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Creating a Monster: Frankenstein, Adaptation and Cultural Myths

Since its first publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has held a place at the forefront of popular culture. The story has spawned countless adaptations across film, stage and the television screen. It birthed the modern conception of the science-fiction genre, precursor to over two hundred years of works that engage philosophically with man’s place in the world vis-a-vis his need to explore and understand the elements of the universe. Of course, the story has also given pop culture one of its most iconic figures. Yet many of the devoted fans of Shelley’s masterwork often find themselves frustrated at this depiction: an ambling, stupid, murderous simpleton of a monster, so utterly removed from the pensive, eloquent and majestic antagonist of the original novel. So how did this transformation occur, with such a disconnect existing between the two famous associations of this classic character? The story reveals much about both the context of Shelley’s novel and its subsequent adaptations, and furthermore the conditions of adaptation as a practice in general.

Figure 1: Portrait of Mary Shelley, author of "Frankenstein" (Rothwell, 1840).

Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus was written and published at the height of the Romantic period in the early 1800s. The propagation of Enlightenment ideals throughout European society as well as the conservative political backlash to the Napoleonic Wars led to a flourishing in Romantic art, a movement that alternatively championed the sensitive and the emotional aspect of human experience. The novel’s examination of scientific ethics and its relation to morality are typical of the era, a "period of transition between visions of science", and when scientific and artistic life were becoming simultaneously opposed and linked to one another (Lemley, 2018, p. 1). Frankenstein is termed the birth of science-fiction due to this self-conscious use of contemporary scientific debates and concerns as a vehicle for fiction and its relating of that fiction to the natural and the imperfect ways of humanity (Curran, 2006). Shelley’s eponymous central character is involved in the use of electricity in "natural philosophy" in order to better understand the animating properties of life, reflecting very contemporary efforts by scientists like Luigi Galvani to reanimate and move deceased organic matter by similar means (Vint, 2021).

According to the archaic models implicit in his narrative, his presumptuous deed is invested with the aura of a primal sin against nature that somehow justifies the ensuing retributive bother. (Sherwin, 1981, p. 883)

Victor Frankenstein is drawn to the exalted aspirations of the "chemists" who "penetrate into the recesses of nature" and ascend into the heavens’ (Shelley, 1818, pp. 47-48). His noble but misguided aspirations are typical of the very impositions on humanity and the primacy of nature that Shelley and her Romantic contemporaries believed to be in the ascendancy in the early nineteenth century.

Figure 2: Experiments in bio-electricity were controversial issues at the time Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein (Galvani, 1791).

At a time when this contested branch of science was heavily influenced by religious divisions, Shelley drew both elements of the story together to produce the immensely complex position of her novel’s two shadow characters. Frankenstein does succeed where Galvani and his contemporaries fell short and produces a living man, whose presence ultimately proves visually and ethically overwhelming for his creator. Frankenstein abandons his "creature" to die and returns to his family in Geneva in fear and denial. Just as the scientific revolutions of the day inform Shelley’s plot, so too do the artistic responses of her Romantic contemporaries. Following his abandonment by his creator, the "daemon" (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) teaches himself of the world via a selection of books found in a hideout, one of which is The Sorrows of Young Werther by the great German Romantic author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). From Werther the creature learns of "despondency and gloom" and the principal place of emotion in human life, the first encounter with the concept of love and its tragic permutations, experiences he would recognise in the loveless abandonment he himself had just suffered at the hands of his "father" (Shelley, 1818, p. 178). The explicit mention of Goethe’s work as a profound influence on the creature draws another obvious connection to the German’s 1805 rendition of the Faust myth, in which the soul of a man is lost in exchange for the pursuit of material knowledge and pleasure.

The creature comes to learn in his own time of his unnatural creation: just as he learned of love from Goethe, he finds recognition in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) as he curses the "father" who has forsaken him. This foil of Milton’s epic poem highlights the thrust of Shelley’s Romantic point of view: that humankind’s aspirations to circumvent nature and become like gods are a dangerous precedent that will lead to chaotic and unintended consequences. This thread is strengthened further by the subtitular allusion to the Promethean myth, in which fire (and with it control over life and death) was taken from the Greek Pantheon of gods and given to humankind. The creature speaks poetically of the self-loathing inherent in his being, the knowledge that haunts him of his perennial isolation and detachment from nature:

Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but this state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. (Shelley, 1818, p. 180)

In terms of his expression and consciousness, he is clearly a wise and eloquent vessel for the great ideas of his time. He is touched by a profound sense of the world around him and his unique place in it, and his horror is not that of a bumbling, incomprehensible monster. This creature finds himself wretched and monstrous in a philosophical sense, tortured by the metaphysical implications of his unnatural creation, because this is precisely the consideration of the time in which it was produced but also the method by which its literary medium could best examine the sense of otherness. The combination of these factors allows Frankenstein to thrive as the definitive artistic statement of the Romantic period's engagement between art, science and philosophy (Lemley, 2018).

Figure 3: "Prometheus Bound" (Rubens, 1618).

The first film adaptation of Frankenstein was a little-known, brief, fourteen-minute silent film produced by Edison Studios in 1910. Several other small-scale adaptations existed and were lost in Europe and America throughout the 1920s (Nowell-Smith, 1997). It would be over a century since Shelley’s initial novel before the now-iconic image of Frankenstein was born via Universal Pictures’ 1931 Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff in the role of the creature. It is in this role that the essence of Frankenstein’s monster was cemented in popular culture as the more lumbering, ogreish figure so often presented today.

Directed by James Whale, the 1931 film was influenced more by concurrent trends in the rapidly developing medium of cinema than by Mary Shelley’s original novel. The film was produced in the era of German Expressionist cinema, a movement of surreal and visually eccentric movies originating from Germany's Weimar Republic. The set design and direction of these films was often influenced by the theatre, emphasising the use of full-body movements and exaggerated expression. Bizarre set designs accentuated a distinctly surreal type of horror that played on archetypal imagery and unconscious states of being. Famous examples from this time, such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Wiene, 1920) and especially The Golem (Wegener & Galeen, 1915), set the scene for this type of film to be the standard for what a horror movie should look like and greatly influenced the physical depiction of the creature in Universal's Frankenstein. Throughout the 1920s, the influence of this European avant-garde began to make itself felt in American cinema (Nowell-Smith, 1997). Following the success of Dracula (Browning, 1930), Universal Studios was fixed on producing more horror movies of a similar tone, as the Bram Stoker-adapted movie proved one of their most financially successful efforts in years. Due to these commercial and artistic trends in cinema in the early 1930s, the 1931 Frankenstein was placed on a discordant course, thematically and visually very different from the source material of Shelley’s original.

Figure 4: Still frame from Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" (Decla-film, 1920).

The prototypical Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari have been cited as expressions of the state of post-war German society, emphasising the mental trauma of the nation and a sense of dislocation that subconsciously attracted the attention of the devastated population (Kracauer, 1947). By 1931, the prosperity of the "Roaring Twenties" in the US found itself replaced by an equally devastating Great Depression. The 1929 Wall Street Crash placed many in a similar position of destitution to post-war Germany. Consequently, the belated influence of German Expressionist cinema in Universal’s Frankenstein found an equally receptive audience for its more explicit criticism of human interference in natural orders, be they scientific or economic. In both contexts, the rapid development of modern society had left unprecedented poverty and death, via the weaponised technologies of the First World War or the unregulated excesses of the consumer society and its manipulations of wealth. Human overextension had left nothing but devastation in its wake.

Where Shelley’s original novel remains in the speculative phase of philosophical ponderings, Whale’s 1931 film presents a far more drastic and immediate vision of the consequences of this unnatural progress. As an expression of theme, it is inherently linked to its medium, embodying the rapid pace of technological development in its time, something exemplified precisely by cinema itself. Whereas Shelley’s creature had time in a literary medium to elaborate verbally on its position, in Whale’s adaptation greater emphasis is placed on the visual contrasts of light and dark to convey themes of juxtaposition, highlighting the opposition between natural and unnatural, human and inhuman, urban and rural. Consequently, Karloff’s interpretation of the monster is reduced to a more visual and physical being. Karloff’s performance, nonetheless, emphasises the helplessness and childlike isolation of the abandoned creature, yet the ultimate effect is his transformation into a character of far less eloquence and complexity than his literary ancestor. The technical achievements and commercial success of Whale's film saw Karloff's embodiment of the creature become cemented in the overwhelmingly visual society that modernity had produced.

Figure 5: Release poster for the Robert Whale adaptation of "Frankenstein" (Universal Pictures, 1931).

Discussions of Frankenstein and depictions of the creature hit directly on the central themes of adaptation studies. In discussing "fidelity" to a literary original, literary critics now acknowledge the integral place held by Karloff and Whale’s 1931 adaptation in subsequent adaptations, including those that have marketed themselves on a greater level of adherence to Shelley’s original conception (Brannon, 2012, p. 2). Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film remake of the story played on its authenticity, titled in full as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The script does retain many elements from the Gothic novel's original plot that are often removed from cinematic adaptations, including, for example, the frame narration by the Arctic explorer Robert Walton, which is often excised from adaptations yet adds to the novel a secondary thematic examination of scientific arrogance. In fact, the creature of Branagh's film (played by Robert De Niro) maintains the sense of introspection and intelligence that characterised his ancestor in Shelley's novel. Yet even Branagh could not resist the influence that had been established by Whale and the subsequent film's physical transformation of the monster. Film critic Pedro Garcia has argued that the few additions which the film does make "have nothing to do with the book but ultimately point to the other film versions of the myth" (2012, p. 223).

In countless literary, film, and theatrical reimaginings, the creature of Frankenstein has remained a cultural mainstay for over two centuries. What Mary Shelley brought to life in 1818 was, in truth, a character as vital and animate as Victor sought to create. It has struck a profound balance, affecting the fundamental questions of human nature while constantly being reinvented and reborn as a manifestation of the specific scientific, artistic and philosophical concerns of each passing generation.

Bibliographical References

Brannon, J. (2012). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?: Kenneth Brannagh and Keeping Promises. Studies in Popular Culture. Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 1-23.

Curran, S. (2006). The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. Cambridge University Press.

Garcia, P. (2012). Beyond Adaptation: Frankenstein’s Postmodern Progeny. Books in Motion: Adaptation, Authorship, Intertextuality, pp. 223-42.

Kracauer, S. (1947). From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Cinema. Princeton University Press.

Lemley, A. (2018). Frankenstein and “The Labours of Men of Genius”: Science and Medical Ethics in the 19th Century. Grand Valley Journal of History. (Vol. 4, Issue 2).

Nowell-Smith, G. (1997). The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford University Press.

Shelley, M. (1818). Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Oxford Classics ed.

Sherwin, P. (1981). Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe. PMLA. Vol. 96, No. 5. Cambridge University Press, pp. 883-903.

Vint, S. (2021). Science Fiction. MIT Press.

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Seán Downey

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