Frankenomenon: Understanding the Fascination and Obsession with Frankenstein

The title says it all. The world is obsessed with Frankenstein. One important fact to note is that the title says “Frankenstein”, and not “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”. This is a deliberate omission, not a careless mistake. The reason behind this decision is simple. I don’t believe the media and society is obsessed with Shelley’s original conception, but rather, with the idea of Frankenstein and his creature; with the concept of someone being capable of creating new life, and by proxy, creating something, anything original. I believe the Frankenstein phenomenon is based on the allure of immortality, creation, and death, but most importantly, the allure of making something new and original. The various adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are merely romanticized notions of the idea that creation can be a representation of oneself as a “creative genius” by virtue of bringing forth some brilliant conception that has never before brought forth. The problem is that these attempts in the long term are detrimental to the original work.

The irony is that in using Shelley’s plot to attain this goal, the dream becomes unattainable. The very act of using someone else work to be creative is in itself ludicrous. However, in examining several different adaptations and remakes it is clear to see several explanations as to why hoards continue to use Shelley’s progeny to strive create their own.

Remakes, adaptations and inspirations:

First, it is perhaps beneficial to examine why adaptations in general are popular to not only the creators, but also to the public. Adaptations can show things more concretely, they can give actual physical detail that one can’t get from words. But they are the choices of the director. For readers, adaptations are attractive because it gives them the “comfort of the ritual with the piquancy of surprise” (Hutcheon, p.3) that a new adaptation can give them. To this extent, they also deprive the potential reader from the original experience, they take away the reader’s right to exercise their imagination and use the words in the context that they wish to view them. For writers, adaptations remain a popular choice because they are safe. It avoids risk if you create something you already know will sell well.

The problem is that each new adaptation takes its creative liberties, creating distortions on the original. They take apart the story; they add to it. This give and take has created a stigma for Frankenstein that makes it close to impossible for new spectators to get the true story Mary Shelley meant to get across to her audiences. So much gets adapted that there are several preconceived notions to the story. Perhaps the most common misconception is that “Frankenstein” is the name of the creature, rather than the creator. On that note, another major fallacy is that the scientists name was Dr. Frankenstein, when in fact it is just Victor Frankenstein, (as he gets kicked out of school, never earning his title) and that he has a hunch-backed assistant name Igor. The moment of the creation is also a large deviation, where these creative liberties are most clearly expressed. All of the flash and special effects given to this scene (which is not nearly as prominent in the book that almost dismisses it) is a clear example of what I believe to be one of the main reasons behind the hoards’ pursuit. Part of the cause behind such a huge amount of adaptations is because directors and writers feel that they can tell the story better, that if they add more special effects, or famous actors, or make-up action, then they get closer to their goal of becoming a creative genius.

TV and film adaptation examples:
Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (2012) is, in true Burton-fashion, a stop-motion animated film. It follows a young Victor Frankenstein in his quest and success in bringing his dead dog, Sparky, back to life. The comic aspect of this film is that is itself an adaptation of another film of the same name that was produced in 1984; it is an adaptation of an adaptation. It differs from the original in that Victor only attempts to bring back what was lost, he does not try to create new life. The “creation” scene has the typical fancy machinery with electricity shocks. Like many other adaptations, it deviates from Shelley’s creation process. Frankenstein is never “shown” working on the creature, he merely tells of his hiding out for weeks during the process. In Frankenweenie, after the other kids in the block discover that his invention worked, they all try to use it to bring a myriad of different inanimate objects to life sometimes to disastrous outcomes, which in a way models how different writers are using Shelley’s original creation to create strange variations of her work.

“The end justifies the means”. That is the tagline of yet another adaptation, The Frankenstein Syndrome, a horror film. In it, researchers conduct secret and illegal experiments using stem cells, and they accidentally devise a serum that is capable of reviving dead cellular tissue. Once again, they are trying to revive what already existed, not creating something completely new and original, hinting subconsciously at what the movie itself is doing with Shelley’s work. This version doesn’t quite make an attempt at sticking to the original however; it is more of a story based very loosely on Shelley’s main theme and plot. It does try to make small references to its predecessor though, as the subjects of the experiments eventually end up attacking the “creators/researchers”. There are other subtle homage-type details, such as the detective’s investigating the case’s names: Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s middle name) and Godwin (Shelley’s maiden name) and the name of the experiment: “The Prometheus Project”. It differs, or rather strays from the original in that the scientists are in fact actually attempting to help heal humankind, and when they discover that what they have created is a child-like human being, they attempt to teach him to eat, walk and even talk. These are all features that Victor Frankenstein never displayed, which can be contested to be the reason the creature revolted against him. If the humans in this story revolted against their “creators” as well though, perhaps this is a commentary on the very nature of creating something unnatural, something that isn’t supposed to be, and the implications or ramifications of such an act. This is particularly interesting when drawing a parallel between the creation of the monster and Mary Shelley’s creation of her “hideous progeny”. To further this parallel, the notion that adaptations of the story are in a way copies, like the creature is a copy of the natural human life that Frankenstein created can be drawn. To this extent, it can be said that adaptations are a way of creating something that is eventually detrimental to its originator- in this case, the adaptations are in a way affecting the original Frankenstein.

Then there is the main addendum. Mary Shelley added an appendix to her original version, with some new text to complement the original story. She had changed in the 15 years between both texts; therefore so did her thoughts on the book, in a way, she adapted her own work. Maybe the story is always changing, always evolving. Is Frankenstein a type of universal story that applies to everyone’s life? We try to create something new, even if it’s just recreating ourselves, even if this turns out in disastrous results, even if we can’t control what we create. Is this a commentary on the creative genius? Perhaps there is no such thing as “original” work.

In researching this cultural phenomenon, this obsession with Frankenstein, I came across “Plain Vanilla”- a blog written by Cecily Harris. She had an interesting take on all the hoopla. “I knew all I had ever wanted to know about Frankenstein already: the green monster with the bolts on either side of its neck, the maniacal laughter, the hunch-backed assistant, and the excessive amount of lightning” (Harris, Oct. 7, 2008)” Harris shares about her experience reading Frankenstein for the first time. I have to admit that after experiencing the pop culture surrounding Frankenstein, I share the sentiments that can only be described in her words: “Reading the book is just as pleasurable as eating the book” (Harris). She goes on to describe her experience of the book as akin to her experience of the Eiffel Tower. She had wanted to go see it for as long as she could remember, there was all this hype to it. So much, in fact, that there was no way it would not disappoint. After visiting the Eiffel Tower in person, (where the obligatory romantic violins, fireworks and beautiful actors of movies where not available) and seeing that it was nothing more than a glorified metal structure, she realized that she was more in love with the idea of the tower as this magical place than with the actual physical representation of her preconceived notion. Without the hype and violins, the Eiffel Tower might have been a quite magnificent place for Harris, but it was too late, her preconceived notions clouded the experience with expectations and other people’s thoughts on it. This relates to Frankenstein clearly. Now that I have read the book for myself, I found that I was less impressed by the actual story than by the phenomenon it has created. And that’s not Mary Shelley’s fault, this book was written in the 1800’s and there’s not much it can do that can hold a candle to the exaggerated expectations it has been given by the hype of its successors. One thing is clear: adaptations are not stopping any time soon; my only hope is that they will attempt to do justice to Shelley’s genius in their attempt to reach their own.