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Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller take on 'Frankenstein.' But who's the better monster?

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller take on 'Frankenstein.' But who's the better monster?
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller trade roles as the Doctor and his Creature in NT Live’s “Frankenstein.” (Clare Nicholson)

In 1818, the publication of a Gothic horror novel by a 20-year old named Mary Shelley established the template for nearly every spooky movie monster unleashed by a mad scientist. The novel, of course, was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus,” and what better way to celebrate its 200-year anniversary than with National Theatre Live’s riveting filmed stage adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and directed by Danny Boyle?

Screening in various Southland movie theaters on Oct. 22 and 29, this award-winning 2011 production of “Frankenstein” stands apart from countless movie and stage reworkings by virtue of its mature, literate focus and remarkable fidelity to the original novel. Nick Dear’s script retains Shelley’s principal characters and plot points, with a few well-considered narrative refinements and a dramatically heightened ending. The adaptation illuminates the book’s prescient philosophical reflections on the artificial creation of sentient life, and the moral, psychological and sociological consequences for creator and created.

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Most important, it restores the monster’s fully realized, all-too-human voice as his identity evolves from blank slate to the savagely articulate outcast who identifies himself with the fallen angel Satan in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

The newborn Creature (Benedict Cumberbatch) wanders a hostile Industrial Age landscape in NT Live’s “Frankenstein.”
The newborn Creature (Benedict Cumberbatch) wanders a hostile Industrial Age landscape in NT Live’s “Frankenstein.” (Catherine Ashmore)

The period staging — early Industrial Revolution with steampunk touches — parlays Danny Boyle’s visual flair in both cinema (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) and live spectacle (his 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony). Boyle worked closely with NT Live screen director Tim Van Someren to achieve a stunning translation of theatrical experience into film.

Despite being the most frequently shown title in the NT Live canon, “Frankenstein” can only be seen via high-definition movie theater broadcasts, as the producers and artists remain adamantly opposed to commercial release in any other form.

Further complicating the infrequent viewing opportunities is the show’s dual-casting concept: during the show’s sold-out 2011 London run, Cumberbatch and Miller alternated in the respective roles of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his unnamed Creature.

As a result, NT Live’s “Frankenstein” is presented in two versions, subtitled “Cumberbatch as Creature” and “Miller as Creature” to designate the respective cast pairings. Which begs the question, which one to see?

Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as his creator in NT Live’s “Frankenstein.” On another night, their roles may be reversed.
Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as his creator in NT Live’s “Frankenstein.” On another night, their roles may be reversed. (Catherine Ashmore)

It’s not a trivial question. With two lead actors of this caliber you can’t really go wrong, but the versions are not the same. Rather than mirror one another’s performance, Cumberbatch and Miller chose very different ways to interpret the Creature’s journey, and one version plays best to their respective strengths.

The actors allude to this divergence during the behind-the-scenes featurette that often accompanies the screening: Cumberbatch says his take was influenced by the struggles of accident victims recovering from their injuries; Miller’s inspiration came from watching his young son learn to physically navigate the world.

The difference is readily apparent: Cumberbatch emphasizes the grotesque and horrifying, while Miller adds a poignant layer of childlike innocence. Both end up in the same tragic place, but where Cumberbatch’s Creature will creep you out, Miller’s will also break your heart.

In the early going, much of the story is told from the Creature’s point of view, but his creator, Victor, emerges as an equally important role (the whole point is how each complements, needs and completes the other).

It’s no surprise that both Cumberbatch and Miller capably evoke Victor’s cold, arrogant genius (after all, both actors achieved mega-stardom playing modernized versions of the emotionally dysfunctional Sherlock Holmes in their respective TV series, “Sherlock” and “Elementary.”) Nevertheless, Cumberbatch mines layers of self-torment in Victor’s inability to love that, in comparison, make Miller’s version seem like a cold fish who makes bad choices.

These are only relative differences between two terrific alternatives, but given the choice, “Frankenstein” with Miller-as-Creature is the one to see.

“Frankenstein,” National Theatre Live screenings in various Southern California movie theaters on Monday, Oct. 22 and 29. See website for locations and versions.

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