Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Essay for Workshopping Today

As is often the case, movie adaptations of classic literature can often be anything but faithful representations of the novels that form the basis of the plot. Ask anyone who has not read the Mary Shelley original what Frankenstein's monster looks like and the response is almost invariably the stuff of cheesy Halloween costumes: square, flat head, green complexion, and neck bolts. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of watching the 1994 Kenneth Branagh film "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" which is one of the more faithful films. Even so, it still has glaring differences from the 19th century novel. One of the biggest differences between this movie and the book was the character of Professor Waldman. The depiction of Waldman served to distort some of the complexities of Shelley's novel, particularly the main character Victor Frankenstein.

First of all, Waldman's appearance differs greatly from what is described in the novel. Shelley presents to us a distinguished man in his 50s with black hair touched by gray, with excellent posture, a look of benevolence and "his voice the sweetest I have ever heard" (41). In the movie, we are presented with a somewhat wild looking man with long gray-white hair and a somewhat gruff voice. I find this difference to be significant because of Victor's nature. It is made very clear that Victor does not take to Professor Krempe because of his appearance and voice. I doubt that the Victor of the novel would have taken such a keen interest in the teachings of the professor portrayed in the film after his write off of the "little squat man (Krempe), with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance" (40). This more accepting version of Victor may not seem like such a big deal, but it changes Victor's character completely. Mary Shelley's Victor is rich, spoiled, privileged, sheltered and very judgmental. Growing up, he is his parents' "plaything and their idol... the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven..." and "so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment..."(24). This spoiled and privileged upbringing gives us a Victor who is unable to deal with consequences of actions and passive to the point of inaction even in dire circumstances. In other words, the fact that he is a spoiled, judgmental, megalomaniac brat is a major driving force of the entire story. To remove some of that through his acceptance of this wild and uncouth Professor Waldman is to remove some of the fabric of the novel. It takes someone who sees himself as a a endowment of Heaven to us lowly creatures here on Earth to contemplate creating a race of super-beings who would look to him as a God.

The ambitions and professions of several of the main characters change in this film. In the novel, Victor is sent to school in Ingolstadt for nothing more explicit than to "be made acquainted with other customs than those of [his] native country" (35). In the film, however, Victor is going to Ingolstadt to become a doctor just like his father. Consequently, Waldman is no longer just a professor of Chemistry, but a medical doctor involved in his own research and even in the preservation of the health of the town. This takes some of the mystery and intrigue away from Victor's character. Instead of learning to apply his education on his own, we see him, instead, learning how to dissect cadavers under the skilled tutelage of Professor Waldman. Instead of a vision of Victor alone in his apartment contriving of the means to create life through the use of dead tissue and some arcane "spark" of life, we have a student trying to complete the last step in a research process his teacher just didn't have the hardihood of nature to complete. Waldman is almost a Frankenstein-lite in his portrayal. In the film, Victor is introduced to the idea of electric current in the reanimation process by the professor and even shown that it works through the reanimated arm of some primate creature. The professor is also shown to aid Victor in the formation of his theories. This thinning of Victor's great intelligence and creativity also served to thin Victor's character as a whole. It has to be Victor creating the monster in seclusion using his own vast intelligence. It has to be Victor Frankenstein, not only because his megalomania drives the story, but because of the impact that his character, as written, had on the very archetype of the mad scientist. "Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Cyclops, Dr. Caligari, Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Rukh, Dr. Bluthgeld" and a host of mad scientists owe their fictional lives to Victor creating that monster on his own (Haynes, 245). It is much harder to believe that these fictional giants would have turned out quite the way they did if instead of a lone mastermind alone in his lab toying with nature, we had a student, fulfilling the culmination of his mentor's work.

The motivation for the creation or restoration of life is described to us in the novel as being a mix of wanting to feel what it is to be a creator and the renewal of life where it has departed. "No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in the process of time... renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" (49). The arrogance and grandiose plans of creating a race of beings is completely left out of the film. After his mother dies in child birth, not from Scarlet fever, Victor chooses to devote his study at medical school to preventing another of his loved ones from ever dying and finds, as I have already described, a mentor in Professor Waldman. However, the director decided to use the expanded role of the professor in another way as well: as another catalyst in Victor's passion. While attempting to prevent an outbreak of Cholera in Ingolstadt, the professor is stabbed by a vagrant, who doesn't want anything to do with the doctor's needles, and dies while Victor tries in vain to save his life. This episode leads Victor to attack his work with even more ardency than before. The loss of the god-complex in his endeavors made Victor far less intriguing to me. Sure, the death of his mother was definitely a catalyst but, as I have already described in some detail, Victor's megalomania is a, if not the, driving force behind the entire novel. Removing the desire to become a benevolent creator destroys yet another part of this force. Here we lose a Victor who hikes through the Alps imagining the mountains as grand structures and as the homes of omnipotent creatures and seemingly placing himself among them (100). A man who thinks of himself this way is absolutely necessary to maintain Shelley's complex story, but instead we have a man driven by very non-God-like emotions like grief and anger.

Finally, but probably most astounding, even in death Waldman's presence continues. Victor, in his quest to procure "materials" for his work, robs Waldman's grave and uses his brain for the creation. This is absolutely astounding. I do not doubt that Victor desired to give the creature the best brain he could find. It was described in the novel how he picked what he thought would be the very best skin, muscles, and hair (53). However, there was never a personal connection with any of the parts Victor used. Although a personal connection to the monster beyond its creation may seem to make the plot of the movie more complex or to further the expression of Victor's mad passion, this move does not seem to fit Victor's character as someone detached from the reality and consequences of what he is doing and what is happening around him. In fact, as a teaser for the film, the director seemed to put a conscious effort into eliminating the detached passivity of Victor's character. Passivity, as has been mentioned over and over on this Blog, is a central, if frustrating, theme throughout the novel. It is this detachment from consequences that serves to make Victor more and more wretched throughout the novel. He immediately flees from his creation upon seeing what he has done (though in the film, this is more out of his control) and hides from it, even allowing himself to slip into comfort again until he is jogged back to reality by the death of William (67-71). He refuses to intervene on Justine's behalf during her trial (though in the movie, he has no chance as she is immediately lynched) even though he knows who actually killed William (92). Instead of pursuing resolution, he goes for a pleasant hike in the Alps (99). It is this passivity that keeps the book going. Furthermore, it is very possible that Shelley was trying to use Victor's passivity to highlight the passivity of her own culture (Shrader-Frechette and Westra, 145-146). Instead, the film takes several opportunities to remove the fault of inaction from Victor further thinning the story.

This is only one short example of the differences between the 1994 film and the 19th century novel. I found the film to be good on its own but I could not help noticing the differences. Some of them served to bring the story to life, while others thinned the characters (such as Waldman's thinning of Victor) and the plot.

Haynes R (2003) From alchemy to artificial intelligence: Stereotypes of the scientist in Western literature.     Public Understanding of Science 12: 243–53.

Shrader-Frechette, K., and Westra, L. Technology and Values. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997. eBook.

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