The Afterlife of Frankenstein
The Frankenstein myth has produced over 2,600 pieces of derivative work and 100 films. Post-publication it was critiqued but not heavily. William Godwin, an old radical, was dedicatee on the anonymously published work and so association with him garnered rejections from conservative publications.
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There were questions over aspects of the novel reflecting preoccupations and values of the time. It was praised in some essays. All in kind showed some respect initially.
Lawrence published his work and gained notoriety. Through being or fear of being associated with his work Mary Shelley revised her work n 1831 where se removed signs of his ideas. The first play appeared in 1823, Presumption, making three key changes from the novel: Frankenstein’s religious remorse, the monster being mute and a comic servant called Fritz. It is a cautionary reading followed by The Demon of Switzerland. Before her own changes had been made, she had lost control over her own plot.
Her edits were damage limitation. Conservative writers were interpreting it however they wanted knowing their readers agreed. She cut what The Quarterly wanted removed from Lawrence’s work.
The novel is the first in the mad-scientist genre. Victor has now become more corrupt. The creature is more sensationalised and dehumanised. Playwrights recognised problems in translating the play. The internal reasonings of Victor and the monster were cut. Walton’s framing narrative couldn’t be portrayed. The story became more visual. The monster became the star with more visual violence. There were also comic versions. The plays stay a lot truer to the original than most of the films.
Silent films found it hard to translate the story onto screen. Thomas Edison’s company created the first film version. James Whale arguably changed the story the most so far, basing his version on Peggy Webley’s play. His monster supersedes all others. He introduces the image of Dr. Frankenstein, the Igor character, and the sensational creation scene which is rarely mentioned in the text. Victor is an arrogant grown man and not an unknowing youth. ‘Whale’s sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and later sequels Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) all continued the general theme of sensationalism, horror, and exaggeration, with the newly-dubbed Dr. Frankenstein and his parallels growing more and more sinister.’ (Tourney)
Later films became more diverted from the original meaning. He is a sexual pervert, a necrophiliac, opens up transsexual debate, bringing the focus back to the scientist, but not as the scientist of the original text. These films show us about its nature and how the populace views of science have evolved. How time changes our ideas and priorities to garner meaning from the text.
Frankenstein has become a doting father in The Munsters, moved to television, become a household icon, As one of the famous Universal Monsters his recogniseable image has been transferred to all sorts of merchandise. He has appeared in comics and games and been referenced in music.
The mad scientist trope has become familiar in science fiction. The name Frankenstein has spawned words, Frankensteinian and Franken- prefix can indicate something assembled out of parts or scientifically modified. He is a prominent figure at Halloween and other tropes such as creations falling out of one’s control and rebirth through assembling parts are apparent in various mediums. Questions of Science are still resonant. How far should we go?
This afterlife raises interesting questions over the nature of adaptation. In an age where most of us are exposed to images of the monster before ever reading the original text, how then does that affect our own interpretations of the myth?
Questions arise over meaning through adaptation, but that is its nature. It is by definition of the Oxford English Dictionary ‘The action or process of adapting, fitting, or suiting one thing to another.’ The medium has an effect on the message but so does the time period.
Cinema is visual and the story has to be modified to suit this, but elements are also foregrounded or hyperbolised if they work well on screen. The adapter(s) interpret the original in a certain way and critics can also play a hand in this by influencing them also, emphasising certain ideas that the adapter may want to portray at the expense of others.
My view is that a text’s original meaning can never be fully understood and in an adaptation carries less importance because adaptations, like originals, are a reflection of their place in time. By reading a story we allow it to take shape within our minds, conceptualising it and instantly creating our own reproduction of it. Frankenstein means something different to everyone, all are reproductions. Criticism can alter that meaning and history can foreground certain ideas for it is always evolving. Interpretation is never static. We are the monster, he evolves with us.
Adaptations are an amalgamation of views. A singular vision constructed through the collective consciousness, through the many people working on them, the critics that influenced them, society that imparte values onto them, the media and government that re-order their priorities. By its nature adaptation can never stay true to the original and that is a good thing. Were it even possible, would films be as interesting to us if it followed Shelley’s text word for word and faithfully recreated all events? What is more interesting to us as students of literature is context. The context of a novel or a play or a film are the same, A text or interpretation gains meaning through where it lives historically.