What do you think about when you think about Frankenstein?
Do you think of a dark and stormy night, with a half-mad scientist hunched over his grisly creation?
A green monster with a bolt through his neck, lumbering along?
A sci-fi romance that is profoundly emotive and thought-provoking?
Since its publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s cornerstone of gothic horror has become all of those things and more. In many ways, the popular image of Frankenstein is worlds away from the conception of 200 years ago. Whatever you think about when you think about Frankenstein, I believe that at its heart is a powerful, challenging story that our culture would not be the same without.
There are several reasons for writing about this now. One is that I’m also writing coursework on the novel, so the original is pretty fresh in my mind. Another is the recent release of the film Victor Frankenstein, which you can watch a trailer for here. And another is a recent storyline in the ongoing TV show The Flash, in which the protagonists face the return of Grodd, an intelligent gorilla that several of them had a hand in creating.
Let’s look first at the new film. I haven’t seen the film, only a couple of trailers, but the trailers themselves are pretty interesting. One thing you notice is that the creations (yes, plural), of Victor and his assistant (who is not in the book), are undeniably monstrous. They look pretty grim, they chase Victor and Igor around, and, well, they call them monsters. That said, I think the film has the potential to deal with the theme of who the real monsters are pretty well. In the book, the question I think we’re faced with is who is the real monster? Victor, or the creature? And, if the trailers are anything to go by, that question could apply in the film. Igor is shown pleading with Victor to stop what he’s doing, and Victor himself comes across as arrogant and self-centred. The beauty of Frankenstein is that it challenges any association we might make between aesthetic beauty and moral goodness. In my opinion, the most beautiful part of the novel is the creature’s narrative in which he describes his first days. I don’t know whether the film will contain those elements of beauty, but that core question could well remain, and it’s one worth considering.
WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE FLASH SEASON 2, EPISODE 7: ‘GORILLA WARFARE’
It is a different, yet related issue that is addressed in The Flash. Back in series 1 it was revealed that Grodd, a normal gorilla, was experimented on in order to enhance his mental capabilities in a government scheme to develop telepathy in humans. To cut a long story short, he escaped, and the explosion that created the Flash also awakened the telepathic abilities and intelligence of Grodd. Flash had already had one run in with him, and this time he returned, kidnapping one of the scientists who worked on him in the first place, one of Flash’s friends, because he remembered that she was kind to him, and wanted her to make more intelligent apes like himself. Sound familiar? It’s an almost exact copy of the Frankenstein storyline, as the creature confronts Victor and demands that he make a female companion for him.
Like Victor, the scientist in the show doesn’t help, though she is not unkind, and after the Flash confronts Grodd, they manage to send him to a parallel world where there are other beings like him (yep, it’s as weird as it sounds). This means that the show deals with the issue differently to the novel. Grodd, like the creature, becomes something of a sympathetic character at this point, rather than a straight-up evil villain. He is shown to be lonely and in pain. But where the novel has Victor destroying the female that he begins to create, the show finds a way to give Grodd the companionship that he desires.
The use of the Frankenstein storyline in The Flash is testament to how ingrained it is in our culture, and also how powerful it is. I found that episode to be one of my favourites in the current series, and that was largely due to the power that the storyline has to draw out emotion and create sympathetic characters where you would not expect to find them. This is another example of the book challenging our conception of good and evil, suggesting that the world is not as black and white as we like it to be.
It’s challenging, because it makes you wonder if you’ve ever been guilty of Victor Frankenstein’s fatal flaw. Have you ever passed someone or something off as evil without actually understanding it? Have you been blind to your own flaws?
Frankenstein is a story that might make for uncomfortable reading, but not because it’s violent or shocking in the way that a lot of modern horror is. It’s uncomfortable because it forces us to examine ourselves, and wonder if there’s a little bit of Victor Frankenstein buried somewhere within us that we don’t know about.
It’s also a phenomenal story, and one of my all-time favourites. I love that this story is being used in different contexts, and that its messages are being taken in different ways because there is so much potential for powerful messages to be sent if it is done well. Long may we continue to see the story of Frankenstein and his monster woven into our popular culture.