as the Creature is himself. 

      If this version had featured a mediocre actor in the role of the Creature, the film would still have been a pleasant diversion, perhaps a bit more amusing if you're a fan of either Donald Sutherland or William Hurt, worthy of watching, but just once. However, Luke Goss makes this version so much more than merely diverting. He makes it superb with his subtlety, excellent intuition, and an innate understanding of what makes the story of Frankenstein so touching and tragic. It's a movie I will be certain to watch many more times and a project, I think, Luke Goss should be extremely proud of.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
*Just an aside, I really enjoy and appreciate Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) because the concept is just so overwhelmingly heartbreaking, but it's not a well-known or notable version, nor does it attempt to closely follow the novel, so I didn't wish to reference it in the review itself.

Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier

Posted on 2011.04.04 at 00:12
Current Mood: annoyedannoyed
Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: RoC Fantasy
Year: 2009

Warning: Unbecoming language (although highly expressive) and spoilers -- though if you haven't read it yet, I might be able to spare you hours of pointless tedium and aggravation and a couple dollars

     Juliet Marillier is a good writer. She writes very well actually. And she likes to revamp fairy tales, which is even more awesome. Her Sevenwaters Trilogy, which is a bestseller, was based upon the fairy tale of The Wild Swans, which was neat. So when I found out that she had done her own version of Beauty and the Beast called Heart's Blood, I was excited to read it. After all, Juliet Marillier is a well-established and respected fantasy author. I knew I wouldn't be wading through garbage... which is exactly what I ended up doing.

     How could it possibly be garbage, you ask, when Marillier, by my own admission, writes so well? And the answer is simple. Writing well is only one part of the job. The other part is to write a meaningful, interesting, engaging story with characters you have feelings for (whether love or hate), that will oblige you to read until the final page is turned. So yes, Juliet Marillier writes well, but her story, quite plainly, stinks.

     Marillier may have started with an interesting idea. She may have decided to take her Beauty and the Beast variation in a whole new direction, and I applaud this. However, when a whole new direction = boring beyond imagining, this is a bad thing. I never realised how dull an epic fantasy novel filled with deceit, treachery, a murderous spectral hoard, invading armies and torture could be... until I read Heart's Blood. It has all of it in there. Yes, there's treason and spirits and death and blood and battle all against the backdrop of old Ireland, but it was written in the same manner that someone would write a highschool short story which was told to include all those things: "And stuff happens, and there's something going on, an evil force, and then a war comes, and then there's a poisoning, and now I'm going to tell you who the villain is, and yeah, more stuff happens even though it doesn't really... and oh yeah, I forgot -- there's a ghost or two in here also." It was like she wrote a story and then said "yeah, well, there needs to be more, but I don't really care if it's there or not, but it looks good, gives the publishers something to say on the back cover."

     Looking at what the reviews say on the cover (at least on the paperback I have at hand -- I'd have to go down to the library to get my hardcover to see what's said there), "an engaging Gaelic fantasy romance starring two fascinating reluctant souls" (Genre Go Round Reviews), I was wondering if they put it on the wrong book. It was not "engaging." There was no romance (unless of course you are inclined to believe that romance consists of two people realising that they are male and female with anatomical pieces that fit together and decide they need to have a roll in the hay before war). No character was "fascinating." If anything, I thought they were annoying, trite and completely asinine. The entire book could be summed up like this: 

Girl: I'm broke. And this Heart's Blood is expensive.
Dude: You're touching my plant.
Girl: Oh, yes, I am touching your plant aren't I?
Dude: Well, stop.
Girl: But I need work.
Dude: Work...? Like that kind of --?
Girl: Hell no! Like reading and writing and stuff.
Dude: I could use that. I need someone desperate enough to do work for me.
Girl: So, do you like... bread?
Dude: Don't patronise me. I'm going to pout.
Girl: Oh. Um, you know, I've had trouble in my life, so I can lecture you about things.
Dude: Nuh-uh. I have worse troubles than you. So there. But you know what? I'm afraid.
Girl: I'm afraid too. But you should have hope.
Dude: Now I'm angry and I'm going to sulk like a child. Again. In fact, I'm going to hide up in my room. ALL ALONE. Ha, won't that make you feel bad.
Girl: Oh yes, I'll miss you.
Dude: That's it. I'm going.
Girl: Don't go!
Dude: Okay. You go. There, banished.
Girl: Fine. I love you, but I won't tell you. I'll angst about it while I'm going off and doing things. Without you.
Dude: Good, go and do things. I can angst here too about loving you. I'll do things, like have a war! With the Normans!
Girl: Maybe when I come back, we can have sex before the war, okay?
Dude: Sure, and then I'll get poisoned and everything that the readers figured out in the first hundred pages will now be revealed.
Girl: Don't forget to mention that there were ghosts and things.
Dude: Oh, right! Yeah, there were ghosts and things, but everything's better now.
Girl: Ahhhh. I love happily ever afters.

There, I just summed up 398 pages of tedious idiocy. No reason to read the book now. Besides -- and let's be honest -- my version is far more amusing. Still, let's look at the other quotations in praise of this snooze-worthy tome, shall we? "With her graceful storytelling and talent as a folklorist, [Marillier] crafts a love story with magical underpinnings," (Library Journal). Honestly, I don't see a heckuva lot of praise there save to say just what I have said, Marillier can write well. Yes, there's supposed to be a love story between the main characters which is thin at best, which Marillier crafts, yes, not of marble or clay but of soggy newspaper. Indeed, I'm inclined to believe that this was a negative review for the story in which the publishers took out the only remotely flattering thing the Library Journal said about it. Even on the front cover, it reads "Eminently readable" (Publishers Weekly). Well, yes, if you go by the writing, it is, as they say, "eminently readable" but if you go by the story, it's eminently sleep-inducing too.

     If this hadn't been a Beauty and the Beast variation, I would have put the book down for good after my first hour of reading. Nothing made me want to go on. The setting was bland, the characters inspired only apathy, and by page 97, I knew what would happen, who the malevolent force was, what her real identity happened to be, her history, and her motivation. Of course, I had to wait two hundred and fifty more pages until Juliet Marillier decided to reveal this great secret. I found it extremely insulting to my intelligence.

     Juliet Marillier, how stupid do you think your readers are? Just because you can't come up with a viable mystery doesn't mean I should have to wait two hundred and fifty pages for you to get to the point. Please, learn how to write a story before you attempt your next project?  Or, even better, do us all a favour and don't write anymore novels.

    I think she must have been getting paid by the word since most of the book is angst, questions, and confusion. Marillier strings words together well, but apparently, she lost sight of what a writer is supposed to do. A writer is not supposed to tell; a writer is supposed to show. But no, Marillier, riding on her bestseller status, pulls a Stephen King and says "to hell with good story, I can do whatever the hell I want now, even if it's unadulterated crap." There are pages upon pages upon more pages of the main female character asking questions to which other characters explain things to her at length. What kind of story is this? If I wanted to play twenty questions, I would have had a more lively game with my goldfish.

     At the end, I was so sick of the inanity that ran rampant with her characters, I was cursing every other sentence. At one point, when our heroine finally puts two and two together about the villain of the story within the last fifty pages of the book and she decides not to tell the hero about it -- despite the fact that the villain JUST POISONED HIM -- I exclaimed rather loudly, "you idiotic little bitch -- and this is why you have a near-400 page book, because you're too goddamn stupid to do anything that makes sense!" Of course, yelling at the character does no good when I should really be yelling at Juliet Marillier, but she doesn't care as she clearly shows by the travesty she attempts to pass off as a worthy work of fiction because she imagines readers are too stupid to realise it's just a load of garbage thrown together to give her a paycheck.

     Stay away. Please, stay away. If I didn't think it was beneath me to stop mid-read (as I've read so many dreadful things), I would have. I despised every moment I spent on this book. My friends were regaled with my laments every ten pages when I whined about how terrible and dull this book was. I only wish I had been given this advice.

     If you want more engaging reading, try A Monograph on the Varieties of Dirt Found Near the Vicinity of Merchant Banks and Other Commercial Locations Whereby Loans and the Exchanges of Monies Are Performed Regularly Since 1872 by John Smith Esq.

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