Friday, February 14, 2014

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Revision #1

The 1994 Hollywood recreation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein has some major differences from the novel that affect the overall mood of the story.  I argue in this paper that the differences in interactions between characters in the book as compared to the movie drastically change the reader’s interpretation of the story.  The book can be read as a cautionary tale but it is much more characteristic of a work of romanticism, whereas the movie recreation is very explicitly a cautionary tale more than anything else.
Before dissecting these interactions and interpreting their similarities and differences, let us first define the story present in the novel as a work of Romanticism.  Charles Schug evaluates the novel effectively in his work The Romantic Form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as having a strong presence of Romanticism.  “. . . Mary Shelley sets herself a task that she approaches in a way similar to that of the Romantic poets . . . she tries to talk about—and thus to define, to set the boundaries of, to limit—what is essentially a purely subjective and creative experience and hence an ultimately indefinable, illimitable, objectively unfathomable experience, i.e., Frankenstein’s creation of life and his subsequent struggle to cope with the consequences of this act.” (Schug 609/3).  When observing the conclusion of the novel, this exact situation of Victor being unable to realize the horror of his creation is seen explicitly in his discussion with Walton and the crew.
Now let us examine this set of interactions between characters in the novel further and explore how it differs in the movie.  The relationship between Victor and Walton at the end of the story is distorted in the movie to express the cautionary tale side of the story.  At the end of the novel the sailors are begging Walton to go home and Victor interrupts them telling them that the pursuit of knowledge and glory goes beyond the fear of death.  He tries to convince the crew that their journey should not be in vain but should be pursued even if it means their untimely deaths.  Any notion of Victor’s narrative as an attempt to express a cautionary tale about the advancement of knowledge is completely thwarted in this interaction.  He is very obviously still struggling to cope with the consequences of actions and does not understand that his pursuit of knowledge lead to his current predicament.  It is as if Victor had learned nothing from his creation of the monster and the death it brought upon his life.
However, the movie neglects this part of the story entirely.  Walton realizes the cautionary side of Victor’s narrative after the monster and Victor’s body burn on the pyre and tells the crew they will depart for home.  The main difference here is the lack of primacy of the individual that is present in the novel.  Victor expresses that Walton and his crew should aspire to be the first to make it to the North Pole for the glory the discovery would hold.  This notion of primacy is definitive of works of romanticism and also includes the romantic trait of influence.  By way of influence, Victor is attempting to promote the primacy of self to Walton, completely neglecting the story he had just told about his own plight resulting in death and misery.  Without this rather small interaction the movie is emphasizing the cautionary tale of the story more directly and readily.  It is Victor’s pure desire and obsession with the advancement of knowledge and self that makes the novel read as a work of romanticism rather than a cautionary tale.    
Schug talks a lot in his work about the open-endedness of Frankenstein as also making it a work of Romanticism not unlike the Romantic poetry of the time.  I want to focus more on his reference to the end of the novel. “. . . if it is the end it is not the conclusion.” (Schug 618/12).  He is discussing the end of the novel where the monster jumps off the boat into the water and diminishes away into the waves.  There is a very large open-ended question being proposed in this action.  Most readers can probably assume the monster drowns or freezes to death in the Arctic waters, but this is not a sure thing.  In the movie however, we witness the monster burning himself alive on the pyre with his creator’s body.  The open-endedness of Romanticism is completely removed from the end of the story by this scene and furthers the argument that advancement of science leads to not only the death of the creator and his loved ones, but also to the creation itself.
Now I wish to examine the relationship that exists between Victor and Elizabeth in the story and how the movie's expression of their relationship brings forth a stronger cautionary tale presence than the book.  When Mary Shelley published her book in 1818 in Europe, the views towards women were of arranged marriages and duties in the household.  Corresponding to the time, the novel involved the engagement of Elizabeth and Victor as his mother’s last wish before her death.  She tells the two of them “my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union.” (Shelley). Contrary to that, the movie released in 1994 in the United States shows them as a couple in love who want to get married.  Victor actually proposes to her before he leaves for Ingolstadt to attend the university.  This change demonstrates the difference of the time eras the two were released in but also expands the concept of love in the story.  The novel treats Elizabeth as a gift to Victor from his mother, as if she has no choice but to stay with the Frankenstein family and marry Victor.  In the movie, she is treated as an orphan brought home to be Victor’s friend and sister, there is no mention of her being forced to marry him or be with him in the future. 
Later in the movie and the novel, when the monster demands a companion, the book and the movie separate once again.  The monster does kill Elizabeth in both versions but for different reasons in each.  In the movie he kills her on their wedding night because Victor had not even begun work on creating the second monster.  In the novel however, he abandons his work on the second creation and tells the monster he will not make him a companion.  The monster then proceeds to kill Elizabeth on the night of her wedding to Victor.  After Elizabeth’s death the stories change drastically.  Victor is so in love with Elizabeth in the movie that he rushes her lifeless body to his lab and reanimates her into a form similar to that of the monster.  He displays pitiful attempts to dance with her and love her even though she is completely hideous.  Then the monster arrives and demands that she be his companion but Victor will not give her up.  Elizabeth the monster then proceeds to kill herself and Victor pledges to kill the monster out of revenge.  In the book, Victor’s father dies upon hearing about Elizabeth’s death and Victor pledges to seek out and destroy his creation in revenge for all the evil it had bestowed on his life, not just to avenge Elizabeth.
These changes are important not only to the flow of the story but to the viewers of the movie at the time of its release.  In the 1990s major advancements were being made in all fields of science.  Computers were being more developed, medicine was improving, and research was getting better (Goel).  To appeal to viewers and tell a strong cautionary tale about the advancement of science the screenwriters expanded the relationship between Victor and Elizabeth into real love.  If love, sometimes considered to be the strongest emotion, could be shown being destroyed by a creation of science, the cautionary side of the story could really come forth and heed warning to the viewers.   If the movie had followed the novel strictly, the arranged marriage and seemingly forced love of Victor and Elizabeth would not have made her death appear as devastating as it did in the movie’s version of the story.
As for Victor reanimating Elizabeth after her death in the movie, this again appeals to the cautionary part of the tale.  The scene expresses Victor’s love for her as stronger then death but at the same time develops the idea in the viewers that death is inevitable.  He brings his lovely wife back to life and though she is grotesque, he loves her regardless.  When the monster tries to claim her for himself the viewer gets the feeling that nothing can save a person from the consequences of their actions, not even love.  When the monster Elizabeth commits suicide the viewer is able to realize how horrendous Victor’s creations really are and that love is not even capable of soothing the reality of what his work had done.
Victor meddled with life and death and in the end he suffered the wrath of his creation.  The movie made a point to express this explicitly as compared to the novel.  Although the novel could have been read as a cautionary tale it was also an unquestionable work of romanticism.  By expanding and evolving the relationship between Victor and Elizabeth, the movie brings forth the cautionary tone of the story in regards to love and suppresses the romantic tone introduced by the arranged marriage.  Eliminating Victor’s urge that Walton continue his plight removes the romantic characteristic of primacy of self from the movie and promotes the cautionary expression of the advancement of knowledge more readily.  Overall, the movie implies and suggests strongly the dangers of science’s advancements more prominently, without the inherent distraction of Romanticism present in Shelley’s novel.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.

Goel, Tarun. Technological Advances of the 90s. Bright Hub. October 26, 2012. Accessed January 21, 2014. Available:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 1994. DVD.

Schug, Charles. The Romantic Form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 2001. Accessed February 10, 2014. Available:

1 comment:

Adam said...

The introduction is very clear. This is not a terribly ambitious argument, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially in the version of the argument for the thesis statement. Your definition of Romanticism certainly seems good & useable - I wonder whether you'll follow through by returning to the contrast between boundaries and unbounded, subjective experience. In the third paragraph, you give the (excellent) example of the end of the novel as the place where this contrast really comes to light - a couple more sentences to elaborate on what this contrast means / why it matters would have been nice here.

While I liked this essay from the start, and I like it more as I go, this sentence is helping me pin down exactly what's good about it: "The main difference here is the lack of primacy of the individual that is present in the novel." This is a focused and beautiful insight, which does a lot of work in a compact space. Now, what I want most at this point is for you to address any difficulties that the film might raise for your argument (Victor's obsessive, selfish focus on resurrecting Elizabeth comes to mind). So the insight is great, your writing is good, your understanding of the novel is strong, but there's a danger here of generalizing too much about the movie, rather than delving into the the relevant details.

I'm not going to be verbose responding to the rest of your essay. You do a good job bringing everything together, from the funeral pyre and its absence to the role of true love. To me, the biggest thing missing here is actually pushing yourself harder on the topic of true love. Your thesis is that we are moving from a Romantic exploration of the primacy of the individual into a more or less straightforward cautionary tale, in which (presumably) the individual is more bounded or embedded. But I'm not entirely comfortable with the notion that romantic love and the Romantic idea of the primacy of the individual are in true contrast. I say this especially because I think we can read Victor in the movie as being selfish and self-centered enough that Elizabeth is becoming an extension of himself.

I really do think this whole approach has worked very well - I just think that there are unexplored difficulties here with how love relates to individualism (exploring these difficulties might become another way of talking about what the contemporary meaning of the story of Frankenstein has become).

Good work.