(AMC+/DirecTV/Shudder/VOD) This is the second in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley. Unlike MARY SHELLEY, A NIGHTMARE WAKES is far more about Mary writing FRANKENSTEIN, often through surreal vignettes, although first-time feature writer/director Nora Unkel also focuses on Mary’s tragic pregnancies and miscarriages. Unsurprisingly, the act of writing FRANKENSTEIN is rather bluntly portrayed in a way that may feel obvious, but works within the context of the film.
I was lukewarm about this take on Mary Shelley when I first watched it. It seemed rather reductive, and the plotting and visuals — especially the color timing — felt heavy-handed. However, after watching MARY SHELLEY, I saw them as two sides of the same coin. Each film neglects certain facets of her life, while highlighting what each filmmaker wanted to extoll and/or examine. Mary Shelley is a fascinating figure in that you can piece together her life in a myriad of ways; one can practically stitch together any narrative you want from her life. Consequently, it is far more telling about the writer/director than about Mary Shelley herself, and often about using the back-story of a person as a springboard for further social and cultural scrutiny.
I feel the ‘biopic’ label is one that viewers ascribe to films when they know it’s based on someone’s life, regardless of whether the film or work is intended as such; viewers often expect it to hew as close to reality and historic facts as possible. That’s not necessarily the case. I can understand some folks feeling ‘betrayed’ when the persona presented doesn’t align, and there are definitely moral quandaries that come with misrepresenting one’s life to tell your own tale.* However: these auteurs are adapting pre-existing works, except that the pre-existing work is someone’s life story.
I’d love to write more about similar extrapolations regarding recreating people’s lives and events (for another recent example, see: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… — no one knows exactly what went down when Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown met that night), whether this sort of personal pseudo-non-fiction is fan-fiction, the history of this sort of narrative handling, and how folks react differently to fictional portrayals of real people depending on the medium, but instead I’ll post a link to the A NIGHTMARE WAKES trailer:
“I feel like it’s a story. My story.”
- I am not a Mary Shelley scholar — I only know the basics of her life — so I can’t speak as to whether MARY SHELLEY or A NIGHTMARE WAKES betrayed her. I’ll note that I did previously recommend SHIRLEY, which I initially believed to willfully misrepresent Shirley Jackson’s life to tell another’s tale. However, I believe I was guilty of assuming the film would play by traditional biopic rules, and not be its own work, and later on ‘rediscovered’ the film regarding its intent.