The problem with Classic novels is that, over time, they spawn countless movie/tv adaptations or inspire stage plays, musicals, and other novels, so much so that many people believe that from watching a movie adaptation or two, they already know what the story is about without having to actually read the original book. I mentioned this in my earlier 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 the 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 it was published 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 (right 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 in life 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 life on his damaged sled. Walton’s crew saves the man, who, while recovering on the ship, is befriended by Captain Walton. The rescued man, later to be identified as Victor Frankenstein (yes, that’s the name of the creator, not the name of the monster), finds a kindred spirit in Walton and 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 later his 2 younger brothers. At a young age, Frankenstein was fascinated by nature and the sciences, and was obsessed with pushing the boundaries of nature and of achieving the seemingly impossible. As a young man, he studies science at University, and there develops his obsession with creating life in inanimate / non-living objects. Frankenstein immerses himself among corpses and bones, collecting parts to be pieced 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. By a mysterious process, he successfully breathes life into his monstrous creation, but is repulsed at once 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, and hoping that he would never encounter it again.
A series of very unfortunate and tragic events forces Frankenstein to return to Geneva, where he again encounters his monster, who he believes is the perpetrator of his family’s recent tragedies. He is confronted by the monster, who then pleads with him to listen to his equally sad and tragic story. The monster’s story makes up the 3rd 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 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, fled in horror, or else attacked 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 their rejection, the creature at first contents himself with watching them from his hiding place adjacent to the family’s home. Believing that the members of the family were 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 again. 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 at once fascinated yet aghast with his creature’s story. Though 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 was being asked of him. Though at first acquiescing to the monster’s request, Frankenstein finds that he cannot possibly unleash another monstrosity in the world, thus, incurring the wrath of his horrid creature, who promised to cause him unending sufferings. Frankenstein at first 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 eventually on the path of Robert Walton.
Frankenstein, though categorized as a horror novel, is not so much a story about a hideous monster as it is 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.
The summary I had just provided might not be what you had in mind when you hear the name Frankenstein. Thanks to recent movies and pop culture, most of us think that Frankenstein is in fact 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 was never really described in the novel, except that he was bigger than the average man – about 8 feet tall, has strong and flexible arms, legs, and joints, is ill-proportioned, and is horrendously ugly. On television, Frankenstein is usually depicted as a stupid, stiff, clumsy monster who walks without bending his knees, with his arms outstretched in front of him, but in the novel, the creature is highly intelligent and articulate, limber, strong, fast, and can withstand weather conditions far better than the average man.
Another popular belief we associate with Frankenstein’s monster, is that it was brought to life by a complicated structure powered by lightening, with the help of a trusty assistant named Igor. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein never shared his secrets of breathing life to his monster, and he never described the process of doing it. Nowhere was it mentioned that lightning / electricity was the monster’s life source, and nowhere was there an assistant named Igor. Aside from Walton and a couple other people in his life, Frankenstein told no one of his monster or his secret. In fact, the creation of the creature up to the point where he is brought to life is so uneventful that it doesn’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.
Those additions – the hunched-backed assistant, the complex structures, and flashy electricity, were probably the movie directors’ way of compensating for the novel’s lack of descriptive writing where it counts. I say this because Mary Shelley took considerable pains in describing her characters’ sufferings, emotions, and inner thoughts, as well as in describing their natural environment and surroundings, of the Swiss Alps, sparkling lakes, dark or lush forests, so much so that the novel sounds like a travelogue at times, but rushes through the gory details which is so important in a horror novel. And that 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, nature of man, philosophy, ethics, and possibly even the moral lesson of the dangers of playing god, or even that scientific knowledge is evil; while many movie adaptations focus on the monster, the process of creating him, and 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.
Having said all this, I have to admit that I did not like this novel at all. Though it is only around 200 pages, it took me over 2 weeks to read. I found the writing repetitive and tedious, and the characters flat, and unlikable. I felt that the novel focused too much on Frankenstein’s grief and suffering, so much so 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 that was artificially created.
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) – Mary Shelley
Bantam; 209 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 1/5