It’s one of the most famous origin stories in literary history. One summer night in 1816 in Geneva, Lord Byron hosted a gathering of his fellow Romantics, including Percy Shelley and his lover (soon-to-be wife), Mary Godwin. The incessant rain confined the party indoors for days at a time, and one night, over dinner at the Villa Diodati, Byron propose that everyone write a ghost story to amuse themselves. The result was Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, the classic Gothic horror tale of a mad scientist who creates a monster—arguably the first science fiction novel.
That fateful summer is the subject of A Nightmare Wakes, the first feature film from writer/director Nora Unkel. It’s been portrayed before, most recently in a 2020 episode of Doctor Who, but Unkel’s film delves particularly into Mary Shelley’s inner state of mind and the process of creation, as the world of her imagination begins to bleed into her reality. Per the official premise: “While composing her famous novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) descends into an opium-fueled fever dream while carrying on a torrid love affair with Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello). As she writes, the characters of her novel come to life and begin to plague her relationship with Percy. Before long, she must choose between true love and her literary masterpiece.”
(Mild spoilers below)
Born August 30, 1797, Mary Shelley had a nontraditional upbringing. She was the daughter of William Godwin, an anarchist political philosopher, and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after Mary was born. Driven by a great desire for knowledge, she was educated by her father and various private tutors, and she first tried her hand at writing during a stay with radical William Baxter and his family Scotland.
Mary likely met the aristocratic poet/philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley in late 1812 or 1813; they were most certainly involved by 1814. Percy had separated from his pregnant wife, Harriet, and that, plus his radical political views, had estranged him from his wealthy family. Legend has it that Mary lost her virginity to Percy in the cemetery where they regularly met in secret. William Godwin may have had radical views on politics, marriage, and “free love,” but these attitudes did not extend to his daughter, it seems. He disapproved of her relationship with Percy. So the pair eloped to France in July 1814, taking Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont (by then Byron’s mistress), with them.
Many travels followed, during which Mary became pregnant and miscarried, and Percy may have taken up with Claire. Mary ascribed to free love in principle, but she seems to have remained faithful to Percy for the duration of their relationship and was secretly jealous of Percy’s dalliances. Her writings reveal that Mary struggled with depression and visions of her lost baby, but Mary gave birth to a son, William, in January 1816. That summer, she, Percy, their son, and Claire joined Byron and a young physician named John Polidori in Geneva.
Byron proposed his famous challenge while the group was sitting around the fire at the villa reading German ghost stories. Polidori ended up writing a short story called “The Vampyre,” but Mary struggled to find inspiration, until a chance discussion on the nature of life and the science of galvanism stirred her creative juices. In the early hours of June 26, Shelley experienced a “waking dream,” as moonlight “struggled to get through” the closed shutters in her room.
As she recalled in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was initially a short story, but Mary expanded it to a full-length novel at Percy’s urging. It was published anonymously in January 1818, mostly to critical acclaim. Mary was not identified as the author until the publication of the second edition in 1823, so many people initially assumed it had been written by Percy.
Despite her literary success, Mary’s life was checkered by multiple tragedies. Both Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, and Percy’s estranged wife committed suicide—Fanny by a laudanum overdose, Harriet by drowning. Percy and Mary got married shortly after Harriet’s death, but despite several pregnancies, only one child survived to adulthood: Percy Florence. In the summer of 1882, while in Italy, Mary miscarried yet again and nearly died from loss of blood. A quick-thinking Percy placed her in an ice bath to staunch the bleeding and likely saved her life. Alas, Percy drowned in a boating accident later that same summer, devastating an already depressed Mary.
Frankenstein is the book for which she is justly famous, but she built a fine literary career as a writer and editor. Shelley never remarried, despite the occasionally suitor, and died on February 1, 1851, at 53, possibly from a brain tumor.
Most of the above aspects of Shelley’s life find their way into A Nightmare Wakes—Unkel strove to be historically accurate even with regard to the lighting and production design—albeit reimagined and condensed for narrative purposes, since most of the film takes place in the summer of 1816. In this telling, Mary is pregnant with her first child when she, Percy, and Claire arrive in Geneva, and she tragically miscarries. Out of this tragedy comes the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein, driven to create a Creature stitched together from dead cadavers and “reanimated” during a dramatic thunderstorm. Philippe Bowgen plays Byron, Claire Glassford plays Claire Clairmont, and Lee Garrett plays Polidori.
“Shelley’s struggle with love, loss, abandonment by society and family, and her own sanity, had yet to be captured fully on-screen,” Unkel said of what drove her to make the film. “She lived a colorful life of love, drugs, and freedom, alongside some of the most celebrated artists of her day.” Ars sat down with Unkel to learn more.
Ars Technica: What drew you to this project? What was it about the story that made you want to make this movie?
Nora Unkel: About eight years ago, I got trapped in my apartment during [Hurricane] Sandy, and all I had was a copy of Frankenstein and a couple of candles. I was reading Mary’s own foreword and was instantly captivated by the fact that we’d never seen Mary’s story before on screen. I started reading more about her miscarriages and the children that she lost and the fact that basically death followed her from her very birth to the very end. Frankenstein became a different story to me. It was a tale of a girl coming into her own power. As I was reading it, I started to hear Mary’s voice in the words of the creature.
Ars Technica: What makes this film so interesting is the way it brings the audience inside Mary Shelley’s head, visualizing how her personal experience fused with the fiction to provide fuel for her novel.
Nora Unkel: [Writer/producer/director/actor] Danny Strong was my professor while I was writing this at New York University as a straight biopic. I remember him sitting me down at one point and saying, “Nora, nobody wants to see a writer writing for two hours.” He was saying it as inspiration to take it in a different direction. It immediately made me dive into what, as a writer, are you experiencing when you’re writing? And for Mary, what is the world around her that is helping to shape this?
We think fiction comes out of a vacuum. It doesn’t—it’s part of your own world. So that’s why it suddenly started to kind of shape itself, become its own entity, as this conglomeration of Mary experiencing these traumas in her life and then regurgitating them into the novel. I was also inspired by some of Mary’s own writing, where she wrote that she was starting to not be able to tell the difference between these horrible waking nightmares that she was suffering, as well as some of drug trips that she was doing. I wanted to put the audience in the head of a writer, who is creating a masterpiece. That doesn’t often come out in a very direct, linear way—it’s a totally mind-warping experience. So that was what I was hoping to capture.
Ars Technica: The decision to make Mary the Creature was very interesting. For decades, if not centuries, people thought of her as Percy Shelley’s Pygmalion—this object he had shaped, falling in love with his own creation. I assume this misreading of her genius supplied some inspiration for that decision.
Nora Unkel: Oh, absolutely. Mary would specifically say [in her writings] that Victor was inspired by Percy: he’s rich, he’s untouchable, and he has this ego the size of Europe. And he thinks that he can make life. I started thinking, “Well, if Percy is Victor, and if you’re looking at him as this guy, who’s flippantly creating life, then where does Mary herself fit into this?” In reading the novel, with the idea of these miscarriages and her own traumas in my head, it just sounded like Mary’s voice when the creature was speaking: how it’s not being accepted for its outside appearance; how it’s this intellectual, thoughtful, emotional being on the inside, but nobody will look at that because all they see is the outside. I realized that Mary herself had found these parallels and I wanted to dig in deeper.
Ars Technica: A major challenge for independent filmmakers is figuring out how to realize their artistic vision within very real financial constraints. But they can also fuel creative solutions. How did those inevitable constraints impact your own storytelling?
Nora Unkel: I think constraints in general—and especially this box that I put this story in—were equal parts inspiring and limiting. A big element of that is resources and budget. I’d love to do a grand sweeping moment where Percy is drowning in a boat, as he actually did. But I had what I had. So because this was Mary’s story and this was her interpretation of her own life through her novel, it was more important to me that I use this as inspiration to find how I could connect these different disparate moments back to Mary. For instance, I wanted to imagine what it was like for Mary to find out that her husband just went away sailing one day and never came back. I’ve repositioned that moment in the film, centralizing Mary, not to break historical truth but to hint at what she was emotionally experiencing.
Ars Technica: I loved the recurring motif of blood, ink, and tears—it’s so visually striking. What inspired that motif?
Nora Unkel: I was really inspired by a famous painting called The Nightmare, which inspired Mary herself. There’s a moment in the film where we recreate that painting. For me, it was kind of pulling Mary into this literal other world, in a similar way to when Ofelia gets pulled into [Guillermo del Toro‘s 2006 film] Pan’s Labyrinth, a fantastical world with different rules. In Mary’s literary universe, she is entirely in control of that, so there wouldn’t be blood. People [her characters] would be ink. They are literally puppets controlled by her. The big questioning theme of this story is, was she creating this, or was she discovering this idea of creator versus creature, that push and pull of the shifting power dynamics between her and Victor [Frankenstein], and her and Percy. That became obvious through the visual motifs of ink versus blood, fantasy versus reality, and how those two blended for Mary.
A Nightmare Wakes is now streaming on Shudder.
Listing image by Shudder