Haifaa Al Mansour tells us how Mary Shelley inspired her to make a feminist film about the Gothic writer, not her monster
Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al Mansour on why she brought Frankenstein’s creator to life
Haifaa Al Mansour is accustomed to breaking down barriers.
As Saudi Arabia’s first female director, her debut film, Wadjda (2012), was about an 11-year-old girl who defies convention to raise money for a coveted-but-forbidden green bicycle.
A critical and box office success – and made in a kingdom without cinemas – Wadjda was Saudi Arabia’s first film submission to the Academy Awards, in 2013.
On Saturday, Al Mansour was on the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival for another first, the world premiere of her second film, Mary Shelley.
At her side was the cast, including Elle Fanning, who stars as the title character, the 18-year-old author of Gothic horror classic Frankenstein.
The screening marks a new chapter for Al Mansour; breaking into the English-speaking film market. Unveiling Mary Shelley on the high-profile opening weekend of this film festival, known for its Oscar bellwether reputation, guarantees attention. It’s good for Mary Shelley, which debuted at the festival looking for a distribution deal that will get it into theatres.
Film trade paper Variety listed it as one of a dozen titles “likely” to spark bidding wars at the festival. “[Elle] Fanning has threatened to break out in a big way for years. This could be the role that makes her a household name,” wrote senior film and media editor, Brent Lang.
The drama centres on a few significant years in the life of young writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Inspired by her late mother, 18th-century feminist author and rights’ advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary was determined to live the same kind of “unconventional life” as she had.
Al Mansour said part of what attracted her to the film was Mary’s refusal to be defined by her relationships with the men in her life.
“She wanted to be her own [person], to find her voice,” says Al Mansour. “For us women, it is a shared womanhood to celebrate her.”
Mary was determined to follow her heart, to write and live as she pleased.
At the age of 16, she became involved with the man she was convinced was her soulmate, 21-year-old poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (played by English actor Douglas Booth).
Their relationship was tempestuous. Heartbreak and turmoil followed.
Two years later, as the couple spent a summer at the Swiss estate of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), the poet challenged his guests to a contest to write the best ghost story. Mary’s sense of abandonment by Shelley inspired the horror story about a tormented man-made creature who feels despair at being rejected by the scientist who created him.
The purpose of her film, Al Mansour says, was to link the writing of the novel to Mary’s life. “The book is not about the monster,” she says. “It is about a girl who was just 18, who was brave enough to write something like that.”
Although Mary lived 200 years ago, Al Mansour feels an affinity with her. “I feel her journey and I feel kinship and that great sense of womanhood that transcends beyond culture and religion and politics, and all that.”
The sense of the familiar she found in Mary’s story was one of the things which led to her taking on the film.
“I felt like Mary’s journey, coming of age in a very conservative society at the time, I wouldn’t say it was exactly like Saudi Arabia or like the Middle East, but in a way women were expected to fulfill a certain image [then] and act in a certain way,” she says. “But she did not conform to that.”
At that time in Britain, Jane Austen was “the star of the female writers and [her] books were all about the social critique and marriage and love,” says Al Mansour, who studied literature, including Frankenstein, at university.
But Mary chose a different, audacious writing style. In the film, we see her as a girl, sitting in a graveyard and writing ghost stories to scare her younger stepsisters. Born from nightmares, the loss of a child and her unbearable loneliness in the relationship with Shelley, she created one of popular culture’s most recognisable horror figures.
Her story became the novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. But getting it into print was challenging. No publisher wanted to buy a book with this kind of shocking story written by a woman, or even believed she was the author. Mary prevailed, encouraged by Shelley, whom she later married.
The novel was published in 1818 and went on to become part of popular culture. Much of that is also down to Hollywood and Boris Karloff’s towering creature which made its debut in Frankenstein in 1931. The monster then evolved into the more sympathetic, hounded version from Shelley’s novel in the film Bride of Frankenstein, released four years later.
With his flat head, neck bolts and stiff-legged gait, this is the monster that took over movie screens for decades, featured in more than 50 films and lurched into television, music, comic books and more. Originally, he was part-fallen angel victim, part furious demon, unable to overcome murderous impulses from the criminal brain he was given in the laboratory.
Or, he is filled with rage that the doctor who stitched him together from body parts in the hope of creating an ideal man is now repulsed by the misshapen, hulking creation.
Al Mansour’s addition to the Frankenstein canon has no monsters. Mary Shelley is a feminist film, a women’s story about Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), told from a female perspective and made with a large number of women in the film crew.
“I love working with women,” Al Mansour says, adding she finds they are collaborative and don’t question her authority on-set.
“I worked in Saudi Arabia and worked in the West. The West is a little better, but you still face those people who are not willing to give authority to a woman,” she says, observing, “it’s emotionally draining every day to explain to them [men] that they have to do their job and they have to look you in the eye. But when you deal with women that’s a barrier that’s not there.”
Booth says he was drawn to the role of Shelley in part because of the feminist story. He praises Al Mansour as “a wonderful firecracker of a woman”.
“And I very much saw that Haifaa’s journey was one that was similar to Mary Wollstonecraft’s,” he says.
“I just thought, if anyone can understand what Mary was going through, and that need to tell your story in such a misogynistic environment where people didn’t think you should have a voice purely based on your sex, but to defy them like Mary defied them back then, I thought it was a perfect pairing.”
Al Mansour was only in Toronto for the weekend and has returned to Atlanta, Georgia where she is making her next film, Nappily Ever After, for streaming service Netflix.
She hopes to start filming Be Safe I Love You, next year, “a coming-home story of a female solder working in Iraq,” but much depends on funding.
And then there’s her next film to be made in Saudi Arabia – about another woman who finds her voice and chooses to use it: The Perfect Candidate is about a young female physician who runs for municipal office.