The problem with Mary Shelley's 1818 horror classic Frankenstein has always been protagonist Victor Frankenstein. The novel's plot requires him to be embarrassingly mercurial, completely lacking in empathy, and prone to lengthy periods of fevered hysteria, so he can check out of the story for weeks whenever Shelley needs time to pass. Above all, he's brilliant enough to create intelligent life from dead tissue, but still too dim to parse the simple threat "I shall be with you on your wedding night." He's meant to be a hubristic, tortured soul, but he's more of an irresponsible narcissist. It's no wonder that to most people, "Frankenstein" still means the monster rather than the creator. Victor Frankenstein has always been less memorable — and in the original book and many of its screen adaptations, less sympathetic — than his experimental subject.
Paul McGuigan's film Victor Frankenstein — his first feature-directing job since 2009's underrated fugitive-superheroes movie Push — openly sets out to fix that problem. Part of the long string of re-envisioned classics kicked off by Wicked's massive Broadway success, and re-energized by Disney "brand deposit" movies like Maleficent and the awful-but-profitable 2015 Cinderella, Victor Frankenstein takes a fresh look at Mr. Monster-Builder and his motives, through the eyes of his admiring partner Igor.
The film opens in a gothic circus in what could be the 18th century setting of the original novel, or could just as easily be Steampunk Victorian London. Daniel Radcliffe, still wearing the wounded determination that defined him as Harry Potter, plays a nameless hunchback who was apparently sold to the circus, where he's subjected to constant outsized physical and emotional abuse. But he's also the circus doctor, having taught himself medicine, anatomy, and richly detailed life drawing from books. (The film never addresses where he came from, or how a hectored, traumatized slave got medical engravings and learned to read. Maybe that's meant as homage to Shelley's story, where Frankenstein's monster also becomes a sensitive aesthete, largely by eavesdropping on a child's reading lessons. It's harder to explain why the circus folk are so blasé about beating and caging their only medical resource.)
After a freak accident, the hunchback impresses Victor (James McAvoy) with his medical resourcefulness in saving the life of fallen aerialist Lorelei (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay). Victor springs the hunchback from captivity, fixes his physical deformities, gives him clothing and money and respect, and encourages him to pass as Igor, Victor's absentee roommate. The newly named Igor is so overcome with gratitude, he doesn't let it bother him that working with Victor mostly involves cramming electrodes into animal organs to make them twitch. But Victor's experiments do bother Scotland Yard Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a man with Sherlock Holmes' intellect (appropriate, given Scott's role as Moriarty on the BBC's Sherlock) and a Luddite's distrust of technology. Turpin quickly becomes Victor's Javert, determined to run him down no matter what.
Victor Frankenstein isn't nearly as campy as 2013's enjoyably ridiculous I, Frankenstein, but McGuigan is certainly aware how overwrought his material is, and he seems to have encouraged Radcliffe and McAvoy to play their characters as broadly as possible. Viewers could make a gross but effective drinking game just based on every time someone shouts so violently that spittle flies from his mouth. This is a movie of grandstanding speeches and completely unsubtle nudges. In the film's opening, after Victor introduces himself to Igor, McAvoy flashes a winning freeze-framed smile, while McGuigan flashes the movie's title across the screen. This isn't just winking at the audience, it's full-body mugging at it.
At its heartiest, Victor Frankenstein openly recalls the frantic pace and janky editing of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies. It even keeps Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law's character dynamic in those films — Victor is the arrogant Holmes, an expansive genius with no social graces, and Igor is the put-upon Watson trailing in his wake, making affectionate excuses for his behavior. To the degree this film has a heart (that isn't full of electrodes and laid out on a slab), it comes from the way Radcliffe and McAvoy sell their characters' bond. Igor was rejected by the world and Victor was rejected by his father (played by Game Of Thrones' Charles Dance, because who else plays a cold patrician elder these days?), so the two share a fellow-feeling as outcasts, and just having a loyal friend emboldens them both.
It's not the only relationship that works surprisingly well: Victor and Turpin play out a wildly over-the-top rendition of the age-old battle between science and faith, albeit one in which both beliefs are equally narrow and poisonous. In Turpin's worldview, everything he doesn't like or understand is blasphemy. Victor's defense of discovery and the scientific method might play better if he wasn't fighting for the right to turn piles of rotting meat into hideous, lurching monsters. It's possible these two nutcases deserve each other. Certainly the audience deserves them: McAvoy and Scott both have plenty of experience playing intense monomaniacs, and their slavering scenery-devouring contest is one of the film's biggest strengths.
But too often, Victor Frankenstein is neither campy nor consequential. Lorelei, the film's only named female character, is essentially a fancy housepet, and her bland romance with Igor feels like a late, halfhearted studio addition, meant to head off viewers who might otherwise suspect Igor and Victor's fervid, needy bromance is carnal as well as intellectual. (McGuigan and screenwriter Max Landis miss a cheesy opportunity to write a pregnancy into the last act, as a counterpoint to Victor's doomed, hubristic attempts to create life.) A rich, foppish villain (Freddie Fox) who bankrolls Victor's experiments also feels like a half-integrated device to move the story along. And the interminable final act, an overextended fight scene full of explosions, isn't nearly as much fun as watching Victor and Turpin snarl their credos at each other.
Amid its forced madness, Victor Frankenstein does help humanize its title character slightly — it even makes a little more sense of the key moment, so difficult to accept in the book, when Victor sees the culmination of years of work and instantly, utterly rejects it. But as with so many modern re-imaginings, the film doesn't have a clear reason to exist. It has a wide range of elements: slapstick, gothic horror, romance, meta in-jokes, action, and fiery spectacle. But it stitches them all together into a loose, shambling creation that feels like it was never entirely meant to live. Maybe there's a metaphor in there somewhere.
“Frankenstein” is a good example of a Gothic novel in the Romantic form, and is an early science fiction work. It is written as an epistolary novel and uses the narrative framework of “stories within a story,” with the main plot sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion by a second narrator, Sir Robert Walton.
The novel’s real brilliance, however, lies in its presentation of countless universal themes, and the questions it raises about them. Several of the novel’s most prominent themes — friendship, appearances and bioethics, for example — are featured with teaching ideas below.
Four Teaching Ideas
1.Frankenstein and Bioethics
In the 1800s as today, advances in medical science outpaced discussions of the social, cultural, legal and ethical implications of those advances. Just as Shelley and her contemporaries debated the issues, so do today’s thinkers, and the study of bioethics is an international one.
The United Nations’ International Bioethics Committee and, in the United States, the 2009-17 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues are just two governing bodies that have sought to develop principles and guidelines for safe and ethical medical research in areas such as stem cell therapies, organ donation and harvesting, genetic testing, cloning and animal to human transplants.
Before reading the novel, students can explore the Brocher Foundation, founded in 2006, an organization that hosts meetings of scientists and experts to discuss the ethical, legal and social implications of the development of medical research and biotechnologies. The foundation encourages multidisciplinary research in the areas of law, anthropology, history, bioethics and philosophy, and has backed the publication of hundreds of books and articles that have come out of its meetings. Stanford University also has a growing site devoted to “Frankenstein” and ethics in scientific research.
Then, pair the novel with Times coverage of experiments in bioethics.
For example, students might read about China’s experimental attempts at human head transplant surgery in “Doctor’s Plan for Full-Body Transplants Raises Doubts Even in Daring China.” Or they might read about a Pew Research Center study on distrust of scientists in “Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks.”
Other options? Students might weigh in on a Student Opinion question we asked in 2012, “Given Unlimited Resources, What Scientific or Medical Problem Would You Investigate?” Or they might voice their opinions on another Times article, “Should Parents of Children With Severe Disabilities Be Allowed to Stop Their Growth?”
As they read articles about bioethics, they might use the following prompts for writing and discussion:
• Are potentially harmful scientific experiments justified in the name of new knowledge and discovery?
• How big a role should ethics play in scientists’ decisions about their research?
• What makes a responsible, or irresponsible, doctor or scientist?
• In “Frankenstein,” who is responsible for the creature’s murderous acts: Dr. Frankenstein or the creature himself? Are parents responsible for their children’s actions?
Finally, in a related Learning Network lesson, “Tinkering With Nature: Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Genetically Engineering Animals,” students can learn about the process of gene editing, consider the ethical questions inherent in tinkering with animal DNA, and debate two very different case studies of animals already engineered: fast-growing salmon and offspring-free mosquitoes. They can also consider the benefits and risks of additional genetic engineering applications, including editing human DNA.
2. Frankenstein and Friendship
Why do some human beings turn to violence after abuse or mistreatment, while others do not? To what extent can friendships and other human connections save a person from depression, or even depravity or violence?
Does true friendship exist? If so, what conditions must exist, or not exist, in order for it to flourish? How important are human connections to a full and satisfying life?
To explore these questions, pair the Shelley novel with the 1980 David Lynch movie “The Elephant Man” (and The Times’s movie review). The film, based on real-life Joseph Merrick, tells the story of a congenitally disfigured 19th-century Englishman rescued from circus slavery by Frederick Treves, a prominent London surgeon.
Ask students to read an excerpt from the economics professor Todd May’s book “Friendship in an Age of Economics” and apply Aristotle’s three types of friendship — those of utility, pleasure, and true friendship — to the characters in the novel and movie.
Have students compare and contrast Frankenstein’s creature with Mr. Merrick, and discuss and write about appearances, goodness, revenge, violence and other themes.
3. Lab Lit: Writing Fiction Based on Real Science
“Frankenstein” may be the earliest example what this essay calls “lab lit.” What can we learn about science from fiction? What can we learn about the elements of fiction from stories about the work of real scientists? In “Lab Lit: Writing Fiction Based on Real Science,” a lesson plan based on the essay, students learn about the genre, then choose from a number of activities to explore an area of science through reading and writing lab lit.
For example, they are invited to visit the LabLit website to discover new novels, form book groups and think about the scientific, ethical and literary questions the essay raises.
4. The Power of Appearance
In “Frankenstein,” Shelley creates characters whose outward beauty is consistent with inner goodness, and ugly characters who are murderous. What questions does this raise? What is Shelley saying about human nature and prejudice or superficiality?
Pair the novel with two Learning Network Student Opinion features. In the first, we ask the question, “How important is it to be attractive in our society?” The feature includes a related Times op-ed essay, “Being Dishonest About Ugliness,” by Julia Baird, who writes:
Adults often tangle themselves in knots when discussing physical appearance with children. We try to iron out differences by insisting they don’t matter, attribute a greater moral fortitude to the plain or leap in defensively when someone is described as not conventionally attractive, or — worse — ugly or fat. After all, there are better, kinder words to use, or other characteristics to focus on.
The Australian author Robert Hoge, who describes himself as “the ugliest person you’ve never met,” thinks we get it all wrong when we tell children looks don’t matter: “They know perfectly well they do.”
The second Student Opinion question asks, “Do you judge political candidates by their looks?” and requires students to examine the power of image in politics. How do candidates’ looks — including their hairstyles and clothing choices — send messages to voters? Would their opinion of any politicians or candidates change if they looked very different? What type of look and style do they think most appeals to voters? Why?
Activity Sheets: With any of the teaching ideas above, students might take notes using one or more of the three graphic organizers (PDFs) we have created:
• Comparing Two or More Texts
• Double-Entry Chart for Close Reading
• Document Analysis Questions
Popular Culture and ‘Frankenstein’
For at least a century, “Frankenstein” has influenced popular culture. The novel has inspired hundreds of other novels, films, television shows, radio programs, parodies, satires, songs, advertisements, toys, comics, video games and children’s books.
Ask your students which of the many uses of the Frankenstein story below is most interesting to them. Why? Where else can they see the influence of the story, characters or themes on popular culture?
And most important, what could they create that would update “Frankenstein” for our times? Maybe the selections below will provide some inspiration.
The first film adaptation, in 1910, was a silent, 16-minute black-and-white film by Edison Productions. Other versions followed on its heels.
More modern adaptations include the popular “Bride of Frankenstein,” the sequel to the 1931 movie “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff as the monster.
The song “Monster Mash” was a 1964 hit by Bobby Pickett, who specialized in Karloff imitations. The song is narrated by a mad scientist whose monster, late one evening, rises from a slab to perform a new dance. The dance becomes “the hit of the land” when the scientist gives a party for other monsters.
Another popular movie version is “Young Frankenstein,” the 1974 spoof by the comedian and director Mel Brooks. Gene Wilder plays the title character.
“Prometheus” is a 2012 movie by Ridley Scott, the director of “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” Mr. Scott creates a myth in which a team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of humankind on Earth. The Times reviewed the film.
The 2016 full-length “Frankenstein” ballet was choreographed by the Royal Ballet artist-in-residence and Queensland Ballet artistic director Liam Scarlett. Mr. Scarlett discussed the creative process of adapting the novel.
“Victor Frankenstein,” a 2015 movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, was reviewed by Manohla Dargis of The Times in “‘Victor Frankenstein’ Recasts a Tale That Keeps On Giving.”
Commercial ventures and marketing ideas capitalizing on the 200th birthday of the novel are popping up on TV and social media as the anniversary gets closer. Apple’s 2016 holiday message, “Frankie’s Holiday,” is one good example, showing the monster tearfully getting the love and acceptance he always craved.
Fashion and clothing design are also no stranger to the sway of Shelley’s sci-fi thriller. In a recent advertisement that pays tribute to the novel, the owner of Chronopassion Paris, Laurent Picciotto, plays Dr. Frankenstein. The monster wears the Swiss luxury watch brand HYT’s H3, or “The New Prometheus,” watch.
Runway models at Paris Fashion Week wore Frankenstein-inspired suits from Balenciaga’s spring/summer 2017 men’s wear collection. The designer Demna Gvasalia’s fall 2017 men’s wear collection for Balenciaga features Frankenstein-proportioned suits for the office.
And finally, the extraordinary life of Mary Shelley and her relationship with her husband are the focus of a new biopic starring Elle Fanning and directed by the Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour.
From The Times
1931 | “A Man-Made Monster in Grand Guignol Film Story”
1974 | “2 Parties, 800 Guests, 1 Big Night”
2003 | “How Much of the Body Is Replaceable?”
2005 | “Dire Wounds, a New Face, a Glimpse in a Mirror”
2006 | “Frankenstein, Meet Your Forefathers”
2007 | “Are Scientists Playing God? It Depends on Your Religion”
2010 | “Our Life, Between Sea and Oil”
2011 | “‘It’s Alive! It’s Alive!’ Maybe Right Here on Earth”
2012 | “Messing With Mother Nature”
2013 | “‘Frankenstein’ Manuscript Comes Alive in Online Shelley Archive”
2015 | “A Volcanic Eruption That Reverberates 200 Years Later”
2015 | “Readers on Donald Trump: Bigot, Patriot or Frankenstein’s Monster?”
2016 | “Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks”
2016 | “In London, a Frankenstein With Empathy”
Times Topic Pages
From Around the Web
Arizona State University | The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project
The New Republic | “How Frankenstein's Monster Became Real”
Slate | “How a Volcano Helped Inspire ‘Frankenstein’”
Slate | “The Science That Inspired Mary Shelley”
The Guardian | “What Frankenstein Means Now”
Slate | “Why Frankenstein Is Still Relevant, Almost 200 Years After It Was Published”
More Learning Network Literature Collections
We have many more collections like this one that match Times articles with often-taught authors and works of literature, including:
Orwell and “1984”
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
“The Great Gatsby”
Mark Twain and “Huckleberry Finn”
“The Grapes of Wrath”
“The Hunger Games”
“The Kite Runner”
“The Scarlet Letter”
“The Catcher in the Rye”
“Death of a Salesman”
“Lord of the Flies”
“Of Mice and Men”
“A Raisin in the Sun”
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”
“The Glass Castle”
“The Book Thief”
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