Friday, October 4, 2013

Revision 1: Frankenstein and The Movies

      Mary Shelley's Frankenstein introduces us to Victor Frankenstein, a spoiled, rich, passive, megalomaniac with a god-complex and with no heed of consequence. He is exactly as his creator intended him to be. It is because he is this egotistical maniac that the story line of the book is held together and Victor becomes a prototype and example of a mad genius for future authors. Why then is his video adaptation never true to what the author intended? Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is arguably the closest to being true to the book, but it still does not represent Victor as Mary Shelley intended. Perhaps the most glaring distortion of Victor comes from his interactions with the expanded role of his Chemistry Professor, Waldman. Through these interactions, the great complexity of Victor, and thus the story itself, is greatly thinned probably to make it more watchable for a 1994 audience. Although this may have helped Branagh sell tickets, this film should hardly be called "MARY SHELLEY'S Frankenstein" but “Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein.” If this was the Frankenstein Mary Shelley had intended, he would not be such a literary cornerstone.

      When we are first introduced to him, 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. This change of appearance was likely done to give us a Waldman who is already a bit off, because of the topic of his research, and slightly on the fringe of society, but also because Branagh wants to give us the vision of another lone mad scientist with whom this Victor can relate. It is also likely that Branagh thought his audience would write off the anti-hero that is Shelley's Frankenstein, and decided to thin him down into a more likable and more sympathetic character. Although this probably did help a movie being released to an audience who may have found the superficial Victor appalling, 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, in his own words, 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 an 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 was presumptively done, again, to give us a more relatable and thus human Victor. Movie fans like relatable characters, and even like larger than life characters, but they usually don't like arrogant, privileged, and almost villainous larger than life characters. However, 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. Branagh, no doubt, was well aware that adding a god-complex into the mix would make the character far less likable. Instead, he furthers the idea of a grieving son trying to prevent losing another loved one by giving him a shocking reminder that death is always looming. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that in that moment, we would do anything to prevent or reverse the event. In the the loss of the god-complex in his endeavors Victor's character is rendered more human and... less intriguing. 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; a relatable but deflated fleetingly-mad scientist. 
      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. In the film, he is often “saved” from action by circumstances outside of his control so he cannot be viewed as passive, just stuck. 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, removing hubris and replacing it with unavoidable circumstance. Branagh, doubtless, wanted to remove this passivity to give us a Victor who is victim of circumstance and not of his own inaction or ineptitude. What is striking is that even in 1994, almost 200 years after the novel was published, Branagh could have made the same point but chose instead to make the character more likable.

      Kenneth Branagh chose to give us a more relatable, deflated version of Victor Frankenstein. This was probably a ploy to sell movie tickets and VHS cassettes, but it does not deserve to be called “Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.” This is not the character Mary Shelley wrote nor would Victor Frankenstein be one of the literary cornerstones of the Mad Scientist archetype if this was what she intended. A mad scientist is not supposed to be relatable, that's why they aren't commonplace and they're intriguing to read about and see adapted to film.
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. 

1 comment:

Adam said...

Your introduction is set up almost like a film review. I'm not totally opposed to reading an attack on Branagh, but I think it raises the question - why bother? If all we can say about a film is that it deviates heavily from the book, is it even worth saying. *Bride of Frankenstein* deviates tremendously from the novel, but is a great film in its own right - noting that it isn't faithful is an interesting starting point to a discussion. But if there isn't anything to say beyond the starting point (which your introduction implies), why even start?

Your analysis of ways in which the characters have changed remains good. The paragraphs could be a little more broken up - an important technical point - but I have no *problem* with anything here, nor anything to add (it seems to have changed little, which is fine).

Minor complaint: "Movie fans like relatable characters, and even like larger than life characters, but they usually don't like arrogant, privileged, and almost villainous larger than life characters." I'd be insane to completely disagree, but there sure are exceptions. How about Hannibal Lector, for instance?

"a relatable but deflated fleetingly-mad scientist" - I think you're avoiding talking about any possible values that this film might be expressing. Now, I'm not crazy about the film - but a saner Victor Frankenstein, one rooted in medicine not just in the abstract but in the actual practice of medicine, potentially has a humanistic dimension, even a compassionate streak. Why? You say it just makes him more sympathetic, and surely that's part of it - but do we have to dismiss it so easily? What are the alternatives? What actual *agenda* beyond ticket sales could this movie possibly be serving? I think that's a question worth exploring. If you end up dismissing it, fine - but I wouldn't just deny that it's possible that Branagh has an agenda worth thinking about.

"What is striking is that even in 1994, almost 200 years after the novel was published, Branagh could have made the same point but chose instead to make the character more likable." Again - isn't it conceivable that he had a more articulate purpose? Here's my theory (keeping in mind that I haven't seen the film in a while). By becoming about medicine and the failures of medicine - by being about an articulate attempt at a kind of resurrection (of Waldman, who, dare I say, might represent medicine itself) maybe the movie becomes less a critique of Victor Frankenstein himself (as you argue effectively) and more a critique of the failures or limitations of medicine.

To boil my argument down to a sentence: in Branagh's film, the madness comes less from the man and more from the institution of medicine.

You don't need to agree with that idea (I'm not at all sure that I buy it myself), but to explore the possibility that Branagh is doing *something* makes the essay itself much more worthwhile.

Overall: You explore many of the dimensions of the film very well, and lay out a good, detailed set of contrasts. Your relatively timid (certainly unambitious) findings contrast with the eye for detail. You could have pushed the argument harder.