Frankenstein at 200: the birth of a gothic monster

This month, Mary Shelley’s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein turns 200. It was one of the first gothic explorations of artificial life, telling a terrible tale of doomed scientist Victor Frankenstein who gives life to a hulking, unnamed ‘Creature’. Here, Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn considers Shelley’s inspirations for her creation and shares the legacy of the much-adapted work…

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Actor Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster in James Whale’s classic 1931 film. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

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January 2018 marks the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Two hundred years since its publication, it is important to note the continuing importance Shelley’s novel has today, and the contributions it has made to gothic studies and science fiction studies across literature, as well as its subsequent adaptations for the stage, film and television in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Mary Shelley’s description of a figure galvanised with unnatural life, a stitched and hideous sapient medical creation, was inspired by a nightmare while on holiday with Percy Bysshe Shelley [whom she married later in 1816], Lord Byron and Dr John Polidori, at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland during ‘the year without a summer’ of 1816. The dream sowed the seeds for what would become Frankenstein’s most memorable chapter, in which Victor Frankenstein beholds the monstrosity upon which he has conferred unnatural life. 

The year of 1816 was born of significant gothic weather worldwide, due to plumes of volcanic ash which had erupted a year earlier from Mount Tambora, Indonesia, and had significantly cooled temperatures across the globe, adversely affecting food production and regular seasonal climates. This dark summer proved to be strangely fruitful for these burgeoning Romantics. Lord Byron’s suggestion of a ghost story competition to while away their Swiss holiday not only inspired Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, but also Polidori’s short prose The Vampyre (1819) which later became a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s seminal work, Dracula (1897).  

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the English novelist. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Shelley recalls in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein that her nightmare was inspired by a late-night discussion between Bysshe Shelley and Byron about the then ‘fashionable’ scientific topic of galvanism. This was the study of electricity to stimulate muscle contraction and produce chemical reactions, which led to fantastical concepts of a liminal state between life and death as explored through the creation of Frankenstein’s tragic creature. 

Further to this discussion, which would inspire her greatest contribution to gothic literature, her own loss of a prematurely born child in 1815 undoubtedly bore influence too, as Victor brings about an unnatural birth by infusing his own assembled ‘dead’ creation with unnatural life. Shelley’s own childhood may have also contributed to thematic fears and concerns evident in Frankenstein, particularly noted by critics as anxieties about motherhood and the precarious nature of birth, of which she was painfully aware: the untimely death of her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, eleven days after Shelley’s own birth was a keenly felt absence. Raised by her father, the philosopher William Godwin, and acutely aware of herself as the progeny of significant intellectuals, Shelley lacked confidence as an author in her own right, and developed her talents with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s encouragement. Shelley’s personal life was further shaped by many tragedies in her adult life – only one of her children with Bysshe Shelley would survive into adulthood, and she was widowed in her mid-20s following the tragic death of Bysshe Shelley in 1822. 

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A cover illustration from a late 19th century popular edition of Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Adaptations of a seminal novel

For many, Frankenstein lives on as a seminal novel which achieved a significant afterlife on the stage and screen. While its earliest adaptation to the stage is recorded in 1823, titled Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, the Edison studios [Thomas Edison’s film company] produced a short film based on the novel in 1910. The film showcased the creature’s duality with his creator, and foregrounded cinematic special effects, make-up and editing to illuminate the twin fates of Victor (played by Augustus Phillips) and his hideous double (played by Charles Stanton Ogle). Initially believed to be lost (as many early silent films perished through degraded film stock and poor storage practices), it was rediscovered in the mid-1970s and copied for preservation purposes; further restorations were conducted by the film society at the University of Geneva in 2016.  

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The reanimated monster, played by Boris Karloff, meets his maker, played by Colin Clive in a 1931 version of ’Frankenstein’. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Frankenstein is one of the most adapted gothic stories for the screen (second only to Dracula), with significant versions adding distinct looks to the creature which, to this day, bears great significance in popular culture. Most iconic of all is Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the creature in James Whale’s classic 1931 version for Universal Studios. His emotional innocence and awkwardness are enhanced by make-up artist Jack Pierce’s distinctive make-up, including the bolts in his neck, green-tinged skin and lumbering plodding walk. Later, Hammer studios presented the creature (played by Christopher Lee) in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) as a physically disjointed specimen, a victim of Frankenstein’s madness sutured together to include the harvested ‘best parts’ of other people – the brain of a noted professor, the hands of an artist, grafted onto the body of a hanged criminal – which, once reanimated, are lost talents which cannot simply be reanimated or transferred. 

More recent adaptations and modifications to the tale include Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which significantly draws upon Shelley’s theme of Promethean fire, life stolen from the gods and bestowed by an irresponsible creator. If anything, the ‘Tears in Rain’ speech made by the character Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) at the climax of the film reveals the voice of a similar ‘othered’ creature such as Shelley’s creation. His capability to learn, to see and to feel are contrasted with the blind ambition and unfeeling nature of his creator, Tyrell (played by Joe Turkel).

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation to the screen in 1994 restores narrative elements frequently stripped away in filmic adaptation. This version includes the epistolary framing narrative through the diary of Captain Walton, showing the vogue in early 1990s Hollywood to return to the novel when creating new adaptations of classic gothic literature. Branagh, who plays Victor and directs this retelling, restores the humanity and physicality to the creature (played by Robert De Niro) while also explicitly emphasising their uncanny doubling; in a prolonged birth sequence in which the creature is galvanised in a vat of harvested amniotic fluid, Branagh’s film emphasises this creation as a fleshy physical being. More recently, Danny Boyle’s staging of Nick Dear’s stage adaptation explicitly marks the creature (the central character in this version) as his creator’s explicit double through the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in alternating roles as the creature and Victor in this sensational production. 

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The covered monster lies before Kenneth Branagh in a scene from the film ‘Frankenstein’, 1994. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)

Frankenstein endures as a warning of transgression, of human hubris and terrible ambition realised. It marks the first gothic exploration of artificial life, gives rise to the burgeoning science fiction genre, and remains a literary classic concerned with the liminality between life and death. 

5 things you probably didn’t know about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley:

  • The 1818 edition of the novel was published anonymously, and the preface written by Percy Bysshe Shelley was misinterpreted as his claim of authorship. The 1823 reprinted version bears Mary Shelley’s name as author.
  • Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, the first stage adaptation of Shelley’s novel, debuted at the Lyceum Theatre, London, in the autumn of 1823 to popular acclaim. From 1878, author Bram Stoker managed the theatre and would go on to write Dracula, the most adapted gothic monster in popular culture.
  • While Frankenstein is Shelley’s most known work, she continued to write throughout her life, including another science fiction novel about fatal apocalyptic plague, The Last Man (1826), as well as essays and travelogues. 
  • Frankenstein’s creature is the second most adapted monster to the screen, only to be outranked by Stoker’s Count Dracula. The most adapted human onscreen is Sherlock Holmes. 
  • Mary Shelley kept Percy Bysshe Shelley’s calcified heart as a treasured keepsake following his cremation, until it was buried with their son Sir Percy Florence Shelley in 1889.
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Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn is a senior lecturer in Film Studies and American Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and reviews editor for Gothic Studies (Manchester University Press).