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Review: A Cultural History of ‘Frankenstein’


by Jerome Weeks 16 Nov 2007

It didn’t take long for ‘Frankenstein’ to conquer our culture. Oh why, why couldn’t we just leave him alone?

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The following is a book review by KERA’s critic at large, Jerome Weeks.

In 1965, Ishiro Honda, the Japanese director behind Godzilla, released a pretty dreadful film. In America, it was given a title that was shamelessly overblown but, undeniably, a grabber: Frankenstein Conquers the World.

Susan Tyler Hitchcock could have borrowed the title for her new book, Frankenstein: A Cultural History, because that’s the argument she makes. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816, she was only 18. Yet she wrote a gothic novel unlike any other — no castles haunted by spirits, no family curses. Instead, Frankenstein is the tale of a man inventing another man; it’s a kind of high-voltage Genesis. Coming as it did at the start of the Industrial Revolution, Shelley’s novel became a world-wide symbol of technology run amok. It’s been called our first modern myth.

Yet as Hitchcock shows, our knowledge of that myth is mostly drawn from the great Boris Karloff film of 1931, and that film has little to do with the novel. The hunchbacked assistant, the grunting monster, the angry villagers waving torches: All of these originated in Victorian stage adaptations that the screen version drew from.

As the story was made more lurid, it also became less provocative and ambivalent, more conservative and cautionary. Shelley’s Frankenstein asks, What does it mean to be human? But even in Shelley’s own re-written version in 1821, the story came to express our fears of science, our fears of any tinkering with nature, with the ‘human’ we think we already know. In the original novel, the monster actually learns both kindness and hatred from human society. But in the 1931 movie, as we all remember, it’s the assistant stealing the brain in a jar who drops the good brain and takes the “criminal” one, thus dooming the monster to be ‘evil.’

This means that people are not taught evil — some of us are just born with Evil Brains! (lightning crash) — exactly the opposite of what Shelley originally wrote.

This is some of Hitchcock’s best material, tracing the early ways the monster was pumped up and dumbed down, how adaptations repeatedly needed to moralize the monster’s technological creation and folkloric demise, moralize into more conventional responses to the icky facts of human ambiguities and creaturely impulses. Hitchcock is also good at the other end of the book, on the cultural controversies over genetic engineering and how even the name Frankenstein was avoided by Bush administrators working to curtail cloning and stem-cell research. Bringing up Frankie could have made them seem fear-mongering and “anti-science.”

In between these two ends, Hitchcock surveys what seems like every film and comic book — yes, even Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, currently on Broadway. Unfortunately, this means Hitchcock keeps making the same observations, keeps writing about yet another story of ‘man playing God.’ The monster’s energy drains away.

Given this apparent thoroughness, though, it’s surprising when she overlooks important touchstones — like a 1984 essay by novelist Thomas Pynchon. He links Frankenstein to the Luddites, the rebellious weavers in the 19th century who became symbols of resistance to technological progress. His essay also points to an enduring appeal of the monster, one that Hitchcock completely misses. The monster, Pynchon writes, is the ultimate “Big Bad-Ass.”

From Achilles to the Terminator, we’ve enjoyed such unstoppable destroyers. Amazingly, Hitchcock overlooks the Terminator, too — a man-made being, a flesh-and-metal creature both human-like and monstrous. He’s certainly one of the Sons of Frankenstein. And as we certainly know, according to the movie series, the Terminators are going to conquer the world. Just like Frankenstein himself – they’ll be back.

So it would have been good if Frankenstein: A Cultural History had included a study of them.

While we still can.

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  • Hello Jerome, and thanks for your kind words about my book. Truth is, the list of what I didn’t write about — the versions of Frankenstein I didn’t include in my book — could fill a book in themselves. But I had not ever found my way to the essay you mention by Pynchon, so thanks for pointing it out to me.

  • Thank you for the gracious response, Ms. Hitchcock. You can read a longer version of this review at my book/daddy blog.