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Review of Frankenstein

Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley, Penguin Classics, 1992, 261 pp. (originally published in 1818)

Frankenstein, one of the key texts in modern literature, was written by Mary Shelley in 1818 when she was only 21. She had already experienced quite an amazing range of events in her life, and she survived quite a few more after Frankenstein. Shelley was born in 1797 to two radical writers, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died within a few days of childbirth, and William Godwin, who raised her. Shelley received a much more extensive education than other young girls in that time period. She chose to elope with Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 17 -- two years later, Percy's first wife committed suicide, and the elopers were married. Only one of her four children survived, and Percy himself drowned in 1822. The next thirty years of her life were comparatively uneventful, and they were productive ones for her, although her later writings never achieved the same fame as Frankenstein which was composed in that most turbulent time of her life. She died in 1851.

Frankenstein was published anonymously, and the author was only later revealed to be Shelley. She wrote a new introduction (included in this Penguin Classics edition) for the 1831 edition, at which point she incorporated a number of changes. She also took the chance to answer a question she had apparently received quite often: how such a young girl could write about such horrible things. Her answer describes her literary sources, as well as a disturbing dream that was the kernel of inspiration for the story. Shelley borrowed quite freely from the sources she was familiar with -- there are large echoes of Paradise Lost (one of the three books the Monster reads in the course of the story) and Shakespeare, and the sequence of the Monster's "adopted" family and the Arabian lover in middle of the book seems lifted straight from one of the side stories in Don Quixote. Shelley brilliantly synthesized ideas of the time, and brought the sting of satire to bear on the modern idea of the scientist.

Frankenstein begins with a framing story. An explorer named Robert Walton has left the north coast of Russia and is on his way into the Arctic Ocean; Walton is writing letters to his sister in London and tells her how one day he saw a monstrous figure fleeing across the ice. A few days later, Walton rescues Victor Frankenstein from hypothermia and starvation. Frankenstein tells Walton the events that form the core of the novel, his creation of the Monster, and Walton relates them to his sister in epistolary form.

Victor Frankenstein's story is divided into three volumes. Volume 1 is the story of Frankenstein's childhood in Geneva, and his studies at a university in Germany that led to the creation of the monster. He thinks he can create wonderful new life, but at his first glance at his creation, Frankenstein turns away in horror. He subsequently becomes quite ill. He is called back to Geneva two years later by a letter from his father that has tragic news: his younger brother William has been murdered. Frankenstein is convinced that his monster committed the crime, but a piece of evidence has been planted with Justine, the family maid. When Justine is executed, Frankenstein feels like he has two deaths on his head.

Volume 2 is mainly the monster's story; Frankenstein meets him on a glacier near Geneva, and the monster tells his creator about his brief life. Everywhere he turned, he was met with disgust or open enmity. He was hiding out in the woods when he found a family he could safely observe, help secretly, and learn language and culture from while eavesdropping. In a heartrending scene, the monster reveals himself to the blind father of the family, only to be violently spurned when the rest of the family returns. Frankenstein finds out that his suspicions about William's fate were correct, and the monster threatens further violence on Frankenstein's family if a certain request of his is not fulfilled. He wants a bride, similar in nature to himself, simply because every normal human has rejected him.

Volume 3 is about the consequences of Frankenstein's refusal of this request. Frankenstein attempts to make the bride once, but destroys the result. He flees across northern Scotland and Ireland, only to face more death, and back in Geneva, a final round of murder and death. Every professional and filial attachment is either denied him or destroyed, and he blames it all on his creation. The monster tauntingly leads him on a long chase that ends up in the Arctic Ocean. Once Frankenstein is done his story, the book has a brief coda narrated by Walton.

Why has this book's fame persisted so long in our culture? Shelley's Frankenstein is a strong psychological drama, the pitiless tale of the destruction of one man. The book has longer passages of philosophy and reflection than modern horror readers are accustomed to, but the body count is certainly still quite high. The book has a major disappointment to audiences conditioned by all the movie versions to expect a hugely spectacular creation-of-the-monster scene: Frankenstein doesn't describe it to Walton for fear that Walton will write it down and let other people figure out the process. A copout, but a reasonable one by the book's internal logic. Interestingly, Shelley's story has been played as horror in most adaptations but it's also a sound argument to call it science fiction. What should we do with our expanding scientific powers? How do we make decisions on life or death matters once that is within our hands? As much as Frankenstein is a cliché when it's applied to new scientific advances, the kneejerk warning of doom, it's also as if Shelley's book has never been applied at all. Cautionary tales by their nature can hardly ever be intense or sweeping enough. Does Frankenstein deserve his cruel fate? Shelley seems to punish the man for two sins, hubris and lack of pity. Frankenstein creates life and then turns away from it. Perhaps it's as simple as the fact that he doesn't learn from his mistakes despite his brilliance.

This leads me directly to my next point. Another reason for the book's enduring fame is the strength of the characters. Frankenstein is a complex and fascinating man, a scholarly prodigy, and noteworthy to his biology professors even though he has grown up reading alchemy textbooks. He ruins his life with overwork in the two years it takes to create the monster, then runs from the consequences, all the while living with crushing despair. He's hardly the mad scientist of the movie adaptations; his fit of mad science is followed mostly by remorse and the accumulation of fatal consequences. Frankenstein is quite glib, and doesn't learn from his own philosophizing, another of the book's ironies; at one point, he says: "A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule" (54). Even more interesting than Frankenstein himself is the character of the monster. We encounter his horrible deeds before he gets a chance to tell his own story, but when he does, the book subtly changes, tearing our sympathies between the two main characters. The monster becomes aware of the world, learns to read, and acts out of crippling loneliness -- all this is related in stunning details. Shelley has a knack for demonstrating complex states of mind through a character's actions, even though the prose may be a bit thick for the modern reader. Shelley skimps on the other characters in the book, such as Walton or the one female character, Elizabeth.

Frankenstein is well worth reading, and it's much different than the popular conception of the story. This is not surprising, considering the way it has wended its way through popular culture for almost two centuries. The story has been picked over by horror and science fiction writers and scriptwriters ever since (for example, the last speech of the monster -- "'But soon,' he cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm, 'I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt'" (215) -- is quite similar to the famous "Tears in Rain" speech in Blade Runner, another lament by a created being), and there have been a multitude of movie adaptations and sequels, even computer games. The majority of them are simply awful, but one or two points of interest crop up.

Frankenstein, written by John L. Balderston from the theatrical adaptation by Peggy Webling of the novel by Mary Shelley, directed by James Whale, 1931, 70 min.

Whale's Frankenstein is generally regarded as one of the greatest monster movies ever made, and the movie's image of Frankenstein's monster has become an icon of cinema (even though subsequent adaptations mistakenly call the famous monster by the name of its creator). Most of what passes for horror onscreen nowadays has conditioned fans to expect blood and gore and guts, and a shock a minute. Frankenstein lacks all those things, and generally has a slow pace and a focus on characters. The most shocking thing about the movie was, apparently, that Henry Frankenstein cries out, just after creating the monster, "Now I know what it is like to be God!" This line was censored at the time, but has been restored on DVD (also censored and subsequently restored was the scene where the monster accidentally murders a little girl). The tender sensibilities of an audience of the past are easy to mock, and certainly seem quaint by today's standards; horror movies no longer have a tuxedoed narrator introduce the movie and warn the audience to brace themselves (of course, our own sensibilities will be ripe for parody soon enough). While audiences won't swoon from shock watching this movie nowadays, it has held up remarkably well, especially when watched in conjunction with Whale's sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Both movies clock in at around 70 minutes, so the combined run time is not much more than the terrible Kenneth Branagh version.

Frankenstein had a tortuous genesis (some of the extras on the recent DVD go into further detail about the whys and wherefores of the credits), and takes a few elements from Mary Shelley's book and discards the rest. Some of these plot points would show up in Whale's sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, but the pattern of extremely loose adaptation was already set and would be followed throughout all of the versions to follow. In this movie, Henry Frankenstein is an obsessed scientist holed up in a remote castle, busy stitching together body parts that he and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz have robbed from graves. He intends to animate this corpse and create new life. His fiancée and father are understandably concerned, but he carries on regardless. After an astonishing creation scene, his work is a success, but Fritz seems bent on tormenting the creature. The creature kills Fritz and escapes. The creature has one brief experience with happiness, but it is soon being chased by the villagers and their infamous flaming torches. Cue the burning windmill and the apparent destruction of the monster.

Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein set the template, fortunately or unfortunately, for a whole parade of mad scientists who would follow his example and run amuck in B-movies for decades to come. The complexity of his character is cut down considerably from the book, which is understandable for a movie of such a short running length. Clive's Frankenstein is not much capable of restraint or remorse, despite the ending (it's no surprise when he shows up in the sequel ready for more mad science). This ends up working in the movie's favour, however; Boris Karloff as the monster is the key to the proceedings, and Frankenstein himself is just plot business to get us to the good stuff.

Interestingly, Karloff's monster doesn't have that much screen time, which is why this movie is better watched in tandem with its sequel. The most famous scene in Frankenstein is probably the child drowning scene. After escaping from Frankenstein's castle, the creature meets and begins innocently playing with a young peasant girl, as they both throw flowers onto some nearby water and watch the petals float. The creature then proceeds to throw the girl into the water, not knowing that she will drown. As a synopsis of the creature's nature, either as ignorant and deserving of our pity or as outcast because of its brutish nature, the scene is a bit brief but what it lacks in length it makes up in impact.

As mentioned, this movie version keeps only a small amount of Shelley's book. Because the movie itself works, this is a small sin (unlike the case of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). One of the few moments that feels unnecessary is the origin of the monster's brain. Fritz is sent by Frankenstein to get a brain from a nearby institute; as a clumsy henchman, Fritz promptly drops the jar containing the brain Frankenstein wanted. He grabs the next available brain and the camera shows us "ABNORMAL" written on the jar in big letters. A criminal brain thus leads to a brutish monster. This puts less of the responsibility on Frankenstein for trespassing on what man is not meant to know or do and more on a mistake made by the incompetent help. It also undercuts the film's natural sympathy for the monster.

What does this movie mean? At one level, it could be considered as a vehicle to deliver scares to the audience. It succeeded at the time and has become iconic for that reason. But as modern horror movies can sometimes demonstrate, a series of bloody shocks can be instantly forgettable. This movie succeeds because it has some conceptual heft to it, as well as some adroitly handled ambiguity in its regard for its monster. The movie has taken on a life of its own due to the space it leaves for viewers to inscribe themselves and interpret the story. For example, much ink has also been expended on the ways in which James Whale may or may not have encoded his homosexuality in his films (see the excellent Gods and Monsters, a recent movie about Whale). Like the best art, this movie has stood the test of time.

Both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are available in new DVD editions with all scenes properly restored and plenty of extras for those who want to know more about the movies.

Bride of Frankenstein, written by William Hurlbut, directed by James Whale, 1935, 75 min.

If anything, Bride of Frankenstein has a better critical reputation than its predecessor, which happens seldom enough for a sequel to make this noteworthy. Is it a better movie? I see it as completing a sequence; it certainly answers a lot of the people who want to see sequences from the book. In particular, there is a segment during which the monster befriends a blind man that goes a long way towards humanizing the dreadful creature, recapturing some of the ambiguity of the book. And of the returning cast, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster is the key talent, from the opening scene as he crawls out of the wreckage of the burning windmill to the closing sequences as the true pathos of his fate becomes clear.

This movie does suffer from a framing story with Mary Shelley and friends, as they talk about the tale of Frankenstein and his monster. It's only a slight distraction, since the movie has its heart in the right place; the focus is all on the creature and its creator, their tortured relationship, and what it might mean. Subsequent adaptations of Frankenstein that have tried to use a framing story have done much worse for it, especially Mary Shelley's Frankenstein which had enough other flaws and didn't need one more. The idea of Mary Shelley and her fictional creation was taken to a postmodern extreme with Brian Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound, but once again, the framing story detracted from the core tale. Whale's duo of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, considered together, are probably the best adaptation, despite the looseness, of Shelley's book. I would add the proviso "so far," but it's possible that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has killed the idea of further adaptations.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont from the novel by Mary Shelley, directed by Kenneth Branagh, 1994, 120 min.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a horrible movie in two profound ways: its apparent claim to be faithful to the original book is complete claptrap, and it is a lousy movie in general. I have no problem with movie adaptations that stray from the source material; that's just a fact of life, and it can sometimes lead to a better movie. The two examples that come to mind are Ridley Scott's Blade Runner vs. Philip K. Dick's book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, which did drastic surgery on Shakespeare's famous play. The Hamlet reference is pertinent here, as we will see in a minute. Leaving aside the hypocrisy of calling this movie Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, how does the movie fare on its own? To put it bluntly, not well at all: the movie features Victor Frankenstein as an obsessed young scientist who wants to create life and regrets it later, but it doesn't offer much else of interest.

The movie begins like the book, with a framing story in the Arctic Ocean. A ship captain is desperate to explore further to the north and his men are getting more and more mutinous. One day they spot a monster and a man pursuing him; the captain brings the man, Frankenstein, onboard. Frankenstein subsequently tells his tragic story. He grew up in a privileged family but was traumatized by the death of his mother. Later, he went off to university, where he learns/steals the procedure of creating life from an older professor. The grand creation scene takes place during a cholera epidemic and Frankenstein leaves the city before getting to know his monster. Two episodes from the book follow, as the monster befriends a blind man and Frankenstein's younger brother is murdered. After that, the movie goes completely off the rails, with an ending that includes Frankenstein's lover, Elizabeth, and some distinctly unpleasant plot business.

The framing story is taken from the book, as well as the murdered younger brother and the befriended blind man. Almost everything else has been changed. A few of those changes help make the narrative flow more smoothly, such as the cholera epidemic, which drives Frankenstein out of the city. In the book, this separation of the man and his creation was never fully explained, and in the movie, Frankenstein is overcome by a burst of revulsion and by the force of events. The movie also keeps most of the action in Geneva, which streamlines the overall tone of the story, while the book ventured all around Europe in scenes that were not always memorable. Most of the other changes don't matter, such as Frankenstein's mother dying young or the way Frankenstein learns the procedure from an older professor (neither of which happened in the book).

Two other major changes are understandable but totally wrongheaded. The creation-of sequences are suppressed by Frankenstein in the book, and Branagh and team clearly needed to outdo all previous attempts to fill in the blank. But the movie uses a strange combination of metal tanks, acupuncture, and amniotic fluid. The mind boggles, especially as this is followed by a scene with Frankenstein (shirtless) and his monster (nude) wrestling while covered with slime. I would call this pointlessly homoerotic, except that I think that such a description dignifies the bizarre, witless tone of the scene more than it deserves. The second wrongheaded sequence invented by the filmmakers is the entire ending. Shelley's book concludes, or rather winds down, with a protracted anticlimax, as Frankenstein gets more and more bogged down in despair. Philosophically appropriate, but cinematically dull. This movie version wants bigger and bolder melodrama, lurid twists and turns, and so forth, an assault on the senses that gives us no reason to care about what is happening.

Branagh's approach to the material in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, especially the ending, is keyed way too high. The movie is so over the top that it loses all control and coherency. Sometimes this tendency suits his movies, like the agreeably cheesy Dead Again. That movie seemed to have a tighter control of its material, while Branagh's four-hour Hamlet is an example of what could be considered his general failure to choose anything, just pile it all on. I liked Branagh's Hamlet but I didn't admire it in the way I did Olivier's much shorter, cannier version. Branagh's Frankenstein has little of tragedy about it, and less of sense. And a story like Frankenstein requires more control, not less. Pop culture (at least worthwhile bits of it that have lasted two centuries) always looks easy but it requires just as much a precise application of effect as any other form of art.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a shabby attempt to capitalize on some of the enduring interest in the famous story of a scientist and his creation. Branagh's version is at once too close to the original and not enough of its own conception. Fans of the book are rightly outraged by vast liberties from a movie that promises faithfulness; fans of quality movies of any kind are left with an unworkable hybrid that pleases no one. Stories of human responsibility and invention are probably needed more than ever as our scientific reach grows, but movie adaptations of Shelley's Frankenstein haven't answered that need for many years now.

In Search of Frankenstein, Radu Florescu, Robson, 1997, 287 pp.

Subtitled Exploring the Myths Behind Mary Shelley's Monster, Florescu's book is an odd mix of an academic tone and personal reminiscence. Florescu tells us some history, of Shelley and her life and the places she visited, but also of his own journeys retracing Shelley's treks. Later in the book, Florescu talks about nearly every monster movie ever made with Frankenstein in it, a discussion which might be completist but is not all that interesting.

When Mary and Percy Shelley eloped in 1814, they travelled all the way to Geneva and then back to England again by way of the Rhine. Florescu speculates that Shelley saw Castle Frankenstein (which is near Darmstadt) during this return trip. Two years later, the Shelleys went back to Switzerland, and Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the summer of 1816. Florescu also discusses Shelley's later life, especially some of the tragedies in the late 1810s. The book has maps of Shelley's journeys, a section of photographs in the middle, and extensive endnotes and appendices. The appendices list genealogies of the Shelleys and the real Frankenstein family, a filmography, and a bibliography. Overall, this is an interesting book for Frankenstein fans, but it could have used a little more polishing.

Young Frankenstein, written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, directed by Mel Brooks, 1974, 105 min.

Mel Brooks made a loving and careful spoof of James Whale's original black and white movie with the ever-popular Young Frankenstein. Brooks's movie is also in black and white and he even used some of the sets of the 1932 version. This was by no means the first Frankenstein spoof and it didn't prove to be the last, but it still remains the best of the bunch.

Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of Victor Frankenstein; he has always been embarrassed about his family name and demands that everyone pronounce it as Fronk-un-steen (which later infuriates Igor to the point where he demands to be called Eye-gor). He inherits the family castle, and ends up following in his grandfather's experiments. The monster that he creates is played by Peter Boyle, and a large part of the humour of the film comes from the fact that he is sometimes a monster and sometimes the only sane person onscreen. Brooks includes elements of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, as well as the later sequel Son of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Unbound, Brian W. Aldiss, Random House, 1973, 212 pp.

Frankenstein Unbound, written by Francis X. Feeney and Roger Corman from the novel by Brian W. Aldiss, directed by Roger Corman, 1990, 90 min.

Frankenstein Unbound, a notable book by Brian Aldiss, takes a character from the 21st century named Joe Bodenland and sends him back to Switzerland in 1816; the method of time travel is uncontrollable instabilities in the universe called timeslips. The main character Joe immediately meets Victor Frankenstein, a fictional character, and arrives in Geneva just in time for a murder trial that is also from Mary Shelley's famous book. The situation gets more complicated when Joe travels to a nearby villa where the real Shelley is staying, along with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Joe decides to change the plot of Shelley's story, and from there the events diverge from both history and fiction.

This book has fascinating potential but it could have been a lot better. The presence of Shelley and company is at first promising, but is quickly relegated to a side incident that doesn't affect anything else in the book. The version of Victor Frankenstein's character here is far more reckless but his eventual fate less meaningful than in Shelley's book. And the reader is not left with any clear idea of what the book is about. The writing is serviceable but not glossy or intricate enough to support the book in the absence of other appealing elements such as story or character. The story itself seems propped up by several vivid images rather than any consistent theme. For example, Frankenstein's monster and the monster's new bride have a thrilling/horrifying mating dance near the end of the book, but what does it mean? It could be science amok, but the ending seems to undercut it and the same themes were portrayed just as profoundly in Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, the movie adaptation by Roger Corman was the famous B-movie maven's return to directing after 20 years of producing. But the movie version is much worse than the book, and it doesn't have the attraction of being laughably bad like some of Corman's other movies. Frankenstein Unbound suffers from some key miscasting and a lousy ending that confuses the Aldiss conclusion even further. A curiosity item only.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Canada. He is sincerely hoping there won't be another Frankenstein movie adaptation unless it's really really good.

Last modified: June 1, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #18

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