Formal Bias and Frankenstein

Before Danny Boyle’s theatrical adaptation of Frankenstein ended its run in London last Sunday, I managed to catch one of the dozen or so performances that were broadcast into cinemas worldwide. There was a lot to like — outstanding performances and set design — but especially pleasing was what I originally thought of as the adaptation’s fidelity to its source material. Notwithstanding the abridgement of certain scenes, the erasure of peripheral characters like Robert Walton and Henry Clerval, and the dramatisation of events in chronological sequence rather than the explication of events in retrospect, Mary Shelley’s narrative survived largely intact. The creature escapes from Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory in Geneva only to be persecuted by wider society; he observes the De Laceys from a distance and is befriended by the old blind patriarch before the younger De Laceys turn against him; he returns to Geneva where he kills Frankenstein’s brother and orders Frankenstein to create for him a bride; and, when Frankenstein refuses, the ensuing struggle between he and his creature takes the two of them on their cataclysmic journey to the North Pole. For the most part, Boyle’s adaptation of Shelley’s novel appears to be an extremely faithful one.

In a sense, though, the fidelity of the translation from the page to the stage is precisely what makes the adaptation essentially and radically different. It’s not possible to make a faithful visual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, since Shelley’s Frankenstein invests so much importance in the essentially abstract and non-visual nature of its own artform. The narrative as a whole propelled by the creature’s efforts to persuade others to see beyond his monstrous appearance and to engage with him — to understand his plight — on exclusively rational terms; and the climax in particular is propelled by Victor Frankenstein’s overpowering inability to look beyond the creature’s monstrosity even after acknowledging his capacity for rational thought. As the novel works towards its conclusion, then, we as readers are increasingly urged to either side with Frankenstein or stand apart from him. Do we too despise the creature for his monstrosity in spite of his rational capabilities, or do we feel some sort of pity for the creature by crediting him as a rational being crippled by his own monstrosity?

The novel itself, however, is biased towards the creature simply by virtue of being a novel. The words on the page, unmediated by physical expression, convey the rational outpourings of the creature with the utmost lucidity, while at the same time denying us a visualisation of the physical monstrosity that prevents Frankenstein from engaging with the creature on rational terms. For that reason, any visual adaptation of Frankenstein invariably loses the novel’s formal bias and instead assumes a bias against Frankenstein’s creature; and I think that’s why, as I reflected on Danny Boyle’s adaptation, I found myself much less sympathetic towards the creature — much more distracted and put off by his visceral monstrosity — than I was after reading Mary Shelley’s words. As faithful to its source material as Boyle’s adaptation may otherwise be, that simple switch from one artform to another generated a production that was in fact only superficially faithful and very different in its substance.

One response to “Formal Bias and Frankenstein

  1. I considered this asecpt of the book as I read also. The fantasy asecpts of the book can be a little hard to swallow: First, that Victor was able to bring the monster to life; also that the monster learned to communicate so well; the coincidence that Victor’s friend Clerval just happened to be getting off the train when Victor just happened to be there as he was wandering around the city ..Then I realized that there are other stories we hear that require us to simply accept the facts as they are (German fairy tales, for example, or certain jokes). If we don’t get on board, we miss the story and the lessons it provides. I am also very impressed that a writer so young is able to express so well the depth of human emotion. It seems as if she must have experienced each of these emotions or she couldn’t have expressed them so well and with such detail. Her very detailed descriptions of geographical regions is also very impressive. I must take her descriptions of Switzerland at face value because I have never been there, but her description of the Rhine river between Mainz (Mayence) and Koeln (Cologne) is exactly as it is today. The works of literature that she mentions is also very impressive. I am wowed by Mary Shelley’s experience, education and ability to write. I often ask myself the question: How is it that Shakespeare and Goethe came to be such great observers and describers of the human condition? Now I must add Shelley to my list.

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