Beyond Belief

A Radio 4 programme where the following is discussed. Frankenstein, the tale of a scientist who creates a creature that ultimately destroyed him, has been a popular subject for films for many years. But the religious content of the original novel written by Mary Shelley is lost on the big screen. Her story centres on the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who plays God. His creation identifies first with Adam and then with Satan in Paradise Lost. He has admirable human qualities but is deprived of love and affection and becomes brutalised. Joining Ernie Rea to discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are Andrew Smith, Professor of Nineteenth Century English Literature at the University of Sheffield; Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Professor of English Literature at the University of the West of England; and Dr James Castell, Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University.

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A Brief History of Film Adaptations of Frankenstein

Frankenstein in popular culture has received the Hollywood treatment by a number of different film studios. Many of the different adaptations are exaggerated or inaccurate when it comes to the original content of the narrative, and some are only loosely based on the  novel.

The first adaptation of Frankenstein, which was released in 1910, and directed by J. Seare Dawley,  was only 16 minutes long. The black and white film was shot in only three to four days, and was said to have an emphasis on reducing the horrific aspects in the novel in favour of the ‘mystical’ and ‘psychological elements’. Many modern viewers view Frankenstein as an iconic horror novel, and as such this adaptation of the film is not particularly revered in popular culture today.

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(Above, Charles Ogle in the 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein)

Boris Karloff’s adaptation of the novel, arguably the most famous (and by which most perceptions of the image of Frankenstein’s Monster have been shaped today), was released in 1931. The iconic lines of the black and white film classic:

‘it’s alive! it’s alive! in the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be a God!’

have spawned a number of follow up films and spin offs, some of which are notably awful pieces of film history. These lines, although influential, were also inherently controversial in 1930’s society. They were considered blasphemous and many requests were made for scenes within the film to be censored or cut. The state of Kansas in particular requested that 32 scenes be cut, which would have halved the length of the film. Another scene in which Frankenstein’s Monster throws a little girl into a lake and accidentally drowns her, also landed the film in a controversial debate about content appropriate for the big screen.

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(Above, Frankenstein’s Monster in the 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein)

Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaption of ‘Frankenstein’, a considerably more up to date take on a classic, for a  modern society, was given mixed reviews by critics and viewers alike. Although the film itself did well at the box office, the reviews from critics described it as ‘ambitious and striking, but totally inconsistent’. Critics praised Branagh for his ambition taking on the literary classic, but the reputation of the 1931 classic seemed to be a tough act to follow. The film itself, whilst visually appealing and impressive in places, seems cluttered and confusing with the manic and frantic pace of the narrative, something which critics picked up on during their almost universal panning of it. It is not hard to see why the film was criticised widely as even the depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster (renamed ‘The Creature’, as seen below) had significantly departed from original descriptions of Shelley’s pale skinned  and yellow eyed monster. Branagh’s take on Victor Frankenstein’s creation is somewhat human like and significantly less terrifying than the 1910 or 1931 adaptations of the monster.

Frankenstein-1994

(Seen Above, Robert De Niro as ‘The Creature’ in Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein)

 

The Bicentenary of Frankenstein

This year marks the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s most notable novel, ‘Frankenstein’. This celebratory milestone has sparked much debate amongst critics  on the major themes of the novel and the messages it seeks to convey. Many organisations are holding celebratory events to mark this anniversary, including Matlock Bath Development Association.

The literary classic,  concerned with the reanimation of the dead, and the consequences of meddling in the balance of life and death, is famously known to have a short excerpt in which the protagonist Victor, visits Matlock Bath during his search for the Monster, and his discovery of caves which he believed the Monster resided in. The excerpt is below.

“We … proceeded to Matlock, which was our next place of rest. The country in the neighbourhood of this village resembles Switzerland; but everything is on a lower scale … We visited the wondrous cave, and the little cabinets of natural history …”

Mary Shelley (1994) “Frankenstein” (1818 Text) World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford (Vol. III, Chapter II).

The caves referenced in the novel are a subject of debate amongst the town’s residents… of the many caves in Matlock Bath, which one was Shelley referring to? Many of the historical buildings have caves attached to them that penetrate deep into the hillside, and form some of the more notable tourist attractions that Matlock Bath has to offer today.

 

Bodies and Corpses in Shelley’s time

Despite being terrifying and somewhat supernatural, the novel Frankenstein was declared by some readers as having

‘an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times’.

The scientific investigations into Galvanism and other medical processes at the time the novel was written made many people uneasy, including Shelley herself.  Physicians often categorised deaths in two states, ‘absolute death’ and ‘incomplete death’. The latter of which a person could be saved and restored to full health, and the former of which was a true death which could not be cured. There are many ‘incomplete deaths’ within the story, such as when Victor collapses because of nervous illness, describes himself as ‘lifeless’ and is then restored to life by Clerval.

Shelley once talked about how her son was saved by a physician from an illness.

‘By the skill of the physician he was once reanimated after the process of death had actually commenced, and he lived four days after that time’

This suggestion that the process of death could be reversed  show that many of Shelley’s own experiences and tragedies helped to form the idea that the lines between life and death were often blurred, and that perhaps even some dead could be reanimated. There seemed to be a great cultural anxiety surrounding these medical advancements, something which is echoed throughout the entire novel.

Leading on from this, Victor Frankenstein’s assertion that ‘life and death appeared to me ideal bounds’ was perhaps shared by some of the more ethically dubious physicians in the time the novel was written. Luigi Galvani in particular, performed experiments on the cadavers of hanged criminals, to which he had some success in getting certain body parts to move in response to the electric jolts. The conversations regarding life and death between physicians became so controversial that physicians who publicly held controversial views were often asked to resign.

Victor explains in the novel:

‘I collected bones from charnel-houses…The dissecting room and the slaughter house furnished many of my materials’.

Victor’s collection of body parts from these places is how he obtained his materials to create his monster. During the period in which the novel was written, it was only condemned criminals that could be requisitioned for body parts after their death.

The demand for cadavers was so high that so called ‘resurrectionists’ would exhume  bodies from church graveyards and sell them onto anatomy schools for a significant profit. On more than one occasion people were actually murdered because the value of their bodies was so high. Bodies of the poor and those in workhouses eventually became targets, and in 1832 the Anatomy act was passed to allow the claiming of all the corpses of those that worked in the workhouses, and charitable hospitals. In addition to this, surgery was often performed on live, screaming and conscious patients during which medical students could observe the procedures.

Both the fear of being dissected alive and the fear of Galvanic experiments is something that was reflected in John Galt’s short story The Buried Alive published in 1821. The narrative follows a young man’s paralysis and his burial (during which is he still alive although to others he appears dead). The story is told in the first person as the young man is then exhumed by grave robbers, shocked with electric jolts and eventually regains control of all his faculties after a scientist begins to dissect him in front of a group of medical students.

John Galt’s short can be read here: (https://archive.org/stream/steamboat00galtgoog#page/n176/mode/2up)

All of this contextual information surrounding medicine, the body and it’s value,  form central themes in Shelley’s novel. Victor’s Frankenstein’s monster is composed of these parts, of which all either belonged to criminals, or were stolen by criminals (it is possible he bought materials from so called resurrectionists). This in a sense foreshadows the criminal actions of the monster itself… If all of his body parts had some sort of criminal association, then  it would seem that the monster was quite literally a criminal before he had even committed criminal acts. The irony is that Victor eventually destroys his own body in the creation of his monster. He is described as pale and exhausted when putting the creature together, and eventually his own body succumbs to the extreme conditions he experiences chasing the monster through the wintery conditions in the latter part of the book.