Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Frankenstein at 200: An Outsider's Love Song

We never forget our first loves, yeah?

Sometime in the mid-to-late-1980s, KTXH Channel 20 — the local UHF channel in Houston, Texas — showed 1931's Frankenstein and Dracula. I could not yet have been ten years old, and I don't know why I wanted to watch these two movies, how I'd heard about them, if I had seen them before, even — nothing like that. But I remember being excited to watch them, I remember finding them in the TV Chronilog (the Houston Chronicle's broadcast TV listings), and to this day, I remember sitting down on the floor of my parents' bedroom to watch them.

Me, as I type this.
This was when colorization of black-and-white movies was an abomination a new thing, but these prints weren't colorized in that sense. They were tinted, as some prints had been upon initial release. I remember Frankenstein being green, and Dracula being primarily blue. I don't recall what my impressions of the films were beyond 1) I liked Frankenstein more, and 2) I now believed old movies to be super, super awesome. In addition to kicking off my lifelong fixation with classic films, Frankenstein has stayed with me as a key inspiration for much of what I have explored as a fan and created as a musician in the three decades since. But I didn't realize until Worldcon 76 published their schedule, featuring a panel on Frankenstein at 200, that 2018 was the bicentennial of Mary Shelley's novel's initial publication. That seemed as good an excuse as any to take a detailed look back at the themes underlying this work, which became a foundational text for both science fiction literature and horror filmmaking, and how those themes continue to resonate today.

* * *
Since Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus anonymously in 1818, re-tellings and adaptations of her vision have abounded. From stage to screen, there are almost certainly too many versions to count. And I've seen a lot of them...all the Universal versions from the 1930s and 40s, Young Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and God help me, Lady Frankenstein, Flesh for Frankenstein, and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter.

But for our purposes, I'm going to focus on discussing Mary Shelley's novel and the two films James Whale made in 1931 and 1935, respectively, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. I feel like the novel (specifically the original 1818 edition) and Whale's film adaptations are all excellent, and these incarnations capture the thing that has kept me so fascinated by the story since...well, literally since I can remember. If I can boil that attraction down to a single sentence, it is this:

The "monster" is not the monster.

I have long believed that the creature is more like me than not, that I have more in common with "the other" than I have in opposition, and that I have in my power the opportunity to cause great harm in another's life if I am unwilling to see that person as they truly are, beyond any outward appearance. These are lessons that have stuck with me, courtesy of Frankenstein, and throughout this series, I intend to look at these themes and others that still find resonance across two centuries.

* * *
In many ways, I believe Shelley and Whale were both outsiders, and however intentional or not, I believe their work to be a celebration of the misunderstood and the outcast. Shelley was a woman living among the intelligentsia of the late Regency Era in England, the daughter of a trailblazing feminist writer (Mary Wollstonecraft) and a progressive thinker and writer critical of society's structures (William Godwin). James Whale was openly gay throughout his Hollywood career. I cannot speak to the pressures either Mary Shelley or James Whale felt, or their experiences with belonging to traditionally marginalized groups. But that belonging has been in my awareness of Frankenstein for at least the last 20 years, and I have felt for all that time that these two storytellers may have had good reason to identify more with the misunderstood, underestimated "monster" at the heart of this story than with the landed gentry and prosperous, "civilized" individuals like Victor Frankenstein.

In my reading of Shelley's novel and my interpretation of Whale's films, I find these to be subversive works released via mainstream outlets. In both, I don't think it's an accident that I empathize the most deeply with the "monster." But from the way that they told their stories, I believe that both of them crafted their presentations in a way that gave audiences cover for not getting it...allowing them to miss the point and still enjoy the work. Neither novel nor film paint the masses of humanity in a pleasant light, so it follows that the underlying message might have sailed right over the heads of most of their audience.

First, a quick look at the key differences between these works. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus begins as an epistolary novel in which an adventurer and ship's captain named Robert Walton recounts to his sister his attempt to procure a ship and a crew in order to try to be the first to reach the North Pole. As they cross into the Arctic Circle, they find a man struggling in the water, his team of sled dogs having drowned, and they rescue him. This is Victor Frankenstein, and he begins to recount to Walton his tale, in which he has a happy childhood, is presumed from a very early age to be engaged to his cousin Elizabeth, and heads away from his hometown of Geneva to attend university. While there, he distinguishes himself in the fields of chemistry and natural philosophy, and embarks on a secret quest to reanimate dead tissue. He succeeds, creating a giant, human-like creature, but is so repulsed by the creature's ugliness upon its awakening that Frankenstein abandons it, and the creature disappears. The creature slips through the woods, slowly coming to understand life, and hides himself in a small outbuilding behind a household consisting of a brother and sister, and their gentle, blind father. From close observation of this family, the creature learns language, and then complex ideas on life and morality. (If you haven't read the book, more than likely you're not familiar with the creature becoming extremely eloquent.) Eventually, he tries to introduce himself to the family, having been their secret benefactor for many months, providing firewood and other aid. But upon seeing him, the brother attacks him and drives him from the home. The creature then heads toward Geneva in search of Victor, with the demand that Victor make for him a mate — a female creature as rudely formed as he — that he might no longer be alone. Frankenstein refuses, ultimately, and the creature hastens the death of all whom Frankenstein loves, prompting Frankenstein to chase the creature to the ends of the Earth...or, at least the pole.

Between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, if taken as a single whole, the film adaptation is pretty faithful. Certain characters are pared away or consolidated, and there is the strange addition in Bride of Frankenstein of an eccentric character named Dr. Pretorius, who takes it upon himself to teach the creature language and help make the case to Frankenstein (inexplicably renamed "Henry Frankenstein" in the films) that "the monster demands a mate." There is no Captain Walton, no North Pole, and Frankenstein does finally consent to make a female creature. But the broad strokes are more or less the same.

In the book, Walton and everyone in Victor's life praise him to the stars as all that is noble and good in mankind. But his actions don't bear out this celestial approbation. Upon his creature waking, Victor is so revolted that he runs headlong into the street, bumps into his friend Henry, and reluctantly returns to his apartment and laboratory. Finding the creature gone, he feels relief, and then never seems to give it another moment's thought. "What happened to that giant creature I created from spare parts? Well, he's not here, so oh well, not my problem!" Later, his refusal to grant the creature's wish is rooted entirely in the creature's physical appearance. He listens to the creature's words and entreaties, decides to acquiesce to the request, and then literally looks at him and changes his mind. This happens repeatedly. And finally, on his deathbed in Walton's ship, Victor berates the crew members for not willingly dying in pursuit of impossible folly. He has learned nothing, it seems, and as he looks back at all that has happened, he finds himself blameless in his dealings with his own creation. He seems like kind of a dick. But as the novel's main character and principal narrator, Shelley allows her reader to invest in and empathize with Victor, should they want to. And the other characters in the book help make the case for him...but I don't think Mary Shelley believed he was blameless, or noble, or just.

Similarly, Boris Karloff's monster was sold as an absolute horror. Audiences were expected to recoil from the abomination, and hide their eyes behind their popcorn buckets. But James Whale didn't shoot him as an abomination. The lingering shot of Karloff reaching for the sun the first time he sees it, the playfulness and naivety that lead him to a deadly mistake with the young girl Maria, and the suffering the monster endures at the hands of a torch-waving Fritz all serve to humanize Frankenstein's creation, and these moments abound likewise in the second film. I don't think James Whale thought the creature, despite its billing, was a monster.

And nor do I. To me, in their own ways, these are works that signal to other outsiders that you may be different, but you are still worthy of understanding.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, Emmy-winning producer, writer of two songs about Frankenstein, and author of at least one unproduced script inspired by it.

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