No. 9: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and Who’s The Real Monster?

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Frankenstein 1931 - Boris Karloff - Director James Whale
Boris Karloff
as Frankenstein in 1931 – Director James Whale

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, while on holiday, visited Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in 1816. Percy Shelley, her lover and future husband, and two close friends entertained Lord Byron, over several days, with discussions about galvanic responses, reanimation, and vivisection. After a lucid dream, she meditated upon these ideas and so inspired, began writing Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Mary Shelley, author of Frankestein (image from biography.com)
Mary Shelley, author of Frankestein
(image from biography.com)

“Beware: I am fearless, and therefore powerful…”___Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.

Only five hundred copies were published in 1818. Twenty-five were held by the author for personal distribution. Last fall, a rare copy of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, was discovered.

Robert De Niro as Frankensteins monster - image from moviepicturedb.com
Robert De Niro as Frankensteins monster – image from moviepicturedb.com

During an inventory of Oxford’s Bodleian Library archives, Sammy Jay, the twenty-three-year-old grandson of Douglas Jay, discovered it with the inscription: ‘To Lord Byron, from the author.’ At auction, the minimum bid was £350,000. This work is her only effort at science fiction, which she began writing at the age of nineteen.

The original story has been so distorted, so many times, that I feel it’s necessary to briefly summarize it here. It is a plot that exploits a key science fiction archetype: the mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein.

Elizabeth Lavenza - Frankenstein's Bride - (image from headhuntershorrorhouse wikia com)
Elizabeth Lavenza – Frankenstein’s Bride – (image from headhuntershorrorhouse wikia com)

Victor Frankenstein is consumed with reanimating dead tissue. When he succeeds, he is so horrified, he falls ill, but is nursed into health by a friend, Henry Cherval. The monster, too hideous to look upon, has vanished into the countryside, only to reappear outside of the Frankenstein family village. He startles William, Victor’s brother. The monster strangles William to prevent him from sounding an alarm, then frames a young girl, Justine, for William’s murder.

Despite this, the monster mounts a persuasive appeal and convinces Victor of his responsibility to create the monster a mate. Nearing the completion of this effort, Victor comes to his senses and destroys Frankenstein’s object of desire, his bride-to-be. This enrages the monster, who vows revenge upon Victor on his wedding night.

Believing the monster means to kill him, Victor hides his bride, Elizabeth, away from himself. But when the monster strikes, it is to murder Elizabeth. All these murders are too much for Victor’s father, who dies of grief. Victor then pursues the monster for months, arriving in the arctic. Victor implores his friend Robert to show no compassion, but to “strike for the heart,” promising to continue the pursuit, even after he dies, as a ghost.

In the end, Victor perishes and the monster, overcome with remorse, vows to burn himself on a pyre. The monster is last seen drifting away on a raft of ice as twilight bleeds into darkness.

Frankenstein Selected Move Posters 1
Frankenstein Selected Move Posters 1

How does Frankenstein rate as a great story? It has reinvented itself again and again. Frankenstein has been adapted sixty-seven times into movie scripts, fifty-six of which were feature films and eleven that were teleplays.

The original book has given birth to eighteen novels and three series of novels. There have been nine stage productions, eight radio productions, and twenty-nine songs written about Frankenstein.

And then there are an additional sixty-five cameo television and movie appearances. He has been constantly recycled through various mediums that include comic books. One comic book version has made Frankenstein an Agent of S.H.A.D.E. and Marvel has run its own comic book version of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Selected Movies Posters 2
Frankenstein Selected Movies Posters 2

 

 

 

By this time, you should be ready for the punch line: “This horror story has been done to death.”

Not all iterations of Frankenstein are home runs, evidenced by the following list:

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein,

Blackenstein,

Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein,

Frankenstein’s Island,

Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein,

Frankenstein’s Daughter,

Frankenstein Meets Gozilla

(Okay, I just made this last one up … I couldn’t help myself.)

At least with Translyvania 6-5000 and Young Frankenstein, the audience can quickly realize that these movies are no-holds-barred camp. Very decent of them, don’t you think? No pretense that this story is intended as a horror story.

Young Frankenstein - Mel Brooks a musical - (image from io9.com)
Young Frankenstein – Mel Brooks musical –
(image by io9.com)

Underlying Frankenstein’s success is a plethora of queries. I’ll restrict myself to a few:

Q: Why do writers continue to rend this story apart and then stitch it back together?

A: There is a certain philosophical continuity in this redundant behavior if you ponder it. After all, it is about the reanimation of flesh. Since the story has been done to death, it only makes sense to keep bringing it back to life … right?

I suppose that’s a personal preference.

I keep thinking about some alarmed paramedic, recently certified, hovering over a patient in an ambulance and using an AED to revive an expired patient. The paramedic, apparently, just can’t seem to accept the fact that this patient is dead, and so keeps trying to revive the deceased.

Q: Why do people continue to watch, read, and listen to new versions of this story?

A: There’s an adage about ‘anything worth doing is worth over doing.’ That seems to be the case here. Talk to the marketing people. I’m sure they’ll tell you to keep stocking a best seller, no matter how bad the most recent version may be.

Q: What was the author’s original intent?

A: This question is truly a challenge.

Mary Shelley was a political animal. Some feminist critics suggest she uses Gothic Romanticism to both explore repressed female sexual desires and to censor herself. I’m not sure I follow that argument since it requires a split personality (though she wouldn’t be the first writer to have done so).

Others suggest that Victor Frankenstein, as Satan, is rejecting tradition by seizing his own destiny…a negative personality trait. That’s seems in keeping with Mary Shelley’s bourgeois mentalité. It’s certainly within her contemporaneous social context.

But we can’t know her intentions for certain. We can suspect … that she wasn’t just talking about bubblegum and ice cream. After all, her mother wrote “Vindication For The Rights of Women.” Changing social mores conflicted with family pressures to conform. Self-seeking ambitions were frowned upon and the idea of playing God would have likely alarmed her.

In the movie, Van Helsing, the monster may be seen as hideous, but he in fact attempts to save the life of his creator. Against the village mob, he fails in this and is burned up in a windmill. Later, when confronted by Van Helsing, he asks: “Who’s the monster here?”

Van Helsing's Frankenstein
Van Helsing’s Frankenstein

About this monster, Van Helsing is convinced that “ …evil does not rule it.”

Frankenstein's Monster (image from welloflostplots wordpress.com)
Frankenstein’s Monster (image from welloflostplots wordpress.com)

Unlike the original monster, who could read philosophy, but be unaffected by its meaning, this monster can read the bible, grasp philosophical concepts, and intuit their implications. And all he asks to be allowed to live.

In other versions of this story, the mob that chases after the monster can rival the monster in sheer terror. Sometimes the mob’s rampage seems the more destructive, the more negative. Our fear of the mob is as primal as our fear of the monster. Both crawl out of a dark place and are cause for further inquiry into a study of monsters as plot elements. You can see parallels in zombie movies, in vampire movies, and even with the Borg.

The reanimation of the undead lays claim upon our subconscious. We have a visceral response to a monster that should already be dead, after all. And yet…it comes back from death like the undead demon of a departed mythology, or the ghost of a cursed ancestor.

When Shelley created Frankenstein, she tapped into our collective unconsciousness. We are not just afraid of monsters. It is not just that other we envision as the essence of our hostile aliens in SF plots. We are afraid of that other that resides within. Somewhere between the belief in the perfectibility of humanity and the formal rules of a society that chains us, we find our monster and it is lurking within our dark selves. It is a darker self that we stitch together out of our left over spare parts. And it possesses that split personality that some suggest Shelley struggled with. It lies somewhere in our subconscious and we are terrified of it. We keep it at bay, try to starve it to death, hoping it has died, but we know it hasn’t. We always discover that the real monster is, in the end, always ourselves. We discover this when we are under duress. We find it in our social relations and it is revealed by how we treat one another. But we discover, sometimes, that even the monster has morals.

Mary Shelley -ST Peters Churchyard, Bournemouth - (image from bloomsburybytes wordpress.com)
Mary Shelley -ST Peters Churchyard, Bournemouth – (image from bloomsburybytes wordpress.com)

Modern writers can easily translate Shelley’s story into a saleable logline:

“A mad scientist’s blind ambition creates an undead monstrosity that ultimately destroys his loved ones and consumes him.”

It is this core idea that keeps being told and retold, that keeps reinventing itself. Like the monster itself, this story outlives its creator.

Mary Shelley died here.
Mary Shelley died here.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Another breat article. Thanks JJJ.

    For the Hollywood love for Frankenstein, I think it is the branding. Frankenstein has wide recognition, so any similar monster or tale that would require selling to the audience is instantly recognized if named Frankenstein. When execs are putting out large lumps of cash for a film production, they want the least amount of risk to their investment. Frankenstein is recognized globally and has instant value.

    Agreed that the basic plot is repeated over and over again with different twists that don't invoke Frankenstein himself.

    Part of the infatuation could also be the ability to play God. Create life whether a monster or an artifical intelligence or robot or other.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks. I glad you enjoyed it.

      I think you've hit on something about global recognition and instant value. It's quite difficult to hold an audience's attention during a movie and throwing in cliches allows the audience to fully grasp a concept without thinking about it. It's a stream of consciousness thing.

      While I understand the use of easily recognized symbols in mass media efforts, it's dissappointing when the cliches rob you of a new experience before you're out of the first act.

      The part about playing God will never, I imagine, get old. At least, not enough to forestall a movie producer. Something reaches into your gut and pulls on it when you see some arrogant fool doing something we've all learned to not do. (Don't step in front of the bus until it comes to a complete stop…) Bringing the dead back to life … I don't know about you, but that idea always makes me pause and think for a few moments.

  2. It's always seemed interesting to me that Lord Byron's daughter was the first computer programmers, since the basic theme of Frankenstein is repeated so many times in science fiction, but with a robotic or cybernetic (rather than simply organic) monster.

    • I missed something with the computer programmer reference, but Frankenstein's basic theme has a purity that does make the plot usable by vampires, zombies and … maybe I'm reaching here…but I see some of the Borg episodes looking strangely familiar. Frankenstein is pure scare tactics and as monsters go, Frankenstein doesn't need a lot of description to get a lot of mileage.

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