Haifaa Al-Mansour on Mary Shelley, the author’s significance and why your future is dictated by passion

Mary Shelley director Haifaa Al-Mansour tells us about the importance of the literary great and telling her story

Female role models at home or in the media are hugely important to young women for someone to look up to or aspire to be like. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour stands out herself as a shining example. She was the first woman to direct a feature film in her home country of Saudi Arabia in 2012, with Wadjda, and knows what it’s like to struggle for her creative pursuit. She mentions her adoration of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman in our conversation and says she hopes to one day make a blockbuster superhero film herself.

One of the reasons she decided to take on the biopic of Mary Shelley she says is, “What is appealing about it for me is a lot of people say Frankenstein is masculine, like Frankenstein is a masculine book just because she invented a genre and was able to go to a place nobody had been before. For me, it is very important for young women to see that they are capable of doing things that men can. Don’t let your gender dictate your future. Your future is dictated purely by passion and we can do anything.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was a rebellious teenager when she started writing Frankenstein. Al-Mansour turns her biopic into a coming-of-age film that shows how her formative years dealing with grief, hanging out with the bad boys of romantic poetry, having her heart broken and being abandoned informed her seminal sci-fi text. On how the film evolved Al-Mansour says, “I did a lot of research. So much happened in her life and I wanted to find what to take and what to leave. The blueprint was to correlate the events in her life with the themes in the book.” Al-Mansour’s film posits Mary Shelley as an aspiring young woman who while trying to work out who she was, experiencing teenage kicks, and highs and lows including losing two children also found her writing voice.

Elle Fanning takes on the titular role, Bel Powley plays her step-sister Claire, Maisie Williams from Game Of Thrones steps in as close friend Isabel Baxter and Douglas Booth (who designed his own fragrance for the role) plays complete piece of work Percy Shelley. Al-Mansour injects the character with more nuance however, saying, “Casting Percy was difficult. It’s a character who could tip into being black and white because he does really not nice things. I wanted to bring someone who was not doing that, who can bring in more sympathy or complication to the character and Booth did that. He has this boyish recklessness and you can forgive him for his innocence underneath all that.”

Al-Mansour first read Frankenstein in Arabic when she was around twelve years old. She revisited it while studying Literature at the American University in Cairo, saying, “I wrote a paper about women authors, but only a small paragraph on Shelley. Then when they sent me the script I started reading it again. I felt so sad that [Mary Shelley] wasn’t acknowledged. Even for me as a person who is supposed to know about her as a literature major and know how big her influence was. There’s a disconnect with how famous the book is and how she wasn’t recognised as much. It’s important for women to have that kind of legacy because whenever we take another job or try to do something bigger people question our ability to succeed. If you have someone like Mary Shelley who is totally different from her time and she wrote this amazing book and succeeded, then hopefully it will give us confidence. Mary Shelley was rebellious, but not like her mother, she was rebellious in a different way, she always questioned the system.”

One of the things that struck Al-Mansour was how Shelley dealt with the loss of her mother, (the author and advocate of women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft who died after complications from Mary’s birth) how her legacy impacted the way she lived and how that related to her own relationship with her mother. “One thing I really appreciate was Mary’s relationship with her mother, who passed away when she was very young. She left all that feminist heritage, with all the essays she wrote, yet she led a very scandalous life. I understood the problematic relationship Mary may have had with her mother.” In the film you see Mary lounging around near her mother’s grave, reading and taking inspiration from her words though struggling to deal with complex emotions.

Al-Mansour explains further, saying, “It’s not exactly like Mary Shelley’s mother for sure, but my mother when she came to visit me in school sometimes she would wear a very light veil. In Saudi Arabia everybody was militant with the black gloves. My mother would come with a light veil, enjoying her femininity. I would freak out in school, saying, ‘I don’t know this woman, she’s not my mother, I don’t know why she’s here!’ but now I appreciate what she gave me.”

Mary Shelley is in cinemas today. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.