This week, movie theaters across the country have been screening the National Theatre Live’s “Frankenstein” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johhny Lee Miller. I heard about this event through one of my theater teachers and was surprised that it was not more heavily advertised. “Frankenstein” is a classic story to be told around Halloween, and so these film screenings were perfect in terms of timing. National Theatre Live filmed the live theater performance of “Frankenstein” to be screened in movie theaters. This is something that I have seldom heard of. Of course, there are live performances that are filmed, but hardly ever do they make it onto the big screen, even for a limited run.
What intrigued me about this event was that it was really playing with three different mediums of storytelling. The original being the novel which this play was based off of, the second was the play itself, and the third was the filming of the play based on the novel. The novel is the perfect example of eerie Romanticism. We have compassion for the monster although he is what is considered the physically scariest part of the story. There is something creepy about bringing life into the world in an unconventional way, which is why it was appropriate to screen it around Halloween. As a play, it did an enormously successful job of highlighting the world of the play and the eerie atmosphere of some of the settings. The stage turned and shifted and the lighting brought us from the woods to a small house to a large mansion to a lake dock to the icy mountains. The performances of both Miller and Cumberbatch were incredibly strong and it was thrilling seeing them take on these iconic characters. In watching this theater performance on film, I was glad to see that the cinematography kept the theatrical aspect of the whole stage in mind while also focusing shots every so often. Obviously it was not as immersive as sitting in the live audience, but it the organic use of the camera made the transition from stage to screen natural.
In my physical theater class, we have been talking a lot about melodrama and scary movies and theater. The history of Halloween itself stems from something other than entertainment. In looking at how “scary” entertainment has changed over the years, a lot of it has diversified. In the early 1900s, people loved looking at gore and being brought into brutal scenes. People would sit and watch bloody staged fights and extreme injuries. The movement of these performances were big and highlighted. Today, a lot of this horror seems to be reeled back. With the psychological thriller, we are trapped in pure realism. In fact, when in a movie or live performance when the reaction to something is too big, it tends to get a laugh because it does not seem real. But then what is the balance between real and still entertaining and following the extremism of the story?
In going back to “Frankenstein,” I felt like this rendition of the story had this good balance. I remember watching one of the film adaptions of the novel when I was younger and thinking how overdramatic everything was. It was difficult to feel for the characters because everything seems so unnaturally heightened. With theater, it is easier to go to the extreme because of the physical space the performance itself has. This was exemplified in Miller and Cumberbatch’s use of space on the stage and they way in which they communicated with one another. Perhaps if it was just a film, their performances would have been extremely different, especially in terms of movement. But because of theater, the extremism of the story only heightened the stakes and brought the audience further into the world.
In going into the beginning of the Halloween weekend, perhaps we all need to take a look at the marriage of realism and extremism in horror.