Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Books and Movies: Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is a classic that is more compelling historically than it is for its literary value.


Originally published in 1818, approximately 75,000 words. Available free at Project Gutenberg.

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only 18. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein.

Obsessed with discovering "the cause of generation and life" and "bestowing animation upon lifeless matter", Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts. However, upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness.

Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant best seller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science-fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? And how far can we go in tampering with Nature?

Next to Dracula, Frankenstein is probably the most well-known monster in modern mythology. (And let's get the pedantry out of the way with: yes, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster he creates, who remains nameless in the book. So "Frankenstein's monster" is the correct designation, but I'm sorry, Hollywood's been ignoring such pedantry for going on a century now.)

Mary Shelley's work, written when she was only nineteen, has had a huge impact on popular culture; while she was only retelling a much older story (as alluded to in her own subtitle, "The Modern Prometheus," but also echoing Faust and many other tales), we owe her for the quintessential image of the mad scientist and for "Frankenstein" being synonymous with an abomination created by science run amok. (Though the mad scientist, it turns out, as as much as Hollywood creation as Shelley's.) What is it about Shelley's creation that makes it timeless?

Well, not the writing. I'm sorry, but Mary Shelley wrote tortured purple prose even by 19th century standards.

These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes, on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or the next hour might realize. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.

In fairness, she was nineteen, and what nineteen-year-old doesn't write tortured purple prose? Plus, she was married to Percy Bysshe Shelley and hanging out with Lord Byron. This would probably amp anyone's sense of melodrama up to eleventy.

Shelley's tale is, of course, a cautionary one, but it's also full of angst and amazing coincidences and people acting rather stupid.

The book begins in epistolary form. Captain Robert Walton, an arctic explorer, discovers a man somehow miraculously surviving on the ice. When his crew takes him aboard, this ragged individual tells Walton his tale. The entire story is thus being related third-hand by Captain Walton in letters to his sister.

Victor Frankenstein is the scion of a well-to-do Swiss family. He is powerfully affected by two incidents in his childhood: the first is the adoption by his parents of a lovely orphan named Elizabeth, who is his childhood playmate and predestined bride. The second is the death of his mother.

Frankenstein becomes enamored early on by the works of ancient alchemists such as Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. When he takes up the study of natural philosophy, he refuses to listen to his professors who tell him to abandon such archaic nonsense. Instead, he is determined to synthesize natural history and science, and he delves into the secrets of.... LIFE ITSELF! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

Actually, the Victor Frankenstein of Shelley's novel is not a madman at all. He's arrogant and occasionally obtuse, but certainly not a cackling lunatic.

You probably know the rest of the story: he puts together a man made out of dead body parts, animates it (not with lightning rods and Tesla coils like in the movies), and then rejects his own creation in horror. The poor monster stumbles around, confused and ignorant, until he encounters a poor family living in the woods. He spies on them, and Mary Shelley tells us their entire, irrelevant family history. (Remember this is Captain Walton writing to his sister about a story told to him by Frankenstein which was told to him by the monster.) After a disastrous attempt to befriend them, the monster realizes that humans will never accept him. So, he discovers the man who created him, tracks him down, and after killing several people out of vengefulness, demands that Frankenstein create for him a wife.

The parts in which the monster speaks were actually the most interesting and thought-provoking parts of the book. The poor creature really does suffer: it only wants friends and companionship, and its best efforts are met with violence and cruelty. And Victor Frankenstein is in fact a huge dick; he created this being, then turned it loose on the world alone and friendless and ignorant, and when it comes back to him, he curses it and calls it an abomination.

However, the monster is prone to fits of rage and spite, and in Frankenstein's defense, by the time he finally confronts his creation, it's already killed a number of people close to him. The monster's "The DevilYou made me do it!" speeches are quite compelling and he is not without cause for bitterness, and even Frankenstein vacillates between pity and remembering that this creature has strangled women and children.

If your image of Frankenstein's monster is wholly based on the movies, you may be surprised to learn that Shelley's creature is not a lumbering, inarticulate goon. In fact, it's superhumanly strong, agile, and extremely eloquent.

As I said this I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man. I was troubled; a mist came over my eyes, and I felt a faintness seize me, but I was quickly restored by the cold gale of the mountains. I perceived, as the shape came nearer (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created. I trembled with rage and horror, resolving to wait his approach and then close with him in mortal combat. He approached; his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes. But I scarcely observed this; rage and hatred had at first deprived me of utterance, and I recovered only to overwhelm him with words expressive of furious detestation and contempt.

"Devil," I exclaimed, "do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!"

"I expected this reception," said the daemon. "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."

I found the story compelling, especially as I too was moved to pity for the monster. If only someone had just once shown it kindness, things might have turned out completely differently. However, those long, dense monologues were a chore to get through, and as a story, I much prefer modern retellings. Shelley also telegraphs things in a way obvious to the reader ("I WILL BE WITH YOU ON YOUR WEDDING-NIGHT") and yet Frankenstein somehow completely misses the point of the threat, and never once does anything intelligent where his creation is concerned.


Frankenstein, like Dracula, has been adapted over and over and over again. I could spend weeks watching every Frankenstein movie on Netflix. To supplement this review, I limited myself to those that are fairly straight adaptations of the original novel, and skipped such venerable classics as Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Blackenstein.

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)

This was not the very first Frankenstein movie (there were at least two silent film adaptations), but Boris Karloff's monster created the iconic image of the lumbering golem with bolts in its head that's been imitated ever since. This movie also introduced Igor the hunchbacked henchman (also not in the book), and Victor Von Frankenstein in his castle laboratory as the model of a wild-eyed Mad Scientist.

In short, everything you think you know about Frankenstein that's probably wrong was established in this movie.

Like the book, this movie is really not that great artistically - the special effects are cheap even for the time period, and the acting is pretty awful. Little attempt is made to be faithful to the book; instead of a moral fable full of long monologues, it becomes a monster movie whose moral is chiefly "Science is bad." Still, if you like old movies, it's kind of fun in a cheesy black-and-white way.

Movie rating: B
Fidelity to the source material: C

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein

In the book, the monster demanded that Frankenstein create a mate for him. This was left out of the 1931 movie, in which the monster was inarticulate and unintelligent.

The sequel, 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein, featured the same director and actors as the first movie, and continues right from the moment the first movie ended — after a brief cameo by Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron (!).

You should see these movies together. They're really part I and part II, and together they more or less adapt Shelley's entire novel — taking a lot of liberties with it. The Bride of Frankenstein is also a better movie than Frankenstein, and has even more of the cheesy Mad Science! goodness that makes the classic classic.

Movie rating: B+
Fidelity to the source material: C-

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

Frankenstein: The True Story

This made-for-TV movie featuring a young, still-hot Jane Seymour as the Bride of Frankenstein is a long one (over three hours), and it's as much an adaption of the two classic 30s movies as it is an adaption of the book.

In this version, it's the early death of Victor Frankenstein's brother which serves as the catalyst for his obsession with raising the dead. (In the book, it's implied though never spelled out that it was the death of his mother that had a profound effect on him.)

This version depicts a more Faustian Doctor Frankenstein ("If Satan could teach me to make William alive again, I'd gladly become his pupil"), and the mad scientist rival of Doctor Frankenstein from The Bride of Frankenstein appears again, this time named "Doctor Polidori," an obvious reference to John Polidori, the personal physician of Lord Byron and part of the inner circle of the Shelleys and Byrons.

The monster in this version is initially perfectly formed and handsome, but slowly degenerates, physically and mentally. He develops a murderous split personality; meanwhile, the bride that Frankenstein creates for him is beautiful and adept and gets to walk around for a while before the bloody climax.

This was an interesting adaptation that pays homage both to the novel and previous movies, but the story is only loosely like the original.

Movie rating: B+
Fidelity to the source material: C-

Frankenstein (1973)


This was another made-for-TV movie, this one originally broadcast on ABC's "Wide World of Mystery." It's a bit spiritless and very low-budget, but closer to the original story than Frankenstein: The True Story. It makes Frankenstein more of an innocent — in the book, he kills Victor Frankenstein's younger brother deliberately, but in the movie, it's an accident. Not much else to say about it, other than it was probably my least favorite.

Movie rating: B-
Fidelity to the source material: B+

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

This Hollywood feature film was one of the more faithful adaptations, including both Frankenstein's original motivation (the death of his mother) and the framing device of Captain Walton discovering Frankenstein in the Arctic. Robert de Niro was the monster, and while lurching about as an undead golem didn't exactly give him an opportunity to show off his acting chops, he does capture the monster's grief and loneliness when seeking friendship and being rejected. It's a decent production, though other than de Niro, it really doesn't add much to the many versions that went before it.

Movie rating: B+
Fidelity to the source material: B+

Frankenstein (2004)


This was another long made-for-TV adaptation. This one was the most faithful of all the versions I saw; aside from playing up the angst of the monster and making him a bit more innocent than he was in the book (though it's a bit ambiguous whether some of his murders were really accidental, as he claims), it follows Shelley's story pretty closely, right up the very end with Victor Frankenstein, Captain Walton, and the monster out on the ice.

Movie rating: A-
Fidelity to the source material: A-

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl


Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl


This came up on Netflix when I searched for "Frankenstein," and because it was available for streaming, I watched it.

OMG WTF what is this I don't even

Frankenstein Girl

Okay, first of all this movie has nothing to do with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Second, it's a Japanese splattergore film based on a manga.

This was the biggest holyshitwtfIcantbelieveImwatchingthis movie I've seen in a few years.

Umm, yeah, so like I said, it has nothing to do with Frankenstein. But I had to comment on it because my brain is still recovering from the trauma, and my eyes are scarred as well. I mean, besides geysers of gore, flying body parts, swords and rollerblades made of blood, and, uh, you know how sometimes people dissect American movies like Avatar or Star Wars for racist subtext?

This is not a movie that does subtext.

Subtext my ass

Holy jumping Jesus on a cracker.

It's ridiculous, exploitative, awful, shocking tripe.

I could not stop watching this movie.

Do not watch this movie.

Verdict: A great if improbable story with hamhanded morality, told by an immature writer, Frankenstein is dramatic and as timeless as the archetypes Mary Shelley borrowed. It deserves to be read, though Shelley's prose and storytelling can best be described as "florid." Do read the original, as like most classics, there are interesting details and plot twists that the many, many adaptations have left out. It's far from the best Victorian (okay, technically, Regency) novel I've ever read, but it's kind of fun if a little head-banging at time.

Also, see the movies. But not Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl.

Frankenstein is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, though I did not read it for the books1001 challenge.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, horror, movies, netflix, reviews

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