It’s 2018, and some of the biggest films of the year have featured superheroes fighting the forces of evil, a trio of time-wrinkling beings, a massive virtual-reality video game, and terrifying otherworldly aliens that hunt by sound. Another film on the horizon doesn’t seem to have much in common with those… except that it has everything to do with them. Mary Shelley tells the story of the author who famously brought Frankenstein and its monster into the world — and arguably the genre of science fiction along with it.
Starring Elle Fanning as Mary, Shelley sketches out the young girl’s interest in the macabre (a favorite hangout is the grave of her mother, women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft), her love of writing, and her fated, sometimes fraught relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) — all of which led to that fated night when Lord Byron challenged his house guests to write a ghost story and the seeds of her iconic 1818 novel were born.
Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda) uses the lens of Mary Shelley’s life and relationship with Percy to show her as someone unabashedly herself, and says she wanted to give Shelley the level of recognition and understanding society has given her creation over two centuries. “It broke my heart that she struggled to publish her book and struggled to have her name on it, and she was dismissed just because of her gender,” she says. “I felt it such an important story to tell.”
Ahead of the film’s arrival in theaters on Friday, Al-Mansour spoke to EW about casting Fanning as Shelley, the messages she hopes the film has for women, and why people are still curious about the author behind the monster.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you become involved in the project?
HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: They sent me the script a while ago, and I was like, well, it’s a period film about an English woman, I’m not sure if I’m the right person for it. And then when I started reading the script; it was amazing to be closer to Mary Shelley’s life. I started reading about her and doing a lot of research, and it broke my heart that she struggled to publish her book and struggled to have her name on it, and she was dismissed just because of her gender. I felt it such an important story to tell. And I think it’s sad that it is still a modern story, where women can’t assert themselves — people almost take them for granted and dismiss them. I hope we realize that it is happening for so long. It’s about time to stop now.
Mary’s life was fairly scandalous at the time she was alive, in that very straight-laced 1800s English society. Did that interest you as a story to tell?
I felt like it was the moral choices she made — you wouldn’t have amazing literature if you don’t explore and break boundaries and live life to the fullest, and that is how they come up with amazing work. It wouldn’t be possible. I wrote the scene in the church [where Mary and Percy consummate their relationship] to show that they had to break the paradigms of their time and to make those heavy decisions. He’s married, and he didn’t see his daughter, and his wife killed herself. That is a bad situation, and we would feel bad that anybody has done that; you can’t sympathize with them, but you can understand where they come from. And I felt it was important to see them making those moral choices because it is not about right or wrong, it is about exploring with them and the heaviness that comes with that. That is what influenced her work and Percy’s work. It was important to show how they interacted with life.
What else about Mary interested you, as a historical figure and the main character in your film?
Definitely the book she wrote. I had so much admiration for her. I think that’s something that is very original, and it created a whole genre. She wasn’t trying to write about love or jealousy — it’s just hers completely, and it’s just amazing to see that. And for me, that is how we women should go about life. People try to give us guidance and expectations and even the way we dress, the way we look, the way we write, and even majors in college. And I think it is about time to rebel against that, and to make that cool. It is amazing to see young girls thinking being a mathematician is cool. And not only to be a model, or beautiful, or become a nurse. You want them to challenge that and to conquer fields that they love based purely on their passion, not because what people expect or what people want from them. And still, there are so many ways, especially in Saudi Arabia for sure, but even here in the West sometimes, it’s appalling to see girls limit themselves because of what is expected of them. That shouldn’t be that way.
Mary Shelley arguably created the first science-fiction novel, and it’s a genre that has since become enormously popular. But when people talk about women being interested in sci-fi or directing sci-fi projects, it’s still not considered the norm.
It is really appalling, right? And she is like the book, they describe the book as masculine, and it absolves everything she went through as a woman — losing a child, giving birth, and the exhaustive relationships she had with her husband. The book is almost like a mirror of her life … She was brave enough to face the world with something that is not expected, and they didn’t think that was feminine; women are not supposed to do that, they were supposed to be Jane Austen.
You’ve described this film as a coming-of-age story mixed with a love story. Did you always plan to focus on those specific elements instead of doing a traditional biopic?
Yeah, absolutely. There was so much that happened [in her life], and we needed to select things about her; we showed the relationship between her writing and her life. Because you want her to be recognized for that amazing, famous monster. It was hers! She created it because of her life and everything she went through. And the love story was a big part of it because her relationship with Percy is the time for her awakening. It was a problematic relationship, and what happened, that is what boiled in her. And of course, her relationship with her father and the legacy she inherited from her mother … escaping home and going with [Percy] all over the world, I’m sure that stated that.
How did you end up casting Elle Fanning as Mary?
We wanted a young actress just to shock the world in how young Mary Shelley was, and Elle was just child actor but becoming more mature. I loved Elle since she was a kid, because there’s elegance in her acting and effortlessness, and something that is very subtle. I think if we had someone else portraying Mary, we wouldn’t see that. I wanted to show someone who is going through a hard life but is still not a victim of it. It’s a person who goes through it, and there’s a huge difference. A lot of times, women are portrayed as victims and facing sexism and discrimination, and coming from Saudi Arabia, I know exactly what it means to be discriminated against because of my gender. But I don’t think we should just focus on that. I think it is very important to create characters that prevail, characters that succeed, that hopefully inspire to be that and see themselves in that way.
The next season of the National Geographic series Genius is also focusing on Mary Shelley. Do you think there are things that people are still trying to understand about her?
I think she is one of the most obscure figures. Her book is one of the most famous and most adopted, so I think it’s people now reexamining [her]. And her life was very interesting. They were young people just going through the world, they took a trip to New York, visiting other artists — there is so much happening in her life that is exciting and really worth telling.
This film was your first English-language feature. What sorts of things do you want to do next?
I just finished a film for Netflix called “Nappily Ever After” and set in the African-American community. We have Sanaa Lathan from Love and Basketball as our lead, and it’s about a woman who learns how to love herself, how to love her hair and to embrace who she is. It’s such an amazing, warm story. We’re just now doing the music, and hopefully it will be released in October. And then I’m going back to Saudi Arabia to shoot a film called The Perfect Candidate about a young Saudi woman running for elections. It has some comedy but also has, I hope, an empowering message for women in Saudi Arabia to embrace politics. There’s a lot of women there reluctant to be in public office because they’re shy and ’cause the culture does not expect them to be up-front, and hopefully that changes. And Saudi’s opening cinemas and allowing women to drive, I think it’s just the right time now to move into politics.