Film, Gothic, Portfolio

The Summer of 1816 On Film


n the summer of 1816, as skies darkened across the world following a volcanic eruption, a group of Romantic writers –Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her soon-to-be husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori — gathered in a house on the shores of Lake Geneva and told one another ghost stories. The gathering produced two monsters that would prove pivotal to the horror genre: the creature of Frankenstein and the vampire, and it still echoes in popular culture as the epitome of the Gothic. These are some of the films that have been inspired by the events:

The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

The prologue to the well-known Universal classic contains a scene inspired by the gathering in Villa Diodati, with Elsa Lanchester (The Bride) portraying Mary Shelley. She is joined by Percy and Byron, but the depiction of the three is almost ridiculously respectable, and fails to capture the tragedy that lurked underneath.

Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley

Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein.

Gothic (Ken Russell, 1986)

An excessive, surreal and grotesque romp loosely inspired by the events, as one would expect from Ken Russell. It contains some interesting visual moments, such as a tribute to Fuseli’s “Nightmare” –which was, in fact, one of Byron’s favourite paintings– and the scene inspired by Coleridge’s Christabel, with a woman with eyes instead of nipples.

A tribute to Fuseli's "Nightmare"

A tribute to Fuseli’s “Nightmare”

Rowing with the wind (Gonzalo Suárez, 1988)

The best film adaptation of the summer of 1816 and the events that followed was partly shot on the misty coast of Asturias, in Northern Spain, with British actors, and became a cult classic in its country of origin. Its sympathies are clearly with Polidori and Mary Shelley, who appear human and vulnerable next to a spoilt, self-entitled Byron and a wide-eyed and slightly deranged Shelley. Poetic and relatively faithful to the real events, in spite of its historical inaccuracies, the most notable of which is that Polidori’s suicide is placed in Villa Diodati for dramatic effect. The appearances of The Creature as a harbinger of death, to the soundtrack of Vaughan Williams, evoke all the angst and tragedy in their lives.

Haunted Summer (Ivan Passer, 1988)

A fictionalisation with a light and gentle tone that takes place only in the course of the summer in Lake Geneva. In spite of his terrible British accent, this Byron is notably more charming and forgivable than the others. His relationship with Mary follows the classical pattern of a Gothic Romance, where the heroine, attracted by his darkness, must redeem him from his sins. The opium episode plays, again, with the imagery of Fuseli, and suggests that Mary created the monster to provoke a response in Byron.

Haunted Summer

Laura Dern, Eric Stoltz and Alice Krige in Haunted Summer

Frankenstein Unbound (Roger Corman, 1990)

Based on a novel by Brian Aldiss, in this bizarre time-travel story a 21st century scientist appears in 1817 Switzerland, where he meets Victor Frankenstein, Byron and the Shelleys. Mary takes inspiration from the real life mystery that the main character is investigating, becomes his love interest and catches a glimpse of posterity.

First published in Fortean Times no. 343