Emma Jensen: Imagining Mary Shelley

July 12, 2018
Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen talks about her process in writing the new biopic of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.

What put you on the path to writing a screenplay about Mary Shelley?

It’s been a long time gestating. It probably started back in grade 12 when I first had to read Frankenstein for school. Even back then I remember being just so taken by the fact that this groundbreaking story had been written by this young woman. A few years later, I was reading more about Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley’s relationship, which was part of the debate around Shelley and that divide between The Artist and The Man – what he created and what he put forth for humanity, versus the way he moved through the world and his relationships with Mary and other women that he was involved with. That was fascinating to me, and I think the final push was re-reading Frankenstein again and specifically Mary’s prologue where she speaks about being an aspiring writer in search of her story. I was so taken with what she said and began to read more about her and thought, ‘Why has this story not been told on screen?’ I mean yes, we’ve seen Mary through various incarnations in the sense of the foursome of Byron, Shelley, and Claire Claremont and the famous night in Geneva with the ghost story challenge, but no one had told her story. So, I spent years thinking about it until back in 2011 I thought well, I guess maybe I’ll give it a go.

We’ve seen at least parts of Mary’s story on screen before, from the 1930s James Whale Frankenstein movies through to Ken Russell’s Gothic. How does your take differ?

I feel that it had been told more through the male lens and so the point of difference with Mary Shelley is that it is absolutely her point of view. It’s a very singular vision and she is the protagonist of the story. And within that space and with me wrestling with the question of what do I tell of this amazing life, where do you start, where do you finish, it became apparent that it was in the prologue, the process of how this young woman came to write Frankenstein. So, that choice, to focus on those years, very much informed my decisions, and it would be very much Mary’s story. Percy Shelley is part of that, there’s absolutely no getting around that, and we demonstrate his contributions insofar that he supported her. He wanted Mary to achieve as a writer and to tell that story.

Outside of the writing of Frankestein, Mary had a remarkable life. Were there other areas or periods you were tempted to explore?

Absolutely. Those early years when she was being raised by [her father William] Godwin, a child with a vivid imagination inspired by ghost stories and stories of the supernatural – that was very rich territory. And she was a young girl who didn’t have a mother, and she had a father who was incapable of showing warmth, although he loved her in his way and encouraged her. But I felt there was a point where we had to come into the story prior to her first meeting with Shelley.

Even in the years that it spans I had to make choices – Mary lost more children than we see on screen but that was a challenge to juggle that within the narrative – how do you manage the various pregnancies? What was really quite a radical departure was that Mary and Percy had run off together with [Mary’s stepsister] Claire Clairmont in tow and gone to Europe, but I just felt that sounded expensive! And so, being mindful of the budget, we brought that dynamic into London.

But yes, it always seemed to me that the story I was telling would end with the writing of Frankenstein.

How do you balance wanting to be true to your research with the demands of cinematic storytelling. 

I love a bit of history, I love diving into that, and I think that once you do there’s always the temptation to see what else you can uncover. In the case of Mary, at the time of writing I read some very strong biographies about her, as well as reading about Byron and Shelley, and also the letters and the journals that were published. But there is a moment where you have to step away from that. You have to make the decision of when to step away from the truth, try to keep the integrity of what was happening for Mary, but you have to find a way to demonstrate that on screen, and to progress time forward, or to condense time. That’s the trick; not getting consumed by the research.

Given the film takes place in a time before women’s liberation, and your main character is a writer, were you concerned about how you would show Mary’s agency in the script? That she could come across as too passive or constrained by her culture?

The thing that was challenging in crafting Mary was that I felt there was a very quiet, strong determination, almost introverted I suppose, where the action is often dominated by the larger than life characters of Shelley and Claire, and so how then do you move this woman through the story given that she isn’t always going to be the agent of change? That was always a challenge for me – to make her strong without then going too over the top into making her not of her time. I tried to keep an integrity in regards to what it meant to be a strong woman in that space at that time, and also making her accessible as well.

Was it a challenge to dramatise the act of writing? 

The interesting thing about Mary’s story is that she hadn’t actually written much in these years, and then she sat down and wrote Frankenstein. So, there was also another challenge in there: how do you suggest someone on a journey as a writer, about to give birth to this groundbreaking piece of work? She’s not really there writing or practising. The challenge was trying to create a writer who was gestating, who was bringing ideas in. It was a challenge, because there’s pretty much nothing less interesting than watching someone write.

Mary Shelley is in cinemas now. Read our review here

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