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Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

My first introduction to Frankenstein my have been similar to yours: Boris Karloff with a huge square head, metal spikes in his neck, and huge moon boots, in an old (1931) black and white movie. In spite of the effort to make this creature frightening, I still felt sorry for him as he was harassed and harried by the townsfolk, complete with pitchforks and torches, and repudiated by his crazed maker.

Many years later, I read the book, and learned about what inspired Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley to write the story. While vacationing (and indulging in drugs) with her husband, Percy, and his friend, Lord Byron, the group was kept indoors by a summer of rain and clouds that was the result of a volcanic eruption. To entertain themselves, they made up stories to frighten one another. Mary was dwelling on the dangers of “modern” technology, and wondered what the consequences might be if man tried to play God. Her story has become one of the staples of horror, in spite of its being dated – and today, the possibility of actually creating human life are ever more near. I recently saw a demonstration of a 3D printer that makes pliable replicas of human organs, the idea being that possibly one day these might be made to order to replace a failing body part. Brilliant, and chilling.

Over the years, Frankenstein (whose name refers to Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, not the Creature) has been told again and again, mostly on film, but rarely telling the tale as Shelley wrote it. One version had the Creature as a beautiful man, perfect in every way, played by Michael Sarrazin, who heartbreakingly deteriorates over time. Another had him an ugly, angry man-child played by Robert De Niro in classic over-the-top acting.

In Shelley’s imagining, Victor is both the hero and the demon —driven by the misery of his beloved mother, Caroline’s, untimely death, he becomes obsessed with being able to end death— to bring the dead back from wherever it is that they go.

Important to understanding the book is its subtitle: or, The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is a Greek hero, or Titan, who in mythology created man from clay, later giving him the stolen gift of fire which enabled him to prosper and progress. He is a champion of mankind in general, and is the author of the human arts and sciences. Again, the “Prometheus” of the title is Victor Frankenstein, not the Creature.

While most movie adaptations, from the sublime (such as Frankenstein, The True Story), to the absurd ( Mel Brooks’ hilarious Young Frankenstein) focus mainly on the Creature, or take great liberties with the tale, the book divides its time between the passionate curiosity and intelligence of Victor, and the struggle of the Creature to find a place in the world.

When I found the 2004 made for TV mini-series (Frankenstein), I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I got was a fairly faithful film version of a book that has not only inspired so many film versions, but that has piqued the imagination of generations of readers and movie lovers.

At its heart, Frankenstein was a love story, and a story that questioned man’s place in the world. It was originally published in 1818, just as the first Industrial Revolution was beginning. A Gothic romance, it used the tropes of the otherworldly, the beautiful and the ugly, dark castles and hidden passion. But this book goes far beyond that and deep into tangled emotions and investigations of what it means to be human and the various forms and functions of love. And, as seems common with fin de siecle art, Shelley is confronting themes that are a reflecting of changing times. The Enlightenment saw people looking back to the classics for wisdom, insight, and a break from the superstitions and dogma of a church-ruled life. Now, science and technology are imagined as the dawn of the new era. The age of Prometheus.

Victor is a wealthy young man with a brilliant mind. He shares an unusually close bond with his mother, and then soon the young orphan (?) that his father brings home to live with the family, Elizabeth. His father is a cheerful, loving man, who is devoted to his family, which includes Victor, his adopted daughter Elizabeth, and his young son William. Due to attend Ingolstadt University, Victor sinks into a depression at the death of his mother, but throws himself into his studies – feeling that only the natural sciences are of value.

After reanimating a dog under the tutelage of a professor Waldman, Victor begins the musings and experiments that ultimately spell his doom: why not restore humans to life? And so begins Victor’s quest to create a perfect man.

This 2004 version of the story remains, as noted, very true to the book in both the way the tale unravels, and in the motivations of the various characters – including the Creature. Abandoned by his “father” shortly after his creation, the poor, confused Creature —who is at first odd looking but not horrible— stumbles around trying to understand who he is, where he is, and why he is. He hides near the home of a happy peasant family, leaving them gifts of cut wood, and befriending the kindly but blind grandfather. Through this association, he learns to read, and, having Victor’s notebook, he learns how he has been created.

The story goes on through a series of unhappy accidents, passionate loves and hates, futile attempts to make things right, and ultimately, a confrontation of “father” and “son,” leading to the death of one and the disappearance of the other.

For a modern audience, it’s a challenge to interpret a Gothic novel – to maintain its mystery and sometimes silly drama, while taking the temperature down to a level more compatible with a 21st Century mind and heart. This adaptation succeeds admirably, and while Victor mopes and weeps and curses his fate, its within the bounds of belief, and oddly enough the only sour note for me was the usually brilliant William Hurt, playing Professor Waldman with an oddly Italian sounding German accent.

Closing out my adventure in reliving (yes, sort of a pun) “Frankenstein,” was seeing the video mentioned above in which human body parts were “printed.” Things that make you go “hmm.”

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.