Wednesday, 12 September 2012

FRANKENSTEIN OR THE NEW PROMETHEUS – Mary Shelley, 1818

I saw an adaptation of Frankenstein at the theatre the other week. I very much enjoyed it. It was not true to the original in some respects, but I have yet to see an adaptation which is wholly faithful. There is too much in the novel which cannot be successfully dramatised, so it is a wise move not to try. I object to happy endings or deranged scientists, however, as neither are to be found in Mary Shelley’s text.                                                                          
Much has been written of the origins of the story: the trauma from the death of a child and a long night of storytelling undoubtedly have their part to play. But there is much more to the novel than the myth which surrounds it. Only a thorough re-reading makes it possible to see how complex the narrative is and what a genius Mary Shelley was. Why do we read a novel such as Emile by Rousseau and hail him as a philosopher yet read Frankenstein and award its author no such honour?
Shelley’s wife; Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s daughter; Claire Clairmont’s half-sister – it seems that everyone around her is given a higher status than Mary herself. Many have read the works of her parents and there is no doubt that her husband was a genius of poetry and her sister was a famous femme-fatale but maybe we should start to see them in the context of their relationship with her. She was only 25 when her husband drowned and she was forced to spend the rest of her life writing for survival.  Perhaps the answer lies simply in the fact that the fruit of her labour is more famous than its author or any of her family. Frankenstein is universal. In fact, since 1931, Frankenstein was Universal; inextricably linked with Boris Karloff’s portrayal. And ever after, a bolt through the neck is a far more easily recognisable symbol of the excesses of scientific zeal than a creature who did not ask to be created and who craves love and affection.

The book is a revelation. I had read it about three times before but not recently. I was taken aback by the creature’s desperate attempts to become learned and accepted, thwarted only by his physical appearance, for there is nothing monstrous about his personality until he is condemned and ostracised by others. The family he watches and assists are objects of his devotion because he is able to feel pity for them. And the sightless old man accepts him as a friend. Only when the all-seeing (but all-blind son) returns, is he ejected from the house and forced once more into exile. I suppose I should be grateful that, because of its complicated narrative, it has not been appropriated as an anti-prejudice tract and degraded by politics. The creature is more human in form than Hollywood has ever portrayed him; De Niro has come closest in the film directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1994. (Interestingly, the film was not a success and virtually bankrupted Branagh’s stock in America. Perhaps we don’t want our monsters to be too human.)

I think the truth of it is that we all love to see a visual representation of the things we love (that’s why I bought my ticket) but there is no substitute for the written word. It is there that we can experience the author’s intentions along with our own interpretations and the pictures in our heads can be finer than anything presented on stage on screen. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the stage and screen versions I have seen, from the Theatre Royal at Nottingham to the fantastic Peter Cushing/ Christopher Lee at Hammer Films. I have, though, by watching both and then re-reading the novel, realised that there is much within this small volume which celluloid and limelight can never capture but is still well worth the attempt.

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