Elle Fanning in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. Supplied by Transmission Films.
Elle Fanning in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. Supplied by Transmission Films.

Mary Shelley's story bigger than monster

A rainy, dreary winter's day seems like the perfect time to talk about Frankenstein's monster. Mary Shelley's monster is still firmly embedded in the cultural zeitgeist two centuries after her Gothic novel was published.

He has taken on many forms over the years, the most popular being the green giant with bolts sticking out of his neck.

But few know the real-life circumstances that inspired him, until now.

Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen is the creative mind behind the period biopic Mary Shelley that depicts the love affair between poet Percy Bysse Shelley and 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin that resulted in Mary writing Frankenstein.

"I read it in high school as part of our Grade 12 curriculum, but at the time you don't fully appreciate it," she says.

"A few years later I read about Percy Shelley and the relationship with Mary - the divide between the artist and the man - and that was fascinating to me. A few years later I re-read Frankenstein and Mary's prologue and really grasped what her life was and the journey it took her to create this groundbreaking work. I thought 'Why has nobody told this story?'

Kingscliff-based screenwriter Emma Jensen wrote the screenplay for the Mary Shelley film starring Elle Fanning. Supplied by Transmission Films.
Kingscliff-based screenwriter Emma Jensen wrote the screenplay for the Mary Shelley film starring Elle Fanning. Supplied by Transmission Films.

"I was working in film development at the time but I wasn't working in companies where we could tell this story. It was not something I felt I could pursue in that capacity, but when I finally started writing I found still no one's told this story."

Although Jensen has worked in the screen industry for nearly two decades, Mary Shelley is her first screenplay to be picked up for a feature film.

She was delighted when acclaimed Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour came on board to direct the drama.

"It was really gratifying that she had responded to it in that way," she says.

"(Her award-winning feature film debut) Wadjda had not long been released at that point and there were a lot of questions about what Haifaa was going to do next. I could see what in Mary's story she responded to.

"It's a marriage of our backgrounds and that shared experience of what it means to be a woman and a creative."

Douglas Booth and Elle Fanning in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. Supplied by Transmission Films.
Douglas Booth and Elle Fanning in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. Supplied by Transmission Films.

Raised by a renowned philosopher father in 18th-century London, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) is a teenage dreamer determined to make her mark on the world when she meets the dashing and brilliant poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth).

So begins a torrid, bohemian love affair marked by both passion and personal tragedy that will transform Mary and fuel the writing of her Gothic masterwork.

Jensen says the casting of Fanning, younger sister of actress Dakota Fanning, was key to the film's success.

"Elle was top of the list from the outset. I believe she was the first actress we reached out to," she says.

"Even at the time I didn't fully appreciate what she would bring to the role, the level of wisdom and insight. You get the sense there's this whole life lived in this woman. It's a beautiful performance, and as a writer you couldn't hope for better."

Bel Powley, Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth and Tom Sturridge in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. Supplied by Transmission Films.
Bel Powley, Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth and Tom Sturridge in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. Supplied by Transmission Films.

Jensen says the film's explorations of equality, gender roles, non-conventional relationships and finding your own voice are just as relevant in the current #metoo movement as they were 200 years ago.

"The framework changes but the struggle remains," Jensen says.

"Where this landed at this particular time couldn't be better timing to be part of the conversation and that challenge that still faces women in the creative industry and beyond."

Mary Shelley opens in cinemas tomorrow.


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