Frankenstein, published in 1818 by a 19-year-old Mary Shelly, would create one of the centuries’ defining myths. Her monster would become one of the most well-known in recent history. Not only is it the first science fiction novel, but it had such a cultural impact that the story would be told and re-told with various adaptations.
Frankenstein is filled with themes of the natural and artificial, technology, morality, mortality, death, and life. As we discuss and debate today the ethics and potential outcomes of artificial intelligence, we can remember that Shelly first pondered this in her novel. She presents the moral and philosophical issue of what happens when we create a life outside the ‘natural’ order of things. A life that is both like us and unlike us.
After its celebrated publication, the novel quickly made a significant cultural impact. Since 1818, there have been countless renditions of the story in the film, and it is frequently referenced in TV, literature, and academic writing. In addition, many science fiction films will draw on the themes presented by Shelly’s original story and submit it with more modern concerns. For example, Bladerunner or Ex Machina.
The Life of Mary Shelly
Shelley was born in 1797 to feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the 1792 treatise “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Her father, William Godwin, was a philosopher. However, Shelley’s mother died shortly after her birth, and her father’s new wife did not give her a formal education. Instead, Shelley educated herself, and at age 16, she met the poet Percy Shelley. They quickly fell in love.
When her father disapproved of the marriage, Mary would run away with Shelly to Europe. The couple had a supportive relationship, often editing each other’s work. Percy Shelly would be responsible for editing the final draft of Frankenstein.
Shelly experienced intense heartbreak throughout her life. Her marriage to Percy Shelly caused a rift with her father that would last years. Additionally, during pregnancy, she lost two children, and Percy Shelly would tragically drown in 1822.
Her novel was completed just as she was pregnant with her third child, and literary scholars suggest that the grief, loneliness, and fear that Frankenstein’s monster feels are based on Shelley’s struggle. Yet, after her husband’s death, Shelley continued to write and publish four novels, short stories, essays, and compilations of his poetry. She died from brain cancer in 1851 at age 53, after a life of feminist trailblazing.
Perhaps the most famous of all the adaptations is James Whales’ 1931 film. However, this film is not entirely faithful to Shelly’s novel and takes a lot of creative liberties. The Monster in this film is depicted as, well, a monster who is barely sentient. He seems to have malicious intent and is non-verbal.
The makeup worn by Boris Karloff has since become the blueprint of all Frankenstein Halloween costumes, with its trademark bolts in the neck (literally trademarked by Universal Pictures), flat-top black hair, and the Monster’s brawny build. Perhaps this is the Monster that comes to mind when you first think of the story. This adaptation truly helped propel Frankenstein even further into popular culture.
While the Monster doesn’t even speak in this adaptation and is different from its literary predecessor, it can’t go unnoticed as one of the most iconic depictions of the terrifying Monster.
Bride of Frankenstein 1935
Perhaps the second most-famous adaptation is James Whales’ 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein. This adaptation has a slightly more classical take on Shelly’s work and remains more faithful to her depiction of the Monster. In this film, Frankenstein’s Monster speaks and begs the Doctor to create a mate for him. It also stars Boris Karloff as the Monster.
The film has a foreboding and surreal quality. This makes The Bride of Frankenstein a horror sci-fi romance classic. Boris’s performance as the misunderstood Monster is heart-wrenching.
However, a fascinating aspect of this adaptation is its queer undertones and themes. Whale was an openly gay director. In the 1930s, this was very dangerous, and being openly queer meant being ostrasized. Whale channels the film’s themes of loneliness and hostility in society to beings who are different and unique.
The film also featured gay and bisexual actors, such as Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive. This adaption grapples with Shelly’s original story and uses it as a metaphor for queerness, making it culturally-relevant today.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show 1975
This film is not a direct adaptation, but it contains elements of Shelly’s story. Dr. Frank-N-Furter is an eccentric transgender scientist. He brings his “Monster” to life, as seen through the perspective of the “straight man” characters, Janet and Brad.
But in this case, he creates the “Monster” — Rocky Horror — as his companion or creation. Both Rocky Horror and Frankenstein center around the control or lack of control over the things we produce and bring into the world.
For Mary Shelley, this was potentially the fears and problems that literal reproduction presented. However, it could be used as a metaphor for artists producing daring or controversial works.
Young Frankenstein 1974
Perhaps one of the most iconic and widely referenced lines in film history is, “It’s alive!” This famous line is from Mel Brooks’ 1974 Young Frankenstein. This adaption is undoubtedly one of the most famous, and it has a comedic element to it. This is also when the presence of the assistant, Igor, played by Marty Feldman here, took up new space as a cultural figure.
The film is a comical retelling of Frankenstein’s grandson, who wants nothing to do with his family or legacy. It references Shelly’s work but also produced it so that it created many of its own enduring characters.
The relationship between Edward Scissorhands and the Inventor shows apparent similarities between Victor Frankenstein and his creation. When the Inventor dies suddenly, Edward must leave the only home and family he’s ever known and assimilate into regular suburban life.
However, in this story, Edward has a much easier time incorporating himself into an everyday life with the help of the Boggs family. The film’s ending scene suggests that Edward will never truly belong and cannot exist in a world where he will always be ‘the other.’
Screenwriter Caroline Thompson has said that her love of Shelly’s Frankenstein inspired her writing. This retelling of the original myth deals with themes of otherness and difference. Each of the adaptations deals with this in different ways. However, Edward Scissorhands makes this the central concern for its protagonist. It raises questions about society’s fears and prejudices against people who do not look like them physically or socially.
The TV series Westworld is adapted from a 1973 film of the same name, written and directed by Michael Crichton. The robotic hosts that populate the adult theme park’s Western World, Medieval World, and Roman World start malfunctioning in the film.
These malfunctions have dangerous consequences for the park’s visitors. With this massive technical failure, the androids are no longer under control, and chaos ensues. Much like Frankenstein, the creations rebel against their creators, with devastating results.
In response to the robots’ desire for independence and to be treated with humanity, they are rejected by their inventors. This is very similar to the flight of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Westworld uses the Frankenstein myth to grapple with ethical concerns about what will happen with AI.
Westworld explores the commodification of technology, raising serious questions about the place of AI in years to come.
The CEO of a tech company, Nathan Bateman, invites company programmer Caleb Smith to his isolated home. Here, Bateman reveals that he has invited Smith because he has created an AI robot named Ava.
The purpose of the visit is to see if Ava can pass the Turing test based on Smith’s assessments. Throughout the film, Smith, and Bateman set out to determine if Ava has consciousness or if she can merely fake it.
As Ava gains awareness and learns about the world around her, she feels restless and desires more experience and information. Eventually, she turns against her creator and Smith fatally. The film’s final scene leaves the viewer still questioning what we wanted to know all along; is Ava conscious or not.
Before Bateman can fully realize what he has done or created, his robot has turned against him. The contention and resentment between Ava and Bateman are similar to that between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation.
The 2009 film Splice is a highly original film that also pays homage to the themes in Frankenstein. Genetic scientists Clive and Elsa develop a hybrid creature named Dren, from a cocktail of DNA. They have created Dren in secrecy and against the orders of their company not to conduct such an experiment.
Dren develops rapidly and grows faster than a human child. However, she develops developmentally in a very human way. As she grows, she also exhibits predatory and carnivorous habits. Elsa raises Dren like her own daughter, and Clive develops an unhealthy physical relationship with the creature.
It turns out that Elsa used her DNA to create Dren. Chaos ensues as Dren becomes aggressive and turns against them. Splice is a fascinating film that explores the ethics involving genetic science and suggestions of human and animal mutations. Dren represents difference and otherness in a world where she does not fit in and ultimately where her creators cannot decide if they want her. At the core of her violence is a desire for her creators to love her.
Prometheus and Alien: Covenant
Alien or Prometheus: Covenant is perhaps some of the best science fiction films in recent years. The original Alien film features a dangerous android called Ash. He created a similar character in the prequel films Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
Michael Fassbender plays the charming but distant David, created by Weyland Corporation founder Peter Weyland. After Peters’s demise, David’s motivations and behavior become morbid, but why is unclear.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, David is obsessed with the nature of creation. As a result, he becomes focused on protecting and cultivating alien life. Also, like Frankenstein’s monster, David rebels, using those around him as tools to further his curiosity and desires.
Alien or Prometheus: Covenant raises fascinating philosophical questions about humans, non-humans, and technology.
Frankenstein explores the relationship between creator vs. created and, in doing so, the nature of scientific pursuit and its consequences. The classic science fiction film Bladerunner also grapples with this concept.
The 1982 film takes place in a dystopian future of 2019. In this future world, synthetic humans, known as ‘replicants,’ are being built by a powerful company called Tyrell Corporation. The replicants work ‘off-world’ in space colonies. However, a rogue group of replicants has broken free and escaped. Rick Deckard is a police officer whose job is to hunt and destroy these dangerous replicants. The officers who specifically hunt down replicants are referred to as ‘ ‘blade runners.’
Many of the themes and imagery in the film draw heavily on Frankenstein, particularly the ending scene in which Deckard is in pursuit of a replicant called Roy.
Bladerunner continues Mary Shelly’s themes of the natural and artificial, the morality of creation, and technology’s potential.
Conclusion and Frankensteins Impact
Frankenstein pervades popular culture. It has influenced science fiction, film, literature, and academia, and its cultural impact only grows. As technological advancement only accelerates, the issues Mary Shelly first began to ponder in 1818 are just as relevant today.
Can we create AI with consciousness, do we want to, and how should we treat them? What does the creation of such a being say about our ideas of what it means to be human? Would we consider AI consciousness or just mimicry of it? Depending on the answer, would we feel compelled to reject or mistreat our creations?
The questions presented in Frankenstein, its adaptations, and films that draw inspiration from it are endless. They are also some of the most important questions we can ask at this point in history. However, despite the Frankensteins‘ cultural reach, most reproductions and retellings have been by male directors and screenwriters. As a result, a great deal of the femme perspective and feminist spirit is not found in the adaptations.
Shelly’s original work did not only deal with technology and questions about nature but also about reproduction and human creation. Her fears and concerns about pregnancy and motherhood potentially inspired her great questions about these things. In many ways, Shelly was asking what it meant to be truly human in the face of science and technology. She was perhaps attempting to look at the essence of being human by deconstructing what it is to be human.