The following post was originally delivered as part of a Cardiff BookTalk screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). After watching the film, three academics (including myself) delivered short presentations on the story’s cultural contexts. A report of the event will be available shortly, but you can find the contents of my presentation reproduced below, with some minor modifications and corrections.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the creature has the following to say about human communication:
I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. (Chapter 12, paragraph 9)
Here the creature identifies communication (in this case, speech) as a stimulant that, when used correctly, produces human emotion – a ‘godlike science’ much like the one Victor Frankenstein used to give him life.
Fittingly, it was Mary Shelley’s communication of emotion nearly 200 years ago that provided the spark of life for the Frankenstein myth, which is still very much with us. She didn’t immortalise Frankenstein alone, however. Other texts, in other media and over many decades, have contributed to the legend and remade it along the way.
Rather than tracing all of these adaptations and revisions, which is a formidable task even for Wikipedia, instead I want to address one question:
What does it take to make a text immortal?
In his 1987 reception history of Mary Shelley’s novel, Chris Baldick suggests that all books (and Frankenstein in particular) have this potential:
Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […Shelley’s] novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)
For Baldick, then, something about the novel itself encourages textual resurrection and transformation. This by itself is not enough, of course. In an article about the cultural success of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield suggest that ‘the key to cultural survival of a text is to adapt it to a changing audience; the key to cultural growth of a reputation is to expand it beyond the text’s native reach’ (p. 432).
As demonstrated by their choice of authors, the actual content of the stories matters less for the immortality of a text than the cultural processes that take over once they are written. Shakespeare’s melodrama is worlds away from Austen’s understated comedy of manners, and Shelley’s serious, somber work again differs dramatically from Shakespeare and Austen. There is no exact formula for writing an immortal story. Instead (for Troost and Greenfield), it takes three forces: fictionalisation of the author, adaptation, and travesty. So. both author and text need to come alive in fiction as well as in history, and new audiences need to feel free to use the author’s name and work in ways they were probably never meant to be used. Only then does a text enter the realm of myth.
Iconic images and ‘little personal stories’ are key ingredients in bringing the author to life (p. 442). We’ve got an iconic image, painted by Richard Rothwell in the mid nineteenth century, and we have the story of Frankenstein’s inception at Villa Diodat, by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This is the story that is most often revisited when Shelley makes an appearance in fiction. While Mary Shelley herself hasn’t quite reached the same level of fictionalisation as Shakespeare or Austen, she has made cameos in a number of films and television shows – usually works of genre fiction (fantasy, horror, sci-fi).
In a 1997 episode of Highlander: The Series, Duncan MacLeod visits Lord Byron and the Shelleys, inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. In the 10th season of the TV show Supernatural, which aired just last year, the Stynes are an ancient family of magic practitioners, who had to change their surname from Frankenstein after Mary Shelley wrote about them. In the 1990 film Frankenstein, Unbound (based on a 1973 novel of the same name), a scientist travels back in time to meet Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, as well as Mary Shelley herself (played by Bridget Fonda). In a 2006 episode of the children’s animated series Time Warp Trio, Frankenstein’s creature becomes real and shows up in the main character’s apartment, necessitating a trip back to 1816 Switzerland to bring him face to face with his creator – Mary Shelley.
Fictionalisation of the author? Check. What about adaptation, then? As Troost and Greenfield write:
Works of literature prosper not through simple reproductions but through re-interpretations, quotations and transformations […] Megastardom for a writer comes only by being adapted to interest an audience far beyond the natural one. (p. 431, 438)
Shelley’s other work has received minimal attention from adaptors, but her best-known novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, absolutely fits this category. Its most iconic adaptation, the 1931 film version directed by James Whale, has also spawned countless adaptations, references, and reimaginings.
Again, it would be futile to try and take you through more than a small sampling of these adaptations, but as it’s always more effective to show than to tell, I’ve put together a brief montage:
The last clip in this montage is from an episode of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, a show that ran from 2010 to 2012 on the Adult Swim network. In the show, fictional and historical characters seek help at Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, which is accessible through a series of space-time portals. The scene, in which Frankenstein’s creature and Adolf Hitler have a beer together at the local pub, is one great example of the unexpected ways in which Frankenstein’s creature can be read.
The show could also easily be considered a case of what Troost and Greenfield call travesty – extreme adaptations that stretch our definition of the term. While some may even appear to attack the text they are adapting, Troost and Greenfield argue that they too are vital to a text’s immortality: ‘travesties are themselves markers of high reputation and respond to textual transformations that have already occurred’, and ‘transformations that play against the forms and reputations of the works actually promote them while mocking them’ (p. 439).
In the case of Frankenstein, we have examples of the story stretching far beyond what we would traditionally call adaptation. The text is embedded in our very language. Think of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat, the Frankenfish, Frankenfoods or Frankenstorms. My current research is on Frankenfiction. All of these references carry the text far beyond its natural habitat, to new audiences and new meanings.
Without all three of these elements – adaptation, travesty, and fictionalization – our relationship to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be quite different, 200 years on. In the end, as Baldick argues: ‘That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth’ (p. 4).
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and James Whale’s Frankenstein, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Frankenstein, and Pemberley Digital’s Frankenstein are all Frankenstein. Every time we read or watch them, we recreate Frankenstein as well.
In the end, the story of Frankenstein has power because we give it power, by using it over and over again. If you love Frankenstein, then – whether we’re talking about the novel or the film or some other version – the best thing you can do to ensure it lives on for another 200 years is to keep watching it, keep reading it, and keep re-writing it. Keep re-stitching it into something new. And while you’re at it, add a few anachronous bolts (or gears) for good measure.