5 Screenwriting Lessons from the Writer/Director of MARY SHELLEY

By Shanee Edwards · May 25, 2018

Everyone knows the story of Frankenstein. Dozens of plays, movies, comic books and even a ballet have told the story of the inventive doctor, Victor Frankenstein, and his frightening monster. But not many people know the book Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus was written by a 19-year old woman.

The new film Mary Shelley tells the story of this young, tormented writer who invented the genre of science fiction. 

Haifaa Al-Mansour, the very first female film director from Saudi Arabia, worked on the script for Mary Shelley with writer Emma Jenson and was initially shocked to learn Shelley’s story.“I was a literature major,” says Al-Mansour, “so of course I studied Frankenstein but I never studied Mary Shelley. When I began researching her, getting to know her, it was really heartbreaking to see how the book overshadowed her life. She never enjoyed her success in a way.”

1. Turn Loss into Creation

Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning) was the daughter of writer William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and fell in love with poet and libertine Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) when she was just a teenager. Her first child was born premature and died after a few weeks. But Al-Mansour says it was more than just losing her baby that inspired Shelley to imagine bringing a person back to life. 

“She also lost her mom at an early age,” says Al-Mansour, “She struggled with what death meant. Her older sister committed suicide, too. We couldn’t put all those things in the film, but she was surrounded by death. What’s strange is that everything in the book is related to her life as a woman but everyone called the book masculine, which is really frustrating and baffling, because it’s all about her experience as a mother, a daughter, a wife.”

2. Challenge Yourself

The movie does include the tantalizing scene where Lord Bryon (Tom Sturridge) invited Mary, Percy and Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) to a chalet in Geneva, Switzerland, to party like rock stars. It’s there that Lord Bryon engaged his guests in a competition to see who could write the scariest story. Frankenstein was born.

Given that Al-Mansour is Saudi, she has a unique perspective when it comes to understanding what it’s like to be a creative woman in a society controlled by strict social and religious factors.   

“I totally related to her journey and also I admired that she went to a place that even men didn’t go – creating a whole new genre and leaving a legacy for the world. As women, it’s important to celebrate that because it gives us a foundation for success because we’ve done it before. We are brave enough to go places no one else has gone.”

3. Stay True to Yourself

When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the most popular female writer in England was Jane Austen, which Al-Mansour says made things even more difficult for Shelley. “[Austen] wrote about marriage and love and social climbing. So no one expected a woman to write about philosophy, rebirth and questioning God.”

But Al-Mansour admits the story of Frankenstein plays a small role in the film. 

“The movie isn’t about the monster, it’s about the creator. But it was also important to use Frankenstein as a blueprint in terms of what themes to put into the story. Loneliness and abandonment – these themes are very current somehow.”

4. Use Rejection as Fuel

Al-Mansour made sure the script reflected the struggle Shelley had being young and female in the early 19th century.

“The third act is about bringing the book to publishers and it was important to me to include that because we see how many people didn’t take her seriously. She goes to the top publishers that Percy and her father work with, but even though she’s from that world, nobody wanted to publish her book.”

5. Embrace Adversity

The other element that caught Al-Mansour’s attention was the difficult relationship between Mary and her half-sister, Claire. 

“Their relationship was very problematic, but it’s also touching to see two girls try to escape their small world, escape their father’s library and go tour Europe to experience something bigger. I thought it was amazing to see this kind of curiosity in them. Even if Claire has a questionable relationship with Percy, she’s part of Mary’s journey. There is a lot more to the sisters, there is a lot of heart.”

6. A Bonus for the Ladies: 

Al-Mansour has this advice for female screenwriters: “Now is the time. Everyone wants to hear about female stories and scripts with female protagonists. Don’t be afraid to go places no one else is going. Give it all. Sometimes women are calculated, but we need to break out of that and be brave enough to say a lot of things with heart. Don’t worry about being judged. We are past that.”

Mary Shelley originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. It opens today, May 25, 2018, in select theaters in the US.

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

Photo credit: IFC

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