Mary craves out her own identity, pushing back against the expectations of society, the legacy of her parents and the overshadowing prowess of her partner.
The hauntingly provocative Mary Shelley tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – author of one of the world’s most famous Gothic novels ‘Frankenstein’ – and her fiery, tempestuous relationship with renowned romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The pair are two outsiders constrained by polite society but bound together by a natural chemistry and progressive ideas that are beyond the boundaries of their age and time. Mary and Percy declare their love for each other and much to her family’s horror they run away together, joined by Mary’s half-sister Claire. In the midst of growing tension within their relationship during their stay at Lord Byron’s house at Lake Geneva, the idea of Frankenstein is conceived when a challenge is put to all houseguests to write a ghost story. An incredible character is created, which will loom large in popular culture for centuries to come, but society at the time puts little value in female authors.
At the tender age of 18, Mary is forced to challenge these preconceptions, to protect her work and to forge her own identity.
Mary Shelley Screenplay
The screenplay for Mary Shelley was written by Emma Jensen, with additional writing by director Haifaa Al Mansour.
Emma Jensen is a screenwriter who has worked in the industry for over 17 years as a writer, development executive and script consultant. A graduate of Queensland College Of Art, Emma worked in the production department of UK company FilmFour before returning to Australia where she was employed as Development Executive for Working Title Australia and Mushroom Pictures.
In 2013, Emma wrote the original screenplay Mary Shelley, which will have its world premiere in the Gala Presentation section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Mary Shelley is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth and Bel Powley, and is produced by Gidden Media and Parallel Films.
Emma’s other projects include I Am Woman, based on the life of Helen Reddy, for Goalpost Pictures and director/producer Unjoo Moon; The Ghan with Triptych Pictures and Village Roadshow; and Living With Miss G, the story of the friendship between Ava Gardner and her African American maid and companion Mearene Jordan, for Arcadia Films. Emma is also developing TV projects with Fremantle Media and UK production company Ecosse Films.
Emma is currently one of Screen Australia’s industry specialists for feature film production investment and a member of Screen Australia’s “Gender Matters” task force.
Emma is represented in Australia by HLA Management and in the US by United Talent Agency and The Burstein Company.
Haifaa credits finding a kindred spirit in Mary Shelley for her taking on the project, saying “I come from Saudi Arabia and although it’s an English period film about the story of a young girl growing up who is trying to find her voice, surrounded by superstition that she wants to break free of, I really identified with the main character.”
Producer Amy Baer said of the spec screenplay that was sent to her “I was astounded that Mary was only 18 when she created and wrote Frankenstein and I felt that this was a story that had to be told.” Fellow producer Alan Moloney added that the story “essentially subverts everything that we think we know about the early 1800’s in England, and I liked that!”.
Producer Ruth Coady said she was “blown away by the strength and fight that this extremely young woman found within her,” and that the life of Mary Shelley is “a powerful story that feels very relevant right now.”
For leading actress Elle Fanning, who plays Mary Woolstonecraft Godwin, her closeness in age to the character at the time of her writing Frankenstein, and her progressive outlook, made the author an ideal role – commenting that “to be able to play a woman that was so ahead of her time in so many ways was really what attracted me to the script. I was very nervous and scared because no one has ever told HER tale before, and because it’s such a special one that I think needs to be heard. Although set in the 1800’s, I think her journey is so modern and relevant to today’s world.”
“I felt a huge responsibility playing her – you’re creating a character that has so many layers to her,” says Elle of tackling a portrayal of the author. She also notes the challenges of portraying the arc of Mary’s journey transitioning from a young girl into an adult and a creator in her own right, saying “it’s a story of a girl growing up and finding her voice and stepping out of the shadows of her family.” Discussing the nuances of Mary’s character Elle notes, “she is a free spirit, powerful and very attentive…she picks up on all things…she is curious and very observant.”
In talking about how she prepared for the role of Mary Shelley Elle said “I read a lot, obviously the first thing I did was to read Frankenstein, I actually still have the copy with me and I dip into it sometimes before I go to bed just to hear a little bit of Mary’s voice. It’s just so beautifully written.
Talking about his familiarity with Percy Shelley prior to the project Douglas admits, “I didn’t really know enough about him at the beginning but when I did research and looked into him and actually read more of his poetry I realized he was an anarchist; he wanted to be a revolutionary.” Douglas added ‘He’s much more than just this lover, this romantic poet, he IS a flawed character – he has so many traits that are wonderful but there are so many that are just devastating for the people around him.”
In understanding the character, he was about to play Douglas says he read a number of books including Richard Holmes’ acclaimed biography Shelley: The Pursuit; “out of all the information it was the concept of being pursued which came through so strongly – pursuit not only by creditors, his family, Mr. Godwin when he ran away with his daughters, but he was constantly pursued by his demons and his desire to live a life that was so unconventional in those days.”
“Shelley was a man who walked into a room and women swooned, so we wanted to make sure that you would believe that and Douglas has that. Douglas is striking a lovely balance between creative officiousness or pomposity but also being somewhat vulnerable and deeply in love with Mary. We saw a lot of actors but he walked the line on both sides,” said producer Amy Baer. Fellow producer Alan Moloney added “in casting the role of Shelley the references we adopted as our own are Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful or Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse, they are all a bit decadent and we needed someone to complement Elle and what she is bringing to the role of Mary.”
Although the film is a period drama set in the 1800’s Mary Shelley has a very modern message, as Tom Sturridge says “it’s about the emancipation of a young girl’s soul and I think that whatever period you are in you can recognize that desire for freedom.”
Alan Moloney says of Mary Shelley, “it’s a coming of age story about a girl who through her own life experience is able to express through her writing how the various conflicts and demons that she has to deal with comes to the fore.” Amy Baer adds “it’s a coming of age story about a young woman trying to find and own her voice, and I think that’s massively universal whether it took place 200 years ago or two weeks ago. And you know Frankenstein is also the precursor to all of science fiction and was written by a woman!”
Director Haifaa al Mansour said “the film is in a period of time of a couple of hundred years ago but I feel you can relate to it now. They were pushing boundaries – take away the costumes and I think there is something in the film that every 18 or 19-year-old will relate to.”
Haifaa Al Mansour as Director
Amy Baer said of specifically choosing a female director for Mary Shelley, “I have never in my career read a piece of material and said ‘I want a woman to direct this,’ but I have to say this was the first one because I felt that the theme of the story and about what Mary went through are so specific to what a woman experiences.”
Her fellow producer Alan Moloney added that what really resonated about Haifaa’s background “is the fact that she is a woman who has grown up in Saudi Arabia in an environment and a landscape where women don’t have the same rights as they do in Western culture, and she has had to as an artist, fight and struggle to have her own voice heard in much the same way as Mary Shelley did. There are very clear parallels between her life experience and the experience of Mary Shelley 200 years ago so that brings a real contemporary resonance to the piece.”
Commenting on the strong team of creative women behind the scenes on Mary Shelley, Haifaa said “I feel I honestly connect with female protagonists and have been very excited about working on this particular project – with two female producers, a female editor and a female composer.”
Elle Fanning, who plays Mary Shelley, said of having Haifaa as a director that “in a way she just knows what it feels like to be a young girl, to grow up and go through the hardships that women have. A lot of strong women have lived with this script, it’s very powerful and you can feel that on set which I think is crucial and important in telling Mary’s story.”
Douglas Booth, acting opposite Elle as her partner Percy Shelley concurs, “I think because Haifaa has had to fight for every single thing that she has ever achieved, she has a very real understanding of a woman that has a story to tell but society is not letting her tell it. She understands Mary’s journey. She has a great understanding of humanity, the core of people and I think this really shines through in this film.”
Ben Hardy who plays Mr. Polidori says “It’s definitely the right decision to have a female director for this film because Mary is the center of the piece and she is such a strong feminine force within a community heavily dominated by men, and I think her previous film (Wadjda) has similar themes”.
Mary Shelley’s Young Cast “Being around young actors and actresses is amazing, they have so much energy and an impulsiveness to do things right – it makes me feel young,” said director Haifaa Al Mansour.
Elle Fanning added “it’s pretty exciting to have people who are close to your age. There’s definitely an energy to it. You talk about the same things and look at life in the same way. I am normally the youngest with adults on set so to have people that are your age its cool. Also, I think us being close to the ages of our characters has really added to the film. There is an energy inside you – it’s hard to describe but it works great for the story.”
Producers Amy Baer and Alan Moloney said of their young cast “We felt it was important for the role of Mary to cast an actress that was age appropriate to make Mary’s story authentic.” Tom Sturridge said about being part of the young cast “There’s an energy that you get when you’re kind of all jumping off a cliff together that is exciting,” and Douglas Booth added “working with this cast has been amazing. Myself, Elle and Bel started on our triangle of trust and then Tom and Ben’s characters joined. I think everyone is cast really well.”
Relationships between the characters
Relationships are the foundation of Mary Shelley, providing a framework within which Mary craves out her own identity, pushing back against the expectations of society, the legacy of her parents and the overshadowing prowess of her partner.
The various relationships that exist throughout this film – between Mary and her father, Mary and her sister Claire, the relationship between Mary and Percy, Claire and Lord Byron, Lord Byron and Percy, Lord Byron and Polidori, Polidori and Mary and finally the interconnecting relationships between all the main characters Mary, Claire, Percy and Byron, underpin this film.
Claire and Mary
“Claire’s relationship with Mary is complicated. I think that perhaps Claire WANTS to be Mary. She is not jealous of her but she tried to emulate her. If Mary gets Shelley – then Claire will get Byron! But I think they love each other unconditionally even though they are halfsisters. She is in awe of Mary but she loves and adores her,” says Bel Powley of her character Claire.
“They are ying and yang,” says producer Amy Baer. “I think in life and the reality of them was that one was a bit more elegant and erudite and educated and the other was more wild and frivolous but together they created a specific energy. Claire is not as formidable as Mary but without a doubt there is real love between these two half-sisters, they protect one another.”
Mary and Mr. Godwin
“The only parental figure in Mary’s life is her father, so when he dismisses all her writing it’s like a dagger to her heart. A man who is so respected in his field not believing in his daughter is so hard for her to take. All she wants is recognition from him,” says Elle Fanning of Mary.
Polidori and Mary
“My character’s relationship with Mary is kind of the antithesis of her relationship with Shelley. He is the bad guy, I am the good guy forever in the friend zone!” says Ben Hardy who plays Polidori.
Mary and Percy
“He is the one for her. With him she feels that they can take on the world and all that it throws at them, and they will be okay because they have each other. There are times she certainly questions her beliefs. But ultimately, she knows their love, this mad, huge crazy love story, is strong enough to withstand what is thrown at them,” says Elle Fanning of Mary.
Being with Mary is for Shelley “A challenge…he challenges her to live this life with him. She was incredibly smart, had this fresh sexuality…she had a cheekiness to her and so he fell in love with this vision,” believes Douglas Booth.
Lord Byron and Claire
“Claire is a very determined woman, she doesn’t take no for an answer, she knows what she wants and it was Byron and even though it ends badly for her she believes in herself,” says Bel Powley of Claire’s pursuit of Lord Byron.
Shelley and Lord Byron
Douglas comments that in his opinion, “Shelley looked up to Byron; he was in awe of him. Byron was a star and at the time Shelley really respected him and the way he was and what he stood for.”
“Claire is not the bimbo of the trio; she is not a dumb little sister, she is very smart and she is fighting to make her mark in this trio,” says Bel of Claire. “Theirs was an unconventional relationship, they lived as a unit and there was clearly a closeness between all three of them,” says Amy Baer.