‘Hail, Mary, the Mother of Science Fiction’: Popular Fictionalisations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Film and Television, 1935-2018

I’m very excited to announce a new special issue of Science Fiction Film and Television, focusing on Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and women in science fiction! I’ve got an article in this special issue on Shelley’s fictionalised appearances in popular film and television, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Highlander (TV; 1992–1998) and Frankenstein, MD (2014).

Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Read an excerpt from the article below:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is widely regarded as the ‘mother of science fiction’ for her authorship of Frankenstein, first published anonymously in 1818. At first glance this is a formidable title. Brian Aldiss, one of those responsible for popularising it, described Shelley as a writer of ‘prophetic talent’, and Frankensteinas ‘a triumph of imagination: more than a new story, a new myth’ (Billion 35, 30). Like later science fiction, he argues, Frankenstein combined ‘social criticism with new scientific ideas, while conveying a picture of [the author’s] own day’ (23). In this account, Frankenstein becomes the origin story of the modern age, and Shelley its creator. Two hundred years after its publication, Shelley’s ‘hideous progeny’ (Shelley xiii) looms large in the genre, and numerous retellings of Frankenstein have graced screens large and small worldwide. However, Shelley’s role as the metaphorical ‘mother’ of this tradition is more complex than the above description implies. Specifically, while her feminist scholarship often portrays her symbolic motherhood as positive and powerful, popular culture offers a very different, often contradictory perspective.

As a historical figure, Shelley has received substantial attention from feminist scholars and critics since the 1970s, claiming her as a great author in her own right and as one of the ‘lost foremothers who could help [women] find their distinctive female power’ as writers and creators (Gilbert and Gubar 59). Jane Donawerth and Carol Kolmerten likewise argue that ‘a clear and traceable tradition of women’s writing often derives its permission for women’s writing from the example of Mary Shelley’ (9), and Debbie Shaw introduces feminist sf by outlining how, since ‘Mary Shelley’s time, many women have discovered the unique potential that sci-fi offers for social comment’ (263). More recently, following the conservative ‘Sad Puppies’ voting campaigns at the Hugo Awards, Shelley has been cited as proof that women’s contributions deserve more recognition in the genre: ‘Despite the fact that science fiction as a genre was literally invented by a woman – aka Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein – women have often been marginalised in the world of science fiction, both as fans and as creators’ (Cuteo n.p.).

Given this context, one might expect Mary Shelley’s increasingly frequent appearances in fictional film and television productions to reflect these empowering claims, with Shelley as a feminist role model and originary genius. After all, representation is an important tool in the negotiation of cultural equality. Christine Battersby suggests that ‘before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us’ (15).Here the image of the originary genius (the ‘mother’ figure) is championed as a key factor in the construction of a feminist aesthetic and a female artistic heritage. And as Carolyn Cocca argues, in mass media ‘the repetition of stereotypes exerts power’ (5). In the case of sex and gender roles, if ‘the constantly repeated story is that women and girls are not leaders, are not working in professional settings, are not agents of their own lives but merely adjuncts to others, and are sometimes not even present at all, it can reinforce or foster societal undervaluing of women and girls. It can naturalise inequalities’ (5). In other words, we need great women in our media if we are to value the great women we have in our society.

Shelley is an increasingly visible figure in fantastic film and television, with frequent appearances in the heritage cinema of the 1980s, children’s educational programming in the 1990s and 2000s, and new media texts of the 2010s. Each of these productions dramatises her role as the creator of Frankensteinand sf’s metaphorical mother. In practice, however, Shelley’s appearances in film and television are rarely flattering to the author herself, or empowering to female artists working in the genre today. This does not necessarily indicate that these texts are part of a postfeminist backlash; indeed, many claim explicitly feminist motives. However, while some feminists nominate Shelley as a ‘mother’ or great originary author in an attempt to create a space for female artists in the present, in popular practice ‘motherhood’ (or female authorship) is still not recognised as equal to ‘fatherhood’ (or male authorship).

Do note that this is a pre-publication version. To cite this article you should consult the published version here. If you have difficulties accessing the article, please get in touch!

Mary Godwin (later Shelley) in Frankenstein Unbound (1990)