Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval’s relationship in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is markedly intimate, perhaps even homoerotic. It is surprising, then, that the two are mere acquaintances in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One might perceive this change in their relationship as a mere byproduct of the adaptation from book to film; but, in the act of disassembling Victor and Henry’s relationship, Branagh brings Victor’s relationship with Elizabeth to the foreground, thus sacrificing a meaningful platonic relationship for a romantic one.
In this essay, I will analyze the content of Branagh’s film to argue that the disintegration of Victor and Henry’s relationship projects a heteronormative reading onto Shelley’s novel. The formal changes the film makes regarding narrative structure are inherently entwined with its gender politics, specifically those regarding male platonic relationships. Branagh’s revision suggests that healthy male platonic relationships compromise hegemonic conceptions of masculinity, and as such male platonic relationships are viewed as a threat to heterosexual relationships. Since audiences conditioned by these gender norms have come to expect this paradigm in the media they consume, the egregious error of erasing Victor and Henry’s relationship may go unnoticed. However, Branagh almost entirely removes Henry from Victor’s frame of reference, thus eradicating the healing effect of their friendship on Victor. A comparison of scenes from Branagh’s film with the source text illustrates the extent to which Victor and Henry’s relationship is censored for an audience conditioned to prioritize the models of toxic heterosexuality so prevalent in Hollywood romances over the much more complex model of male intimacy depicted in Shelley’s novel.
For example, Henry and Victor are lifelong friends in the source text. Victor informs Robert Walton, “my brothers were considerably younger than mw; but I had a friend in one of my schoolfellows, who compensated for this deficiency. Henry Clerval was the son of a merchant of Geneva, an intimate friend of my father” (Shelley 21). This information extends the bond between Victor and Henry beyond the scope of the narrative, providing readers with a context for their relationship. In the film, however, such context is not provided. Victor and Henry’s relationship in the film is presented as that which exists only through the audience’s gaze. As such, this relationship in the film (or lack thereof) is filtered through the viewer. Conversely, in the source text, Victor and Henry’s extensive history is briefly mentioned in Victor’s account to Walton but is not entirely disclosed, leaving the particulars of this history known only by the two men in that relationship. In this way, the film leaves their relationship on display for the viewer, whereas the source text allows the men to have undisclosed history, which strengthens the intimacy between them.
One notable instance of male intimacy in the novel takes place when Henry accompanies Victor on his Grand Tour in the hopes that Victor’s depression might be cured by travel. Victor recounts Henry fondly—romantically, even—when he reminisces about this particular trip:
He was a being formed in the “very poetry of nature.” His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the worldly-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination. (Shelley 130)
Victor’s unreserved happiness in recounting this trip to Walton is uncharacteristic of him, given that he has been in a constant state of despair in the novel up to this point. After all, it is this despair, which his father perceives as depression, that motivates him to take this trip in the first place. Indeed, in this scene, Henry and Henry alone is the source of Victor’s happiness.
Another notable instance of intimacy between the two men occurs after Henry’s death at the hands of the creature. This incident flings Victor into a fit of grief that lasts for months, the intensity of which surpasses his reaction to Elizabeth’s murder later in the novel. When Victor first views Henry’s body, he recounts, “the human frame could no longer support the agonizing suffering that I endured, and I was carried out of the room [in which Henry Clerval lay] in strong convulsions. A fever succeeded to this. I lay for two months on the point of death” (Shelley 148). Afterward, Victor awakens in police custody and discovers he is being charged with Henry’s murder. Victor’s main point of concern, however, is his loss of Henry. He even admits, “[I] often reflected I had better seek death than remain miserably pent up only to be let loose in a world replete with wretchedness” (150). He would, quite literally, rather die than be without Henry.
Meanwhile, when Victor discovers Elizabeth’s body, he reacts in a similar manner, but to a lesser degree: “[H]er bloodless arms and relaxed form [were] flung by the murderer on its bridal bier. Could I behold this, and live?… For a moment only did I lose recollection; I fainted… I recovered” (Shelley 165). One might argue that, with Elizabeth’s death being the final death that incentivizes him to pursue the creature, Victor has been numbed to his own sense of loss. At this point, Victor has nothing to lose, and his reaction would seem to support this point. However, I would suggest that Victor has nothing to lose because, at this point, Henry is already dead.
Perhaps because of its significance, Henry’s death is the only death that Victor foreshadows in his narrative to Robert Walton. Shortly after he recalls the trip he and Henry took together—but before he describes Henry’s murder—Victor muses:
[W]here does he now exist? Is this gentle and lovely being lost for ever [sic]? Has this mind so replete with ideas, imaginations fanciful and magnificent, which formed a world, whose existence depended on the life of its creator; has this mind perished? Does it now only exist in my memory? No, it is not thus; your form so divinely wrought, and beaming with beauty, has decayed, but your spirit still visits and consoles your unhappy friend. (Shelley 130)
In the novel’s chronology, Henry dies after Victor journeys to Scotland to finish creating the female creature, and at this point in the text, Victor has not yet arrived at Scotland. It is curious, then, that Henry’s (and not Elizabeth’s) death is the only one Victor foreshadows.
Branagh, in contrast, characterizes Victor and Henry’s friendship quite differently, beginning with their initial introduction. In the film, Victor and Henry first meet as students at Ingolstadt, bonding over Professor Kempe’s crude behavior and tyrannical teaching style. This plot point contradicts Shelley’s novel in two ways. Firstly, the film depicts Henry studying science, not languages; secondly, the film does not indicate that he and Victor grew up as close friends. The former point undercuts Henry’s role in the novel as an emblem of poetic sensibility, the very quality that brings Victor such happiness on their Grand Tour. The latter point sets up the peculiarly uncomfortable acquaintanceship that Henry and Victor maintain throughout the film’s duration. In the source text, Henry serves as a foil to Victor; he compliments Victor because he is markedly different from him. Yet, in the film, Henry and Victor are practically the same person, particularly in terms of Henry’s interest in reanimating life. Their only clear distinction in the film is Henry’s decision to not carry out Professor Waldman’s work, even though the film suggests he is capable of doing so. This distinction, as well as the intellectual similarities between the two characters, prevent them from forming an intimate relationship.
There are indeed points during the film when the two men appear to be growing more intimate, but these instances actually highlight Henry’s role as a plot device. For example, when Henry brings Victor soup while he recovers from pneumonia—but the audience recognizes he is also recovering from the shock of seeing the creature reanimated—Henry brings news that the cholera epidemic in the city has become out of hand. Victor interprets this news as a confirmation that the creature will die from the epidemic, which, of course, the audience knows will not come to pass. What appears to be a touching moment in which Henry cares for his friend is actually a moment entirely orchestrated for dramatic irony.
Another instance in which the two fail to establish an intimate connection occurs when Victor implores Henry to help him carry out the experiments that ultimately lead to the creature’s animation. In the source text, no one but Victor knows about the creature, and this contributes to his feelings of isolation. Curiously, in an attempt to create a sense of comradery between Victor and Henry via their shared knowledge about the creature, Branagh actually drives these characters apart. In the following exchange between the two men, Henry grows visibly concerned with Victor’s interests, particularly in regard to their religious and moral connotations:
VICTOR: Sooner or later, the best way to cheat death will be to create life.
HENRY: Now you’ve gone too far. There’s only one God, Victor.
VICTOR: No, leave God out of this. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)
This exchange takes place before Victor begins his experiments. Later, after Victor is set to begin his work, which is motivated by Professor Waldman’s untimely death, Victor justifies himself to Henry with the following statement: “I think, for the chance to defeat death and disease, to let everyone on this Earth have the chance of life, sustained, healthy life, to allow people who love each other to be together forever… For all of that, I think it’s a risk worth taking” (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).
Despite this justification, ultimately Henry refuses to aid Victor in his experiments. Victor then locks himself away in his laboratory, leaving Henry with full knowledge of his plans. In Shelley’s novel, however, Henry is ignorant of Victor’s work, and this ignorance contributes to his innocence. Meanwhile, Branagh exposes Henry to information that, instead of preserving his salutary position as a Romantic figure of sensibility, renders him a threat to Victor’s intellectual progress. As a result, Victor exiles him from his laboratory, solidifying the literal and metaphorical barriers between them.
As a result of these recurring, yet unsuccessful, attempts at intimacy, Henry’s fate after the fire at Victor’s family’s estate remains a mystery to Branagh’s audience. Whereas the novel depicts Henry’s death at the hands of the creature as the most traumatic event in Victor’s narrative, the film radically changes Henry’s fate. Henry is never attacked by the creature; he instead follows Victor to his family’s estate, where Victor attempts to reanimate Elizabeth after she is murdered by the creature. Victor is successful, but Elizabeth rejects him and commits suicide by shattering an oil lamp and engulfing herself in flames. The resulting blaze consumes Victor’s laboratory and eventually his family’s entire estate. In the last frame of the film in which Henry is present, he stops Victor in the foyer of his home and begs him to listen to reason. Because Henry is last shown inside the house, it is unclear whether he waits for Victor, which would result in his own demise, or whether he leaves. This ambiguity signals the movie’s clear disinterest in those particulars. And by the end of the film, this disinterest seems appropriate, given Henry’s role as a mere plot device. Victor has no vested interest in his friend, so why should the audience?
This new reading of Victor and Henry’s relationship, and the issues it generates, are the result of Branagh’s alteration of Shelley’s original narrative frame. Shelley’s novel depicts the story via Robert Walton’s letters to his sister. Walton’s letters are the vessel for the transmission of both Frankenstein’s and the creature’s narratives to readers. These letters are not, however, the work of Walton alone. In fact, Walton notes at one point that Victor has been aiding him in this act of transcription:
Frankenstein discovered that I made notes concerning his history: he asked to see them, and then himself corrected and augmented them in many places; but principally in giving the life and spirit to the conversations he held with his enemy. “Since you have preserved my narration,’ said he, ‘I would not that a mutilated one should go down in posterity.” (Shelley 179)
This admission reveals to readers that the narrative is a product of both Walton’s and Victor’s labor, all rendered in a single voice; there is no point in Victor’s story, or the text-within-the-text, that the reader can clearly identify where Walton’s narration begins and where Victor’s narration ends.
In contrast, Branagh’s film affords Victor sole narrative control. After Walton ushers him into his ship and bombards him with questions, Victor begins to tell the story of the creature’s creation and his own downfall. Victor’s voice fades into the beginning of the film and fades out of the end, implying that he has told the entirety of the story, from start to finish, without interruption or outside influence. This reformation of the frame narrative depicts Victor as articulating his truth. In this way, he is rendered solely responsible for the characterization of his relationship with Henry—and solely culpable for not conveying Henry’s fate after the fire. Because Henry’s whereabouts at the tale’s conclusion are considered unimportant in the scope of Victor’s grand tale, he excludes that information.
While Branagh’s film offers a fascinating examination of the relationship between Victor and the creature, the dissolution of Victor and Henry’s relationship in the film compromises an integral dimension of Victor’s characterization in the source text; his Romantic sensibilities are largely a result of Henry’s influence on him, and Henry’s marked absence in the film robs Victor of this facet. The film equates masculinity with overt heterosexuality; more specifically, the truly masculine male prioritizes a heterosexual relationship over healthy platonic relationships with other men. In addition to overtly sexualizing Victor’s last moments with Elizabeth—their “sex” scene takes up approximately two minutes of grueling screen time—Branagh deconstructs what is the most significant relationship in Victor’s life. Indeed, this is a rather dated view of gender politics, given that this movie was released around the beginning of the third-wave feminist movement, yet it is still the paradigm that many readers are brought up on. Continued iterations of this model of masculinity will prevent more progressive models of male intimacy—such as those depicted by Mary Shelley two hundred years ago—from coming to the fore.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Tristar Pictures, 1994.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Oxford UP, 2008.