How Byron’s challenge led to Dr Frankenstein




I Frankenstein, an action fantasy thriller based on Kevin Grevioux’s graphic novel, hits the big screen next week. Mary Shelley’s nameless ‘fiend’ is now Adam Frankenstein, played by Aaron Eckhart.

The story of the original Frankenstein begins one stormy night in June 1816 at Villa Diodati, a spooky house near Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley recalled: “The lake was lit up — the pines made visible, the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads …”

A blazing log fire cast shadows over the dining room furniture as Mary and a group of friends, including her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, were taking turns to read from a book of German ghost stories. Suddenly Byron laid down a challenge: ‘We will all write a ghost story.’

Mary’s parents — William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft — were both famous writers, and had endowed her with a brilliant imagination. She had always wanted to write a story to “awaken thrilling horror… make the reader dread to look round, curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart”. Now was her chance. But it did not come easily. She wrote: “thought and pondered — vainly”.

Finally inspiration came. Hadn’t Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) stimulated paralysed muscles by electric shock? Hadn’t Luigi Galvani touched his scalpel against a hook, holding the leg of a dead frog, seen sparks fly and the leg kick into life? Why couldn’t parts of a creature be made, put together and stimulated with electricity?

In Mary Shelley’s story, Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, Dr Victor Frankenstein collects bones from dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses to create a human being that is invulnerable to disease. After toiling day and night for almost two years, the eight- foot-tall creature is ready to be brought to life. There are no lightning bolts, no thunder. It occurs silently, to the accompaniment of a sputtering candle and pattering rain.

But something is very wrong: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath… Breathless horror and disgust filled my heart,” exclaims Frankenstein. He had created a “hideous phantasm”.

Frankenstein went from page to stage, and then to screen; and different directors put their own stamp on the story by changing the monster’s appearance and powers. Presumption; Or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823) — first of over 90 dramatisations — painted its limbs blue, dressed it in a toga, and made it grunt — unlike Mary Shelley’s monster who knows English, French and German, and talks non-stop for six chapters.

The Model Man (1849) has the creature red and blue, and causing convulsions of laughter when it cavorted on stage as a ballerina. In Frankenstein; or, The Vampire’s Victim (1887) it was a chubby, terracotta take-off of Oscar Wilde.

The film industry has taken many more liberties to satisfy the construed demands of a mass audience. In the short silent film, Frankenstein (1910), Charles Ogle rises from a frothy cauldron of blazing chemicals and has a hunchback, claws, bulbous eyes, malformed hands and mangy hair.

Shelley’s monster had a normal-shaped head, but in Boris Karloff’s gruesome portrayal in Frankenstein (1931), the creature appears with a square-shaped head (and conduction bolts through its neck), a forehead like a brick wall, and darkened eyes and mouth. It shuffles forward in a jerky, robot-like way, unlike Shelley’s creature that has supple joints and speed. Audiences found the loutish brute, with its pale green skin and abnormal brain, so frightening that stretchers were on stand-by for those who fainted.

The parody Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) has the monster looking like a caveman with fangs and hair-covered torso; whereas Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster casts an inter-planetary robot as its monster. Zippers take the place of scars on the face of Mel Brooks’ tap-dancing monster in Young Frankenstein (1974); while in the ultimate parody, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) the monster, created by Dr Frankenstein for his own pleasure, is blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

Of all the films, only Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) directed by Kenneth Branagh has attempted to be faithful to Mary Shelley’s creation, with the monster, played by Robert de Niro, a tragic, lonely character — but even then it makes unintelligible grunts.

As for today’s hooded Adam Frankenstein, Eckhart describes his character as “an intelligent, evolved man”. His ability to fly makes him more like Superman than the rather pathetic creature, “wretched beyond description” its author intended. Mary Shelley would doubtless be fascinated to know her monster lives on. But she would scarcely recognise her original creation.

Robert Hume is the author of nRobert Hume is the author of Mary Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein

* I, Frankenstein opens in cinemas on Jan 29.

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