The problem with classic novels is that over time, they spawn countless movie/tv adaptations or inspire stage plays, musicals, and other novels. Thus, many people believe that they know what a story is about from watching a movie adaptation or two without having to actually read the original book. I mentioned this idea in my post about The Count of Monte Cristo. Anyone who has read Alexandre Dumas’ novel knows that it’s nothing like the 2002 movie starring Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and Dagmara Dominiczyk. I won’t go into details of how the novel and the movie differ, but suffice it to say that if Alexandre Dumas were alive today, he probably would have sued Touchstone Pictures for all they’re worth.
Another classic novel that a lot of people think they know is Mary Shelly‘s Frankenstein. Since its publication in 1818, Frankenstein has been turned into numerous movies, mostly in the horror category, but it’s also been made into a comedy, a cartoon, and a musical. Aside from feature film adaptations, Frankenstein’s monster has become one of the most recognizable monsters in pop culture (next to Dracula). However, what most people know about the story of Frankenstein from movies or television shows is probably incorrect.
Frankenstein is a surprisingly short novel – the edition I read was just over 200 pages, and I don’t think that was an abridged or incomplete version. It is a sort of epistolary novel with three major parts. In its entirety, it is told by a Robert Walton in the form of a letter to his sister. Captain Robert Walton is an explorer, whose passion is to explore the uncharted regions of the North Pole. He travels to the north and charters a ship for his expedition. During their voyage, after encountering particularly terrible weather conditions, they come across a mysterious man, hanging on for dear life on his damaged sled. Walton’s crew saves the man, who is befriended by Capt. Walton. The rescued man, who is later identified as Victor Frankenstein (yes, that’s the name of the creator not the monster), finds a kindred spirit in Walton in his passion to discover the unknown. Frankenstein, in hopes of dissuading his new friend in the follies of his obsession, recounts a very strange and tragic tale to Walton, which makes up the second part of the novel.
Frankenstein starts by telling Walton about his family – his mother and father from Geneva; his adopted sister, Elizabeth, who is referred to as his cousin; and his two younger brothers. At a young age, Frankenstein was fascinated by nature and the sciences and obsessed with pushing the boundaries of nature and achieving the seemingly impossible. As a young man, he studied science at University and develops an obsession for creating life from inanimate/nonliving objects. Frankenstein immersed himself among corpses and bones, collecting parts to piece together for his gruesome project. By making his creature bigger than the average man, Frankenstein avoids having to understand and duplicate the minute details and functions of life. Through a mysterious process, he successfully breathes life into his monstrous creation but is repulsed immediately by his creation’s grotesque ugliness and at his own immoral and despicable actions. Frankenstein flees from his monster, not caring what happens to it, hoping that he would never encounter it again.
A series of very unfortunate and tragic events force Frankenstein to return to Geneva, where he once again encounters his monster, who he believes is the perpetrator of his family’s recent tragedies. He is confronted by the monster, who pleads with him to listen to his equally sad and tragic story. The monster’s story makes up the third part of the layered narrative. Frankenstein’s monster tells him what happened to him after he was shunned by his creator. He wanders the woods, trying to make sense not only of his surroundings but also of the internal workings of his body and the different sensations he is feeling for the first time. He recounts with great sadness and anger his first encounter with human beings, who upon seeing him flee in horror or attack him for no apparent reason. The monster also tells him an incredible story about a family he observed in secret who unwittingly taught him language, literature, writing, history, and different aspects of culture. Longing to introduce himself to this family but fearing rejection, the creature first contents himself with watching them from his hiding place adjacent to the family’s home. Believing that the members of the family are especially kind and benevolent, Frankenstein’s monster builds up his courage to make his presence known to them. This does not go well, and the creature, angry and disillusioned, flees once again to the woods, vowing to never interact with human society. Realizing that because of his hideous appearance, he is doomed to roam the earth alone, he implores Frankenstein to create another creature, a female, like him so that he may have a companion who will understand him and share his fate. In return for Frankenstein’s help, the creature promises to live far away in places uninhabited by man.
Frankenstein is fascinated yet aghast by his creature’s story. Although uncertain of the creature’s strange request and horrified at the prospect of creating another creature similar to the first, Frankenstein agrees to his monster’s bargain. Frankenstein is torn between compassion for the creature’s plight and the horror of what is being asked of him. Although at first acquiescing to the monster’s request, Frankenstein finds that he cannot possibly unleash another monstrosity in the world, thereby incurring the wrath of his horrid creature, who promised to cause him unending suffering. Frankenstein flees to protect his family and escape the wrath of the monster, but after experiencing incredible misfortunes at the hands of the monster, vows to hunt it down to the ends of the earth and to destroy it. This vow of tracking down his monster, who is incredibly strong and can withstand conditions that normal man cannot, eventually takes them to the icy lands of the north and in the path of Robert Walton.
Frankenstein, though categorized as a horror novel, is not so much a story about a hideous monster as one about the cruelties and prejudices of man against those who are different. It highlights man’s thirst for knowledge yet abhorrence of the consequences of his endeavors to which he has little understanding. It lays bare the prejudices of man and the importance he places on outward appearances and showcases society’s loathing and fear of the unknown. More than a horror or a sci-fi novel, through its monster, Frankenstein focuses on the very human fears of loneliness, solitude, and isolation. It emphasizes that everyone, regardless of form or origin, craves and deserves compassion, companionship, acceptance, love, and friendship.
This summary may not match your idea of Frankenstein. Thanks to recent movies and pop culture, most people think that Frankenstein is the name of the monster and that he is a big green guy with a square head and pegs attached to his temples or neck. Despite this very popular image, the appearance of the creature is never really described in the novel, except that he is bigger than the average man, about 8 feet tall; has strong and flexible arms, legs, and joints; ill proportioned; and horrendously ugly. On television, Frankenstein is usually depicted as a stupid, stiff, and clumsy monster who walks without bending his knees, with his arms outstretched in front of him. However, in the novel, the creature is highly intelligent, articulate, limber, strong, fast, and can withstand weather conditions far better than the average man.
Another popular belief associated with Frankenstein’s monster is that it was brought to life by a complicated structure powered by lightning with the help of a trusty assistant named Igor. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein never shares his secrets of breathing life to his monster and never describes the process. Nowhere is it mentioned in the novel that lightning/electricity is the monster’s life source, and nowhere is there an assistant named Igor. Aside from Walton and a few other people in his life, Frankenstein told no one of his monster or his secret. In fact, the creature’s creation and animation are quite uneventful that they didn’t warrant more than a few sentences, a paragraph at most. If you read too fast or tend to skim, you might even miss it.
Additions such as the hunched-backed assistant, the complex structures, and flashy electricity are probably movie directors’ way of compensating the novel’s lack descriptions and details on certain aspects. Mary Shelley took considerable pains to describe her characters’ sufferings, emotions, and inner thoughts as well as their natural environment and surroundings, the Swiss Alps, sparkling lakes, and dark or lush forests in such a way that makes the novel sound like a travelogue at times. However, she rushes through the gory details that are so important in horror novels. And this is where the novel and most movie adaptations differ. The novel focuses on the characters and their emotions and on themes such as humanity, science, the nature of man, philosophy, and ethics. The novel also emphasizes moral lessons on the dangers of playing god and the evils of scientific knowledge. By contrast, numerous movie adaptations focus on the monster, the process of his creation, and on the brutal consequences of his violent wrath. I have not watched a whole lot of Frankenstein movies, but the 1994 version, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh is a pretty good adaptation, if memory serves.
However, I have to admit that I did not like this novel at all. Though it is only around 200 pages, it took me over two weeks to read it. I find the writing repetitive and tedious and the characters flat and unlikable. I feel that the novel focuses too much on Frankenstein’s grief and suffering such that after a while, he starts to sound like an emo teenager. I don’t understand how Frankenstein, with his fascination and obsession with creating life, would suddenly reject his creature and be filled with horror at what he had done. His reaction to his creation just seems very uncharacteristic of someone seemingly so scientific. Later, knowing that his monster vowed to destroy all he holds dear in life, between whining about his misfortunes and tragic fate and being unconscious and feverish for months at a time, Frankenstein doesn’t really do much to alter the situation. His rejection of his creature and the creature’s pleas for acceptance and love is despicable and inexcusable. There is a selfish, cruel, unfeeling monster in Frankenstein, but it’s not the one who is created artificially.
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) – Mary Shelley
Bantam; 209 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 1/5