1 October 2009

Exposé - Frankenstein

After much ado involving my attempts to secure a copy, we come at last to the final member of the classic monster film triumvirate in the form of Frankenstein, a 2004 television miniseries starring Alec Newman and Luke Goss in the titular roles. I say roles both because it may be deduced from a close reading of the original text, for reasons which shall be examined in due course, and because it offers a concise reflection of just how confused the popular image of this enduring story has become, to a point where protagonist and antagonist have become, appropriately, conjoined. Like the towering figure at the heart of the story, the legacy of Mary Shelley's seminal novel has been cobbled together from the scraps and pieces of countless adaptations and reinventions, gradually coalescing in the form of a corpus so bloated and misshapen that none of its myriad contributors would claim the finished product. It is a legacy full of burning windmills and atavistic criminal brains, galvanic batteries and maniacal doctors, a fable concerning the advance of science or an argument against genetic engineering and a thousand other things that have little or no basis in the novel published two centuries ago. As such, any production attempting to breath life into this body of material is forced to navigate a path between the blessing of immediate audience recognition and the threat of being lost among of a veritable ice-field of rival interpretations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a challenge which this particular adaptation attempts to forgo whenever possible, opting instead to remain on a course of strict fidelity, some might argue to a fault.

Victor Frankenstein face-to-face with his creation
If one element from the original novel can be said to have suffered the most in film adaptations, it must be the sophisticated narrative structure it presents. Perhaps it is a testament to the power of the story itself, but the subtle ways in which it shifts perspective and repeatedly turns back upon itself are easily forgotten even after multiple readings, leaving a predominantly linear reconstruction in its wake. To its credit, Frankenstein abandons some of these conventions in favour of ones more suited to the live medium, and does so without any substantial alteration or subtraction in terms of content. The first appreciable instance of this is the restoration of a frame narrative concerning an Arctic exploration team, lead by the ambitious Captain Walton, who retrieve the aged Victor Frankenstein as they wait for a break in the pack ice that traps their ship. Whilst perhaps seeming incidental to the primary storyline, this sub-plot provides an important counterpoint in the moral implications of the work as a whole; will the cautionary tale embodied by the desperate and ruined Frankenstein be enough to curb the determination of another man fuelled by the same reckless determination, or does our innate human inquisitiveness mean that we are destined to repeat his fatal mistakes? It is only unfortunate that the casting of Donald Sutherland in the role of Walton substantially lessens its impact, simply by being four decades too old for a character explicitly stated as being twenty eight in the novel. The resulting inversion of the age difference between the two characters completely negates the implication that Frankenstein sees an opportunity to intervene in the life of a younger version of himself at a critical moment, and thereby renders Walton's eventual decision to relent largely unconvincing.

Captain Walton, of the Prometheus
It is fitting, for a story that explores so many of the fundamental issues involving human nature, that we should follow the protagonist through most of the traditional 'ages of man', ranging from childhood to adolescence, adulthood, and as far into old age as his untimely death will permit. Bringing that transition to the screen is no mean feat, but Alec Newman manages this considerable challenge with dependable aplomb. Striking an appropriate balance between innocence and uncharacteristic seriousness as a child, this is the Victor Frankenstein of the novel in every respect: a man of innate self-contradictions, whose fierce passion is held in check by equally intense rationality. Whether he teeters on the brink of obsession during a theoretical tirade at the family table, or exhibits inhuman serenity in the middle of a charnel house, this is a man whose reactions strike us as mad not in their magnitude, but for being always out of place. While this makes it difficult for an audience to fully empathise with the protagonist, the fact that he never progresses into abject insanity precludes any temptation to summarily write off his actions, no matter how misguided they may seem. As in the novel, this Frankenstein is a complex and nuanced character, which has ramifications not only for the emotional dimension of the story, but the moral implications as well. Most important of all, the time and effort invested in recounting his studies belies the common assumption that Frankenstein is a tale that cautions against the pursuit of scientific advancement.

Frankenstein about his grisly work
As a stoical William Hurt expounds in his first scene as Professor Waldman, the ancient philosophers promised much but delivered nothing, where the modern scientist promises little and delivers great miracles. For the headstrong Frankenstein, this revelation is a devastating one, having devoted much of his adolescent studies to medieval alchemists and debunked metaphysicians. Driven as much by shame as enthusiasm, he throws himself into the meticulous study of chemistry, biology, and all the cutting-edge fields of natural philosophy, stunning fellow students and teachers alike with his ability to devour and retain such vast amounts of knowledge. As time goes on, however, he begins to chafe under the prosaic methodology of gradual advances and aimless experimentation, until the ambitions he held as a youth return with a vengeance. Forming a doctrine as mismatched and bastardised as the creation it ultimately leads to, Frankenstein grafts the promise of the former onto the methodology of the latter. The enduring message of caution is thus aimed at those who would recklessly bend the paths of rational thought toward irrational ends, so intent upon a distant point of gratification that the ethical dimensions of each step in between are passed too swiftly for any real consideration. As both perpetrator and accomplice, it is the innocent dreams of a young Victor who wished to undo the loss of a beloved family pet and his dear mother that press the prodigal Frankenstein of science into their service. Science, when practised according to impartial scientific principles, is no more culpable than any tool subject to misuse. Significantly, the only scene to present a material divergence from this idea – consisting of an eleventh-hour encounter with Professor Waldman – is one that does not occur in the novel.

The staid Professor Waldman
While the circumstances surrounding his creation may be considered monstrous, the creature itself is anything but. Once again placing faith in its source material, Frankenstein depicts the antagonist in the closest possible manner to the way Shelley describes him: tall and lean, with a mane of black hair and physical abilities far exceeding those of ordinary men. This necessarily reduces the degree of visceral aversion many are doubtless accustomed to from other film incarnations, but the human semblance is imperfect enough to maintain an unnerving aura about the character. The sequences in which Frankenstein labours over his creation depict suitably exaggerated proportions – given that he is forced to use normal bodies to build another that is abnormally large – and prove the validity of the 'uncanny valley' approach. Credit is also due to Luke Goss, who augments the design aspects with a thoroughly engrossed performance, conveying an appropriate level of sympathy to offset the latent sense of menace. Far from the lumbering half-idiot of popular imagination, this is a creature whose gaunt skin seems barely able to contain the seething mass of emotion that it harbours within, and which it vents whenever possible in eloquent and persuasive speech. The result is a palpable sense of inversion between creator and creation during their various confrontations, with the former using a veil of reasoned indifference to suppress any claim upon his emotions, and the latter thrown at the mercy of a passion whose fervour exceeds his ability to offer reasonable justification. Each is thus portrayed as an excess of one quality or the other: rational thought or irrational emotion.

A noble creature, spurned
One of the more important, and certainly one of the most interesting areas in which Frankenstein can be seen to either benefit or suffer from its degree of fidelity is its underlying tone. As always, whether you happen to react one way or the other depends greatly on individual expectation. For although we often find Mary Shelley and her literary creation placed together with the likes of Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson, we are to some extent remiss in doing so. All three represent pinnacles in the Gothic genre, to be sure, but the latter belong to a Victorian revival characterised by gaslight, dark alleyways, and a murky world of black-cloaked horrors. Frankenstein belongs to an earlier phase in the genre, with ties to the Romantic poets in whose company the tale was literally formed. Like the poems of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron, this story takes place in a picturesque natural landscapes, from the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt, to the vast amphitheatre of the Alps, and the bright expanse of the Arctic waste. It is a horror of implication, not of visceral slaughter; like a troubling dream rather than a bloody nightmare. In this respect, Frankenstein perhaps even manages to surpass its source material, for on film the discrepancy between brief moments in which all is dark and surreal, and long stretches in which all is light and familiar is particularly jarring. It is almost possible to join the protagonist in his wishful belief that the menace surrounding him is no more than a haunting fantasy, whereas in the novel the threat remains all-pervading. Our separation from the innermost thoughts of the protagonist also throws a light on the central drama that no reading of the novel would be likely to yield, being how mundane the underlying conflict actually is. Exclude the supernatural elements of death and resurrection and all we are left with is the common scenario of a young man who leaves home to pursue his studies and commits in an act of indiscretion, only to find himself confronted with the task of admitting that error to his family in the form of an illegitimate child. In the end, it is shame alone that Victor cannot reconcile himself with, to the ruin of all those around him; all his bastard progeny seeks is acknowledgement of his right to the name Frankenstein.

A drama a human failings before the spectacle of nature

Screen -
Julien Benoiton

The last in a three-part series, this documentary relates the real-life experiments that would inform much of the story in Frankenstein. Through a combination of dramatic recreation and commentary from experts and historians, the story of Professor Giovanni Aldini and his quest to understand the powers which imbue animal life are recreated with lavish flair. Culminating with the attempted revivification of an executed man, these historical events may have played as much a part in inspiring some of the divergent film adaptations of Frankenstein as the original work itself, and are certainly a tale worth exploring in their own right. The truth, as they say, is sometimes stranger than the fiction.

Ridley Scott

Ostensibly based on the novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner might also be described as a Frankenstein for the twentieth century, dealing with many of the same fundamental issues. In a near-future world of vast urban sprawl, corporations exert a level of influence far exceeding that of national governments, exploiting advanced technologies in order to maintain their position. Specialising in genetic engineering, the Tyrell Corporation manufactures advanced humanoid creations called Replicants, who are virtually indistinguishable from ordinary human beings. When five of these units escape their assigned duties and return to earth, seeking answers from their creator, retired officer Rick Deckard is assigned the task of hunting down and eliminating them. Taking the same existential questions posed by the creature in Frankenstein, the film projects them to a point where they implicate society as a whole.

Script -
Mary Shelley

First published in 1818, when Mary Shelley was a mere nineteen years old, this seminal tale of Gothic revivification has exerted considerable influence in popular culture over the two centuries since. The mythology surrounding its invention is almost as widely disseminated as the novel itself, involving a challenge to construct the most chilling ghost story, and the likes of Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and the infamous Lord Byron himself. Unlike its competitors, only one of which even saw completion and publication, Frankenstein diverged greatly from the predictable ghost story formula, to the extent that it is often held up as one of the earliest examples of the science fiction genre. This is despite the fact that Shelley maintains a strict aversion to revealing the actual science involved, for reasons of both character motivation and simple narrative convenience. With such an enduring legacy and an indelible place in the canon of world literature, it is no surprise that any of the myriad genres in spans should wish to lay claim to it.


As its subtitle The Modern Prometheus attests, Mary Shelley consciously drew upon Ancient Greek Mythology as a leitmotif in Frankenstein. The most detailed treatment of the story of Prometheus to have survived through to modern times is this, the only extant instalment in a trilogy first performed in the 5th Century BC. Beginning with the eponymous Titan being chained and impaled upon a mountain peak, Prometheus Bound relates the cruel treatment meted out by Zeus when it is found that Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to raise humankind out of primitive savagery. The parable seems to have held special poignancy for poets in the Romantic movement, many of whom Mary Shelley was personally familiar with. Indeed, Percy Bysshe Shelley would go on to publish a poem entitled Prometheus Unbound, having initially been presumed as the author of Frankenstein when it was first published anonymously. No doubt the combination of a benevolent, suffering god coupled with the symbolic power of fire as a representation of intelligence, passion, and hope lay at the heart of this appeal.

John Milton

Though quoted in this version of Frankenstein, it is not explicitly stated that one of the books used by the creature to improve his grasp on language is a copy of the English epic poem, Paradise Lost. This unlikely twist of fate sees it leave a mark not only in terms of his eloquent expression, but on the very fundamental way in which he views the world and his own circumstances. In a bewildering carousel of alternating roles, Frankenstein too identifies with various characters in the poem, casting himself both as God, insofar as he is the progenitor of a new species, and Adam, in light of the fact that he is still a man, despite his ambitions. In either case, his identification of the creature as Satan remains unflinching, while the creature itself alternates his sympathy between Satan and humanity after the fall. One interpretation that neither ultimately entertains is the possibility that Adam, in the form of Frankenstein, has actually given rise to a new God, represented by his superhuman creation.

No comments:

Post a Comment