A History of the Frankenstein Narratives
Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey
New Brunswick (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 2016
Papberback. xi + 237 p. ISBN 978-0813564234. $27
Reviewed by David Roche
Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès
Written by historian Allison B. Kavey and film scholar Lester D. Friedman, Monstrous Progeny : A History of the Frankenstein Narratives proposes a synthetic cultural history of Frankenstein narratives, from Mary Shelley’s novel to recent film and television adaptations; it includes a useful select bibliography and an index. After presenting the novel and the popularity of the Frankenstein myth, the introduction outlines the four main critical approaches to reading Frankenstein: (1) psychological readings that see the monster as embodying the return of the repressed; (2) feminist readings in which the novel explores the agonies of female sexuality and the perils of motherhood; (3) queer readings that detect a homoerotic undercurrent, notably between Walton and Frankenstein; and (4) social metaphor readings that argue that the novel is concerned with industrial capitalist society, and that the Creature, as a site of social and racial tensions, embodies revolutionary energies.
Chapter 1 “In a Country of Eternal Light : Frankenstein’s Intellectual History” seeks to go beyond the cautionary tale to look at how the story responds to the scientific questions of its time by dramatizing “our modern conception of legitimate research aspirations and experimental protocols” . In particular, “Shelley provides readers with three crucial litmus tests for separating ‘good’ from ‘dangerous’ science”: (1) the scientist must work within a community instead of in isolation; (2) his/her motives are central, notably the degree of hubris involved; and (3) understanding the natural world is a laudable endeavor, as opposed to securing power over it . Special attention is paid to Frankenstein’s and Walton’s educationand social background to illuminate how the novel addresses these issues.
Chapter 2 “The Instruments of Life : Frankenstein’s Medical History” considers how one of the novel’s central questions—the Creature has a body and a mind, but does it have a soul?—should be framed in medical and religious history, seeing how both are intertwined; legal, popular, anatomical and psychiatric discourses on the relationship between body and soul illuminate the Creature’s existential plight, suggest that the story may be nothing more than the obsessive Frankenstein’s delusion, and account for thecentral tension between the dedicated and the irresponsible researcher.
Chapter 3 “A More Horrid Contrast : From the Page to the Stage” begins with a discussion of the novel’s ethical and social implications before examining the theatrical adaptations, starting with Richard Brinsley Peake’s 1823 production and ending with Peggy Webling’s 1927 adaptation; not only did the 1823 play largely contribute to the novel’s notoriety at the time, but many features of the Frankenstein narrative can be traced back to it:
eliminating Walton’s Arctic voyage to compress the action; rendering the plot as linear rather than revealing it through a series of subjective flashbacks; portraying Frankenstein as a mature scientist rather than a naïve youth, with little mention of his formative boyhood experiences; having a vengeful mob hunt down the Creature; adding an assistant / servant for Frankenstein; and presenting the simultaneous deaths of both the scientist and his creation via a final confrontation” .
Chapter 4 “It’s Still Alive : The Universal and Hammer Movie Cycles” opens with a presentation of Frankenstein-influenced movies during the silent era, including The Magician (MGM, Rex Ingram, 1926) and the lost 1910 adaptation produced by Edison Studio, before moving on to the two famous cycles; it concludes by summing up the differences between the Universal films that insist on the Creature and the experiment as an act of creation, and resort to offscreen strategies and Expressionistic aesthetics, and the Hammer films in which the Creator holds pride of place in his endeavor to transplant life, and utilize color and foreground the reactions of the horrified.
Chapter 5 “Mary Shelley’s Stepchildren : Transitions, Translations, and Transformations” proposes an overview of Frankenstein narratives classified according to the following typology: (1) Transitions—adaptations (Flesh for Frankenstein, Paul Morrissey and Antonio Margheriti, 1973; The Bride, Frank Roddam, 1985; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh, 1994) and comedies (Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks, 1974; The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jim Sharman, 1975; Frankenweenie, Tim Burton, 2012); (2) Translations—biological mutation (The Fly, David Cronenberg, 1986; Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg, 1993, Splice, Vincenzo Natali, 2009) and reanimation films (Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon, 1985 and the 1989 sequel directed by Brian Yuzna; Pet Sematary, Mary Lambert, 1989; Penny Dreadful, Showtime, 2014-2016); and (3) Tranformations—cyborg (RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven, 1987) and robot movies (Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982; A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg, 2001). All these films have in common that they “examine the outcomes, costs, and responsibilities of creating artificial beings orreanimating dead bodies” .
Chapter 6 “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Monster” concludes that, “[i]n becoming timeless, Frankenstein has lost its moment in time” ; the popularity of the Frankenstein myth, with its reduction of Frankenstein to the figure of the mad scientist and its increasingly making the Creature into a hero, has obscured the very context from which the novel drew most of its power: the ethical and scientific questions raised by its plot.
Monstrous Progeny presents itself as the newest book on the topic and pays tribute to its precursors, including the collected volume The Endurance of Frankenstein (1982) edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher, Steven Earl Forry’s Hideous Progenies : Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present (1990), and especially Caroline Joan S. Picart’s two books, The Cinematic Rebirths of Frankenstein (2001) and Remaking the Frankenstein Myth on Film (2003). Its ambition is to study the novel and subsequent Frankenstein narratives in light of their production contexts. The first two chapters succeed in framing the stakes raised by Shelley’s story in the medical, religious and scientific discourses of its time, in an efficient and convincing argument. The subsequent chapters propose a general overview of Frankenstein narratives, summing up each film in turn and offering occasional insights. Chapters 3 to 5 read more like a general introduction to Frankenstein narratives; engaging with recent writings in adaptation studies—by relating the Frankenstein typology to Thomas Leitch’s typology of strategies in Chapter 5 of Film Adaptation and Its Discontents (2007)—could have enriched the second half of the book, as could have further consideration of how central the Frankenstein narrative is to the œuvre of directors like David Cronenberg or writers like Isaac Asimov, or how the influence of Metropolis (UFA, Fritz Lang, 1927) informs the Frankenstein narrative of Blade Runner. So while Chapters 1 and 2 have much to offer scholars of the novel, the bulk of Monstrous Progeny makes for a handy and entertaining introduction to teach an undergraduate class on the twentieth-century films and series indebted to Mary Shelley’s novel.
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