Sunday, October 23, 2016

Frankenstein (1818)

The original novel by Mary Shelley (originally published anonymously) is subtitled The Modern Prometheus, a sign of its ambition and ponderousness both. The ambition was warranted, as it's nearly 200 years later and we have been talking about it pretty much continually since. As for the ponderousness, well, everyone has their limits with 19th-century language, and this is mostly on the far side of mine. It took me many years and many attempts to get through it, and it's not a very big book, little more than a hundred pages in most editions. I was finally inspired to it once and for all by a documentary on a DVD with the 1931 Frankenstein picture, where I learned that the story has been popular practically since first publication, with countless theatrical productions and a few different versions, starting in the 1820s. In other words, interest in the theme of humans presuming to themselves godlike (or Godlike) powers has been steady and growing since 1818, though I think it comes and goes some, and we may presently be in a period of lower interest. Maybe superhero movies are covering that gap? At any rate, Edison Studios (yes, that would be Thomas Alva) made the first film version in 1910. What I had always vaguely considered the film original, the 1931 Universal production directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff as the monster, is actually the fourth film version. In turn, that 1931 film is based on a 1927 theatrical adaptation by Peggy Webling, which is something of a departure from other versions. In fact, the Shelley novel is very different from the 1931 movie, though many elements remain in both. The mad scientist Victor Frankenstein ("Henry" in the movie) figures out how to "animate" and grant life to dead substance, an original sin if I ever heard one. He is thus cursed to the end of his days, and this novel is here to tell us every blasted detail. The storytelling is made of frames within frames within frames, which have no apparent purpose except to clutter things up. The language is verbose and tangled, with long sentences unfurling endless clauses. (I realize I'm not one to talk, but still.) The plotting is too often improbable. You will need to be on good terms and open mind with the literary device of The Coincidence, as it appears often. I can't deny that Shelley's Frankenstein has the power to strike dark and chilling notes. It possesses a strong, even sickening, sense that life is a system of rotting away to further degradations, that pestilence, decay, and eternal damnation are just a preview of coming attractions. It's the dark side of Enlightenment values, colliding with the aftermath of political revolutions. Reading it shed a lot of useful light for me on the 1931 movie and its 1935 sequel, also a Universal production directed by Whale and starring Karloff, and perhaps the greatest movie sequel ever, Bride of Frankenstein. I'm glad I read the Shelley novel but I have to say for me it was work.

In case it's not at the library (I'm quite sure they'll have it).

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