The James Clayton Column: Why, Frankenstein?
The arrival of I, Frankenstein leaves James pondering the enduring phenomenon of Mary Shelley's seminal creation...
"We belong dead." Frankenstein's Monster in Bride Of Frankenstein (1935).
No, friend, you don’t belong dead. The masses definitely disagree with the Monster. (Ignore the mob of parochial peasants bearing pitchforks and flaming torches, because they're only film extras and their opinion on anything doesn't matter.)
Time has proved that Frankenstein's Monster (a.k.a. The Creature) is eternally popular and ever- relevant and, thus, should never be allowed to just die.
He's easy to revive. A few zaps of electricity and some dramatic lighting and, oh God! It's alive! It's alive! He is, indeed, alive again, shaped like Aaron Eckhart and gracing the big screen now that fresh release I, Frankenstein has found its way into theatres. You needn't worry if you don't get a chance to catch that at the cinema, though, because soon you'll have chance to see Victor Frankenstein and his great work among the horror icons populating the Penny Dreadful TV series. Wait a little while longer until 2015, and you'll find Paul McGuigan's Frankenstein in moviehouses with James McAvoy playing the titular doctor and Daniel Radcliffe hunching up as his assistant Igor.
Those are just few of the riffs on The Modern Prometheus on the slab right now. There will undoubtedly be many more variations on the Mary Shelley novel in the future, and altogether they'll extend the ludicrously long list of adaptations across film, TV, theatre, radio, comics, videogames and so on. Frankenstein and his creation have not died, are definitely not dying at this moment and will in all likelihood never be allowed to die. The story endures and audiences and artists across different media continue to cling to the macabre Enlightenment Age fable with peculiar affection.
Shelley's creation stands with Bram Stoker's Dracula and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes as a 19th century literary legend that's always in fashion. All of these characters and their surrounding mythologies are a constant cultural presence, rebooted, reinterpreted and re-appreciated repeatedly in each generation. Batman and Superman are similar icons spawned in the 20th century, but the crucial distinction marking Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster is explicit horror. The Monster - cadaverous kitbashing experiment and composite husk made of human dead bits - is the most singular of all and not an obvious figure of instant appeal.
Nevertheless, people have gone far flogging this dead (erm, alive! Alive!) corpse, and Frankenstein's Creation is rarely absent from the public eye. Universal Studios dragged the lumbering Monster out over and over for sequel after sequel through the 1930s and 40s. Britain's Hammer Studios then duly did the same over the 50s and 60s and since then we've seen - and not seen, because there are too many adaptations and homages to keep track of - an eclectic array of interesting spins on the tale from around the globe, the sweetest being Tim Burton's Frankenweenie and the most entertaining being Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. (Erm, "That's Fronkensteen")
There are faithful adaptations. There are loose adaptations and retakes that radically diverge from the source text in fascinating ways. Then there are films like the Japanese schlock atrocity Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl, and I'd be very interested to know what Mary Shelley thinks of that.
I, Frankenstein is operating in similar irreverent fashion, placing Adam Frankenstein (Eckhart's handsome, action hero manifestation of the Monster) in a dystopian future setting where gargoyles and demons are at war and raising fantasy blockbuster spectacle. It's based on a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux and is a world away from the novel first published by the 20-year-old Shelley in 1818. Nevertheless, it's still Frankenstein, tied into the core concepts, philosophical questions and spine-tingling ideas turned into timeless fiction by the English author almost 200 years ago. I and many other people are drawn towards this flick simply because it's wearing the word 'Frankenstein'. ("Fronkensteen!")
That word has clout and the story behind it, likewise, is a powerful one charged with vivid imagery and weighty themes. Mary Shelley spawned what is arguably the first science fiction novel, and its influence on gothic art and horror fiction cannot be underestimated. But what about its mass appeal? Why do contemporary audiences still keep on coming back to the familiar ungainly form of a living ragdoll carcass and his mad scientist master?
Frankenstein has lodged itself in our collective psyche and I'd say that The Modern Prometheus stimulates our minds in a myriad ways on multiple levels. Thinking it over as I reflect on Frankensteins past and eagerly await upcoming Frankenfeatures, I find the following possible reasons for the eternal appeal of this highly cinematic horror monument...
"It's alive!" - Overcoming death
Though we've had long enough to get used to it, human beings still haven't got anywhere near accepting the concept of death. We live in constant fear of our own demise, as well as the loss of the people and things we love, anxiously hoping against the inevitable. The Frankenstein sci-fi-fairytale offers comfort because it presents the possibility that with the inspired application of science we can defy mortal limits and restore life to things that have ceased to be.
It's a galvanising thought (quite literally!) and even if the revitalisation fantasy is far-fetched fiction, the story allows us to explore our impossible aspirations for immortality and makes them tangible in an electrifying work of entertainment. This creature keeps on coming back to life because modern society can't abide the grim reality of death.
"Now I know what it feels like to be God!" - God complexes
The whole immortality thing goes hand in hand with our aspirations to be supreme masters of the universe with powers over life, death and the natural world. Armed with the right esoteric knowledge and advanced technology, we can play God, and that's a nice prospect for ambitious people, creative control freaks and power-tripping egotistic malcontents who are affronted by the glass ceiling installed by higher spiritual powers. Hence Shelley's subtitle The Modern Prometheus - mere human mortals dream of greater things and with constant curiosity seek to cross boundaries, overcome the impossible and reach to achieve the hitherto unthinkable.
Frankenstein is one of the most overt representations of that urge in fiction, embodied in the maniacal zest of Victor Frankenstein. This creature keeps on coming back to life because we get high on the idea of humans rising up to steal the forbidden fire so that we may lighten up the world and become as glorious as gods.
"We are not meant to know those things!" - Condemning 'bad' science and knowledge
Of course, Prometheus was brutally punished for his defiance, and Frankenstein can also be read as a conservative morality tale that brings natural order back into line. Some would have Frankenstein's experiments pegged as innovative pursuits intended to advance humankind. Others would condemn him as a blasphemous mad scientist (and he is literature's original mad scientist) defying the social codes of decency in a vain attempt to supersede the Holy Father (or other deist configuration).
The offspring of his arrogance is a wholly unnatural abomination that goes on to disturb peaceful stability and imperil the community. Curiosity, ultimately, kills the sweet little innocent girl by drowning her in the lake. The basic lesson is "Messing with things that shouldn't be messed with, by God, will only lead to hurt, horror and the mobilisation of an angry mob armed with pitchforks and flaming torches". This creature keeps on coming back to life because we want to attack him repeatedly in order to re-enforce natural order and mentally punish recklessly overambitious individuals with god delusions.
"The Monster is loose!" - The appeal of an unstoppable superhuman
On the other hand (it's a good firm hand freshly retrieved from the grave of a criminal last night), there's appeal in the idea of a great hulk smashing through conventional, mainstream society. It's always fun watching Frankenstein's Monster run amok through traditional Central European countryside burgs, frightening the wits out of frivolous aristocrats and ignorant peasants as he rumbles along.
In the creature we find a larger-than-life (larger-than-afterlife?) figure of superhuman strength, extraordinary proportions and idiosyncratic character. He is enticing both as an exotic abnormality and as an invincible titan. This creature keeps on coming back to life because we enjoy watching mighty monsters blazing trails of destruction, acting out and living the fantasy of being an impervious colossus übermenschen we entertain deep inside ourselves.
"Friend? Friend?" - Sympathy for the Monster
We also love Frankenstein's Creature because we empathise with him and pity his tragic reality. In any adaptation, it's never long before you find yourself feeling his pain and realising that "Monster" is a cruel, misplaced label indeed. Instilled with depth and pathos by such screen legends as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Robert De Niro to name only a few who've portrayed him, the creature is an accursed victim who deserves (and undoubtedly receives) our sympathy. Rejected and reviled for things he isn't responsible for - an 'abnormal' brain, physical ugliness, accidents with little girls by the lake, etc. - Frankenstein's Monster is a disadvantaged lost soul who deserves love and compassion.
Anyone who's ever felt like an unwanted outsider, who's never fitted in, who's ever felt uncomfortable in their own (or somebody else's) skin can identify with the misunderstood big lug and share his wish for compassionate companionship. This creature keeps on coming back to life because he acts as an expression of our social alienation on screen, and because we sympathise with the story of a sorrow-stricken outcast maligned for his difference.
"We belong dead" he may claim, but the romantic hero for the necromantics and his misguided master will live on through the ages, relevant and vital wherever and whenever they appear in our world of gods and monsters - a world that was undeniably shaped and changed by the transcribed nightmares of a young Mary Shelley in the early 19th century.
You can read James' last column here.
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