Sunday, March 06, 2011

Will the real Victor Frankenstein step forward?

Writing in Skeptical Inquirer, Ron Watkins tackles the common misconceptions surrounding Mary Shelley's character of "Frankenstein's monster":

The concept many people have of Frankenstein is the story of a mad doctor who creates a monster from stolen, dead body parts but mistakenly endows it with a criminal brain. The resulting creature-called “Frankenstein”-is an uncontrollable, murdering fiend who eventually kills his own creator. Though widely recognized as the authentic telling of the classic horror tale, this concept, which stems from various film adaptations, is not the story written by Mary Shelley published in 1818. It is true that movies often differ from the books on which they are based, but critical misconceptions about Shelley's brilliant work that have become ingrained into the public consciousness over the years can be traced back to the movie versions of the story, beginning with Universal Pictures's Frankenstein in 1931. The movie has become more familiar to people than the original novel. It has a life of its own, apart from the book, and has little to do with Shelley's work itself, other than the title. In the novel there is no criminal brain; the creature does not kill his creator; and though he may have been mad, Frankenstein was not a doctor!
In contrast to the the version of "Frankenstein" that has developed in popular culture as a dumb brute monster:

Mary Shelley's creature becomes an articulate, educated being who learns to speak and read French. He knows the history of prior civilizations and is familiar with great literature, such as Milton's Paradise Lost, in which he compares himself to the rejected Satan instead of the nurtured Adam ... The creature becomes capable not only of logical thought and speech but also of diabolical scheming. He innocently approaches Victor's little brother William for solace but strangles him when the boy also rejects him. The creature then plants the boy's locket on Justine, Frankenstein's sleeping servant girl, in a successful attempt to have her accused of the crime and hanged. Such devious planning and forethought reveal a mind capable of complex reasoning. Thus the creature is, admittedly, quite a vengeful character in the book and does commit murder to cause suffering to Frankenstein and family. In his tormented mind, he feels justified for his crime; there is rationale and purpose to his horrific deeds, and he is not the ignorant automaton of the movies.
Of course, opening up the first page of Shelley's novella should give one some indication that it is going to be of more substance than the popularized movie monster version of Frankenstein's creature.

The point of noting this is to draw attention to the fact that the popular conception of Frankenstein's monster obscures the richer and more meaningful original version of the story.

Does it really matter that a work of fiction has been so misinterpreted? After all, the movies are fun to watch, the story they tell is an intriguing one, and a movie can't be expected to replicate a book in all aspects. While all this may be true, it does matter that the Hollywood versions of this story are lacking the novel's major themes and plot details. What we believe about this classic literary work is simply false, yet society has accepted it as true. It's as if the novel has been cast aside and forgotten, and that probably matters most of all.

Hollywood filmmakers have created such a vast gap between the novel and the films that what we have today is not just two types of media telling the same story, but two types of media telling completely different stories. They are both about a man who creates a man, but that is where similarities end. Other film adaptations, such as Gone with the Wind, have been much more successful in maintaining the integrity of the original work. Original books can often still be recognized in their associated films, but Frankenstein has been so overshadowed by film versions that the book is no longer relevant to most people. This is a shame because Shelley's Frankenstein is a great work of literature with multiple levels of meaning; however, contrary to popular belief, Shelley's story has never been told accurately on the screen.

1 comment:

C2H50H said...

Kenneth Branagh's film is probably the closest to the book.