Writers & Company

Haifaa Al Mansour on Mary Shelley, the woman behind Frankenstein

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour about bringing the story behind Mary Shelley's classic horror novel to life.
Eleanor Wachtel with Haifaa Al Mansour in Toronto. (Katy Swailes/CBC)
Listen to the full episode52:19

Like the characters she brings to life, Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour defies convention.

Born in 1974, Al Mansour is Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker — in a country with no cinemas. Her debut feature, Wadjda, released in 2012, was the first movie shot entirely in the kingdom. Wadjda is the story of a spirited young girl who dreams of owning and riding a bicycle, something forbidden for girls in Saudi society. Al Mansour often had to direct the film from inside a tinted van — using walkie-talkies and a video monitor — due to the country's strict rules governing women in public.

Now, Al Mansour has turned her lens on another defiant young woman — Mary Shelley, author of the ground-breaking, bestselling novel, Frankenstein. Written 200 years ago when Mary Shelley was just 18, the story reflects the abandonment and loss of Mary's troubled childhood, as well as her tumultuous relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In Mary Shelley, Al Mansour focuses on these teenage years in Mary's life, depicting the passion and pain that led to the creation of a monster.

Haifaa Al Mansour talked to Eleanor Wachtel earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Being a woman in Saudi Arabia

"I come from a large family — I'm number eight of 12 siblings. My father was very liberal — he had only one wife. In Saudi Arabia polygamy is really accepted, but he did not do that. For me it was amazing to be part of the ultimate Saudi experience, being from a small conservative town but with parents who were liberal. We were never asked to cover up or wear a veil so we always had tension with our neighbours, who called our home the 'secularist house.'

"It was amazing to grow up with a lot of brothers and sisters as we have generational gaps between us. So my older sisters are almost like mothers to me — they did my hair, and they took care of me.

"And as a kid going to school we always wanted to fit in but it was hard because other kids weren't allowed to come to our house. But I felt it gave me this kind of sense of being in the culture while still being outside it. I was able to understand it a bit more rather than just taking everything for granted. I learned early on to question things — whatever happens in this society is not necessarily what I should be accepting or taking as the ultimate truth."

On how her mother helped mould her independent spirit

"I used to be really embarrassed when my mother came to my school wearing only a light veil. I would pretend I didn't know her. But now I appreciate all the courage she had to face such a conservative society and be her own person. And in one way she's my mentor. She wouldn't cover herself up, no matter what you told her.

"She was so proud of her identity, her face and her hair. We came from a place where women had to hide their face and not be known. But she didn't care and it was amazing to see that, particularly as a kid who wanted to wear a veil, who wanted to go to school completely covered in black and who wanted to be like everyone else. Just to see that example in front of me — a woman who's proud of who she was —  is something that I now appreciate a lot."

Al Mansour's film Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, depicts the life of the famed English novelist. (Courtesy of TIFF)

On being fascinated by Mary Shelley and her classic gothic horror tale

"When I first got the script I wasn't really sure if I should do it because it's an English period piece and I didn't really know what to expect. But when I read it, it was fascinating to see how Mary Shelley rebelled against her father and her husband to maintain her own agency and voice.

"She wrote Frankenstein — which is a book that questions paradigm, it questions God and is about philosophy and creating life — all within a very masculine kind of genre. She didn't write something like Jane Austen, who was her contemporary and the star in Shelley's time. It was amazing to see a young woman such as Shelley conquer something totally different and create her own style of science fiction. I found that fact fascinating. In researching her life, I found that a lot of her drama from her lost and troubled marriage can be found in the book."

On Mary Shelley's muted legacy

"There is a huge disconnect between Shelley's life and the book itself — Frankenstein has been hijacked by film and television depictions, so all the general public knows is the green monster with the bolts in its head. It is very masculine — so when you say the creator of this work was a woman, people can't believe it. So it is really important to give Shelley her legacy back. She's a known figure but people know very little about her life."

Haifaa Al Mansour's interview has been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Majaz" composed and performed by Le Trio Joubran.