Monday marked the 200th year anniversary of the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was published anonymously on 1st January 1818. It was famously born from a dream and written for a ‘ghost story challenge’ at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816 in the company of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and Dr Polidori.
Frankenstein is one of the books I grew up with and has always had a special place for me. Not so much for Victor Frankenstein himself, who is perhaps one of the most feckless characters literature has to offer. But more for the drive he shows when creating his Monster, and of course, for the Monster who’s narrative of his life is so moving. As everyone struggles with the idea of why they are on the earth, the Monster is in the position of knowing and being rejected by his creator in a way that can be read and experienced as a parent abandoning a child or losing faith in a god or religion.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its timelessness is the fact that it comes from a myth which is as eternal as Mary Shelley’s retelling. The message of the book and the myth is that disturbing the natural order of things will result in dire consequences. The god Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to mortals and will suffer for all eternity for the crime. Victor Frankenstein brought the dead back to life and will have his life destroyed by his own creation.
This is one of the classic myths which emphasized to its audience not to run too fast or go too far. Right up to the Industrial age, the idea that there was a set place for everyone in the universe and your job was to accept it was prevalent and unfortunately, some of this old prejudice still lingers today.
Mary Shelley was writing at a time where science was both exciting and dangerous. As someone who’s never suffered an existential crisis and is quite content with her place in the world (i.e. forever at a keyboard), the conflict of mortality and science has always been my favourite aspect of this book. And it’s a question which is still relevant.
Yet another way of reading Frankenstein comes from the film director Guillermo del Toro, who sees it at “the quintessential teenage book”. In an interview with Den of Geek, he said:
You don’t belong. You were brought to this world by people that don’t care for you and you are thrown into a world of pain and suffering, and tears and hunger. It’s an amazing book written by a teenage girl. It’s mind blowing.
It’s perhaps this versatile reading of Frankenstein, and the powerful and eternal questions and feelings it taps into, which makes it so reliable two hundred years later.
Coincidentally, a few days before this anniversary, my family and I saw Young
Frankenstein at the Garrick Theatre in London. This is Mel Brooks reimagining of the old, Hammer Horror, black and white monster movies of the 40s. With a humorous and ludicrous twist, of course. I thoroughly recommend the theatre production but also the movie starring Gene Wilder. Young Frankenstein offers a subversion of a story we know and that’s why it’s so insanely funny.
Young Frankenstein is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, as I prefer it to almost all other adaptations of Frankenstein. Rather than the traditional focus on being a victim of powers unknown or a universal law, it’s more about the person themselves. Without giving anything away, Young Frankenstein, while being an all-out comedy, also focuses on the development of a man. The Monster turns from a savage to a ‘civilised Man’ and the uncertainty as to what that means. And Doctor Frankenstein (I’m sorry, Fronkensteen) goes from a weak and repressed individual to someone who stands up and accepts his responsibilities. The conflict within his character represented by his discomfort in his family name and resolves when he finally admits to being a Frankenstein. While Mary Shelley touches on this idea of what it means to be a person and your place in the universe, to me, she depicts two failures in both the Monster and his Creator. Mel Brooks gives us his typically happy ending, which is always a joy.
The theatre production made me think about all the adaptations and reimaginings and things which have been inspired by this book. The list is mind-boggling. Adaptations from faithful retellings, to ones which take certain liberties (Kenneth Branagh, I’m looking at you), to all-out Monster mashes and farces. The BBC has said there have been over 150 versions in various mediums, and I’m not about to double check that figure! When you strip the story down to its basics, you’ll realise you see it everywhere, from Star Trek (specifically “Ship in a Bottle” Star Trek: The Next Generation, ep. 138) to the movie Terminator.
As happens with all stories which lives with people through the generations, Frankenstein as also fallen victim to a certain amount of baggage we’ve loaded it with. Frankenstein, at no point in the book, declares ‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ That was a little tidbit the story picked up in the 1930s thanks to Universal Studios. This was perhaps the iconic reaction of Frankenstein which everyone pictures. It was the dawn of the Mad Scientist and the manic laugh. Boris Karloff plays the Monster and now when we think of the Monster, we think of Boris Karloff. It’s almost impossible to separate the two in popular culture.
Frankenstein has been popular for two hundred years and I suspect that it will be popular for another two hundred more because the questions and themes it tackles speak to the very core of humanity.
There’s so much more I want to talk about so there’s actually going to be a part two to this post! I will be looking at one of the most pervasive characters in Frankenstein who doesn’t actually exist. If that’s something you want to read about, check in on Sunday!