Warning! Warning! This following discussion contains extensive reference to Frankenstein along with other related movies, series and novels, contains major spoilers. Read ahead at your own risk…
Welcome back, future thinkers. Last week for the first part of Sci-Fi Horror month, we looked at the film Lifeforce which was an adaption of the book Space Vampires, heavily influenced by Bram Stokers Dracula. Whilst I looked at classic Horror compared to modern Sci-Fi Horror (as of 1985 when the film was released), this week I want to focus specifically on another classic Horror film. The one and only Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (also known as The Modern Prometheus), what is known as the first ever Science Fiction story. Now if that isn’t called revolutionary, I don’t know what is. Here, I’ll be discussing each version of the story but mainly the original novel and the 1930s film by Universal. However, without further ado, let’s jump into this week’s retrospective.
So before looking into the importance of the story, let’s discuss the context of how the story came to be and then a recap of the plot. So, if you were not aware, Mary Shelly conceptualised and later wrote Frankenstein during a competition she had with several of her friends (Lord Byron and his physician, John Polidori) along with her husband, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. This would involve them telling the scariest story they could with the eventual outcomes being Frankenstein and the lesser well known by incredibly influential short story, The Vampyre which lead to the birth of Bram Stoker’s excellent novel, Dracula. Mind you, Mary Shelley was eighteen at the time of writing the Frankenstein novel back in 1819. It’s incredibly interesting to think of how these things get made. Sometimes it’s a magnum opus that someone has worked on for years whilst sometimes it’s just a random idea that was quickly developed and made into a classic.
So now, let’s get into some plot although I say you know the story. Frankenstein focuses on the scientist Victor Frankenstein (as you would expect) who attempts to create a living human from dead parts. This leads to him creating a monster (sometimes known as Adam) who he hides away but later escapes. The monster then ends up killing a girl and well, escapes leaving Victor to try and hunt the creature before it causes anymore trouble. Victor is also tried for the murder but is later acquitted for his crimes after falling ill in prison and finding his friend with the marks of his monster on his neck. Later during his wedding with Elizabeth, the monster goes after her and let’s just say, Victor swears to have his revenge. Although no matter how hard he tries, the monster gets away up until the point of Victor’s death. The monster finds his creator and after some last words, the monster goes off to die just like his creator. Let’s just say, there’s also a lot of other stuff like when he creates a second monster, but I consider that stuff as filler. It’s also very different from the films as well but that’s to be expected.
So, now we’ve talked plot and story behind Frankenstein, now let’s get onto the actual point of this discussion, talking about how it could be said that Frankenstein created the Science Fiction genre. Whilst there is argument for stories such as The Chemical Wedding being the first Sci-Fi novel from back in 1616 (a book I will be discussing somewhere down the pipeline), I feel that Frankenstein is when elements were official established that would lead to the resonance of the genre. Whilst Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz dabbles in the study of Alchemy and exploring its possibility, Frankenstein is where actual elements of Science and using it for unethical purposes in pursuit of discovery. In a sense more like how Blade Runner or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep would lead to the creation of the cyberpunk genre even if there were some earlier novels that could be considered part of the genre.
In a sense how Victor tries to create his own human and play God is an incredibly interesting element that is explored throughout the novel and in a different way throughout the movies. The main subject is, however, creating something without thought of the risks that it may impose on others. New life in the palm of your hands, created from scratch. An entirely new human created using science instead of normal forms of birth. But when trying to create life there is also consequences such as death due to not being able to control this new creation. A new child given the body of a man with the mind of an imbecile. Similar themes can be seen in stories involving androids such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
I mention this because the themes of life and its creation that are presented throughout both texts. In a similar way to how the monster is presented in Frankenstein, Batty in Blade Runner is a grown man that has only been recently brought into this world. They are still experiencing their surroundings for the first time like children and lack the personal understanding of their actions, causing death and destruction in their wake in escape or pursuit of their creator. Whilst the films have no real connection other then both being from hugely influential Science Fiction stories, there’s some interesting parallels between how the monster and the androids are seen by humanity as some sort of despictable creatures without life of their own.
When looking into the themes of Frankenstein you can also relate much of Mary Shelley’s life at the time into the story. Shelley’s story begins with the in 1797 when she was born to the philosopher and political writer William Godwin and feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Although her mother would die soon after which she would be troubled without throughout her life (her mother’s grave being the place where she would teach herself to read). A few years after the death of her mother, her father remarried and her stepmother’s child Jane would be sent to school instead of Mary. She would therefore teach herself using her father’s library and often retreat into her imagination as a way to escape her life. She would therefore find an outlet through writing stories with her first poem published being in 1807.
She would later meet her husband in 1814, Percy Bysshe Shelley who was a poet and a student of her father. They would later flee together the same year when they met (Mary being a teenager at the time) from Percy’s wife and Mary’s father/home life. She would not talk with her father again until several years later. They would then in 1815 have a daughter who only survived a few days after birth which was on top of them struggling to get by during that time. This would then lead to the Summer nights where the stories of Frankenstein and The Vampyre would first begin developing and we’ve come full circle on the origin of both Frankenstein and Mary Shelley.
You may wonder why I focus so much on Mary Shelley’s life here but whilst I find media theory such as Death of the Author interesting, I don’t entirely agree with it. Art is subjective and themes can be taken from it based on your own interpretation but, as someone who tries to write fiction himself, there’s always important elements of your own life and your feelings at the time that you throw into writing. It’s something you can’t avoid because making art is always something so personal where you just unleash everything within you, all that repressed emotion and all your ideas going into your work. Even with the strangest of fiction, it’s going to be somewhat biographical. With Frankenstein itself you can see Mary Shelley’s struggle with the death of both her mother, her child (the thing she created) and the suicide of her sister and her husband’s then wife (who Percy fled). To say the least, Shelley was scarred and put much of herself, the Horror of her life and the acceptance of death.
There are other themes such as: Alienation (an element that Mary felt throughout her childhood and Victor feels whilst building his monster). The pursuit of dangerous knowledge (how Victor pursuits to find out whether his experiment would work so passionately it leads to everyone around him being put into danger). Family or lack of connection with them leading to tragedy (yeah, I think Mary Shelley’s history is enough to see that). Revenge (how the monster wants revenge on its creator after being mistreated which could also parallel Mary Shelley and how she ran away from Percy after feeling neglected by her family). Nature (how Frankenstein disturbs the natural order of things by taking creation into his own hands which leads him to be destroyed due to his actions, a usual subject of science fiction which I don’t think Shelley is reflecting on to herself rather than as a reflection of her thoughts on life and immorality in the pursuit of one’s passions).
I think there’s something incredibly profound and interesting about the Frankenstein story whether it be the novel or film versions (highly recommend The Frankenstein Chronicles if you are looking for a different take on the story, it is great. Seriously, check it out). It’s a story that set the groundwork for what Sci-Fi would come as a genre. Elements such as watching what you do with Science, thinking of others instead of just your pursuit for knowledge, along with the many other themes that I have discussed with this retrospective. It’s also interesting in how much you can see Mary Shelley within and her mindset throughout the novel as someone who could be seen as gifted at a young age (again, writing and releasing a book as important as Frankenstein at eighteen is a huge feat and something you’d only see with characters like Bo Burnham, regardless of how the book has held up).
There’s an argument for the quality of the actual book because whilst it has great themes and a very unique story that basically created the Science Fiction genre, there’s a lot of filler within the plot and a weird structure of letters being sent back and forth which really dulls the novel’s pacing. Compare that to something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula who does the letter structure perfectly (in my opinion) with his fantastic novel and you can really see the muddied quality of Frankenstein. However, that means that whilst I can see the different film and series adaptions of Frankenstein enhancing elements that are there in the novel, Dracula adaptions I usually find boring at least when they try to follow the book so closely because well…the book is the best version of that story (minus Nosferatu (1922), Lifeforce and the Hammar Horror Dracula movies, due to their different takes on the source material) but we already discussed that in my Lifeforce retrospective from last week.
Hey, there’s also a widely popular version of Frankenstein’s monster created in the 1960s I forgot to mention, The Hulk. Whilst the character is very different, you can see the combination of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein’s monster into one creation. Yes, those are the inspirations for the big green monster that we see dabbing in Avengers Endgame, (no, I did not make that up, watch the diner scene in the movie, he literally dabs). With this you can see a great incorporation of the elements of tragedy in the pursuit of science along with the destructive nature of the monster when it is attacked or provoked, before growing to become part of Banner that he can later control on will. If you want to read some Hulk comics and see this for yourself, the best runs are probably Planet Hulk, Silent Screams and the recent Immortal Hulk series which is probably one of the best comics out now and by Thor’s hammer, is it insane in the best way.
But back to the discussion on Mary Shelley and I just want to talk about her later life for a bit. So to say the least, Shelley’s life after Frankenstein was as tragic as her life before it. A year after the book Frankenstein was published in 1818, she would have her second child in a son named Percy Florence. However, at the time she was also having problems with her husband and let’s say the adultery was involved leading to a breakdown in their marriage. Her husband then drowns three years later in a boating accident. This would lead to her writing several more novels whilst trying to preserve her late husband’s work. The most notable are Mathilde (although I won’t discuss that here) and another Sci-Fi tale The Last Man.
The story of The Last Man is notable for being a Dystopian Sci-Fi tale where a deadly plague is unleashed until the world which is really a auto-biographical novel of the many deaths she has faced throughout her life which include her mother dying to fever. Because of this, characters are fictional manifestations of her husband and Lord Byron among many others she knew. Whilst I would touch on the book further, I will leave that for another time due to the fact that I have not read it yet, unfortunately, but you can hopefully expect a retrospective or review of it sometime in the future.
In conclusion, Mary Shelley’s life was pretty dark and depressing to say the least, but it was very important in the writing of what’s considered as the first Sci-Fi story ever written. The basic themes of Frankenstein are still very important today and have been used in many other Science Fiction stories to date. The idea of a man creating life from scratch and the destruction caused by the monster he created is a great cautionary tale to take heed of.
It’s a metaphor for Science and the modern world that would begin to kick off Science Fiction and revolutionise Horror stories for years and even centuries to come. Even with the problems the book has, there are many great elements of it that have been taken and enhanced in many interesting and different ways in adaptions of Shelley’s work. It’s easy to see the influence the novel and film adaptions have had and the many things that it has inspired (including Young Frankenstein, my favourite spoof movie). Let’s just say, the story of Frankenstein is still alive and kicking two centuries later and it won’t be long before it is brought alive again in one form or another.
Anyway, with that final note, thank you for reading this second part in Sci-Fi Horror month. It’s interesting to look at some classic monsters in one way or the other through these past two retrospectives as a lover of Science Fiction and Horror (to an extent). Looking back at what could be the first Science Fiction story is fascinating and thinking of how the genre started back all the way in 1816 puts everything in perspective of how far it has grown. To also look at Mary Shelley’s life has been incredibly fascinating especially in how she got past it through writing. She was a woman who had to educate herself, basically invented a whole genre and released her magnum opus by the age of eighteen whilst struggling with the death of her child and the suicide of her sister not too long before. This might even be one of my favourite topics on The Galaxy Wide Sci-Fi Guide so far. However, do you feel I looked at the topic in enough detail? What are your thoughts on Frankenstein? Let me know, future thinkers, in the comments below…
Next time get ready for the third part of Sci-Fi Horror month where I will be discussing Aliens and why it is a perfect Sci-Fi sequel. Hopefully I’ll also be getting my next podcast episode up with it. The audio is in the middle of being recorded so after I edit everything and get a good friend to master it for me then it will be released. I’m looking forward to touch onto one of my all-time favourite Sci-Fi movies next week and it ties in perfectly to my post last Halloween where I touched upon my favourite movie, Alien. The last post of Sci-Fi Horror month is still going to be kept a secret, but I feel it could be an interesting topic that I hope you’ll all enjoy reading, it’ll be a long one. Stay tuned for that future thinkers and until next time…
Michael McGrady, Signing Off.