Sunday, 7 February 2010

Frankenstein unbound

I was a big fan of science fiction when I was in my teens, so a science fiction book that sprang from Frankenstein was always going to be a hit. Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss imagines a future world where time is fractured allowing a scientist to slip back to the 1800s where he meets both Mary Shelley and the characters in her novel. The title is a play on both the subtitle to Frankenstein - The Modern Prometheus - and to the play by P B Shelley - Prometheus Unbound. It was made into a pretty awful film by Roger Corman.

Peter Ackroyd has also produced a kind of parallel novel to Frankenstein with his recent The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein which imagines Victor meeting Shelley at Oxford and his creature as being a tubercular poet.

These versions make no secret of the fact that they are reworking Mary Shelley's story. But right from the start, the adaptations strayed wildly from her novel. And Frankenstein was adapted almost immediately.

In fact had in not been adapted, the novel might have sunk without trace. It sold only five hundred copies when it first came out in 1818. But in 1823 a version of the story with the Austen-like title of Presumption was put on at the English Opera House in the Strand without permission. Mary didn't seem bothered though, and said she thoroughly enjoyed it.

The play was a great success, but it seemed to set a template for further adaptations. Victor becomes a mad scientist with fizzing electrical paraphernalia, he gets a German assistant called Fritz, but most importantly, the creature becomes a 'monster' and is a mute.

Frankenstein: The True Story was a TV movie I remember settling down to watch in the 1970s assuming that this would be a faithful adaptation of the novel (it being the 'true' story). But no - it introduces John Polidori as a character in the novel rather than a member of the Byron set, and has Victor studying in London rather than Bavaria, where he is oddly led astray by Henry Clerval, his blameless friend in the novel. A female creature is successfully created, though the male creature does, unfortunately, pull her head off. And that, as they say, has got to hurt.

It does have the nice conceit of making the creature attractive and able to pass as human. The horror comes as he decays but does not die. That seems to carry some kind of faithfulness to Mary's idea of Victor having intended to make something beautiful.

Kenneth Branagh's version was sold as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but it too could not resist fiddling with the plot (or filming himself stripped to the waist like he was in a Duran Duran video). For some strange reason, after adhering to the novel in most respects (there is the arctic setting, Victor is Swiss, the creature talks) he has the monster insist on Victor reanimating the hanged Justine as his mate, and when Frankenstein refuses, the monster rips out the heart of Elizabeth as punishment. But that's not all - he then has Victor re-animate Elizabeth and Frankenstein and his creature fight for possession of her (while she, revolted by her appearance, destroys herself by fire). It is hard to see how those changes improve on Mary's novel. Better to freely adapt than tinker.

There is still no definitive version of Mary Shelley's book, even after nearly two hundred years and countless adaptations by everyone from Hammer to Andy Warhol and James Whale's versions are still the best movies. Interestingly, the director Danny Boyle is returning to the theatre next year to produce a new staging of Frankenstein.

Now that really should be worth seeing.


  1. I love the Frankenstein stories and you're right that people can't help but fiddle! I was lucky enough to here Brian Aldiss talk about his writing when I was about 13. It had a profound effect on me and I still have the urge to map out my plotlines on long strips of paper fixed to the wall, which is what he advocted at the time...

  2. Hi Jon. Wow - that must have been great. I don't think I was even aware of writers as real actual living people until much later. But then most of the writers I liked in my teens were already dead. I don't have any usable wall space where I work or I'd be tempted to employ the Will Self grid of post-it notes. And I never did get my copy of 'Mortlock' by the way.