Dissecting 'Mary Shelley': How Accurate Is the Biopic?

Courtesy of TIFF

"The film was a missed opportunity," UCLA professor and distinguished Shelley researcher Anne K. Mellor tells THR.

Distinguished professor and Mary Shelley researcher Anne K. Mellor was among the audience members who watched the biopic Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, during its Friday release.

Currently a UCLA professor in the English and women’s studies departments and author of Mary Shelley: Her Fiction, Her Life, Her Monsters (1988), Mellor approached watching the film with hopes that it would deliver an accurate portrayal of the author. 

Her consensus: “The film was a missed opportunity.” 

Though crediting the film for being “beautifully made” and well-cast (with Elle Fanning as Shelley), Mellor noted that the film details an “off the rails” interpretation of the author’s life. The Haifaa Al-Mansour-directed biopic chronicles the early life of Shelley and her journey to penning the Frankenstein novel up to the moment it was published.

One issue that Mellor disliked is that the film fails to accurately convey Shelley’s true nature, choosing to present her as a militant feminist instead of a young girl battling anxiety throughout her pregnancy.  

“Why didn’t they do the biopic of her mother? She was the great feminist, because she had a much more varied life than Mary Shelley did,” explained Mellor, referring to the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). 

While Mellor noted that the feminist focus could have been a way for the film to honor the current climate of female empowerment, there are other trivial mistakes that could have been prevented such as the film’s Ireland setting (rather than Geneva and London), character traits ("Lord Byron was bisexual, but never with Percy Shelley") and events that could have been easily referenced from “published biographies” (Shelley's first born was premature and died two weeks later from complications).

In addition to its inaccuracies, Mellor felt as though audiences were steered in the wrong direction. In the same way that most consider Frankenstein to be a story about a horrifying monster instead of a look at childbirth and the anxiety experienced while pregnant, the professor felt filmgoers were misled in the focus of Mary Shelley. Instead of focusing on the "content of the novel," the biopic heavily emphasized the process it took to begin writing for Shelley.

Mellor was also taken aback by the film's failure to use Shelley’s actual writing. “They make a great deal of her coming into her own as an author. They show you words she’s writing but they’re not her words. … The passages that have her writing are Percy’s words that only a scholar would know, but it’s irritating that when they show her as a writer, they don’t even use her writing.” 

Though bothered with the film's historical inaccuracies, Mellor said, "It does a very good job at putting Mary Shelley on the cinematic world map that we need to know and public at large." She added: "Audiences should know about her and if that means making her into a militant feminist to get her appreciation, then that’s fine with me. I think it gets her story out there.” 

Despite her opinion of faulty storytelling, the Shelley expert is hopeful that the film could have a rewarding outcome. “People would begin to come back to the novel, which the movie does a good job leading into.” Though speaking as a scholar, Mellor quipped, “Read the first edition!” 

The upcoming National Geographic's scripted anthology Genius series will have Shelley as the season 3 subject.