Frankenstein: A Modern Perspective
A classic, by definition, is a piece of art so revolutionary and universal that its sentiments cannot be restricted to the time at which it is presented. But how is this accomplished? Do the authors of such works possibly know what issues will be relevant in the future? Can a 19-year old girl, on a dark night in October have been gifted with prophetic as well as literary powers? Or is it that, more likely, a classic merely provides the reader with unconscious truths, the base material for an ongoing re-evaluation during which old themes are given new life in the light of new circumstances and discoveries? Perhaps it is not so much the words are timeless but the ideas of the classic call out for a constant re-interpretation. And perhaps it is this process which keeps it always fresh and preserves it in history with the stamp of immortality.
If such is the case, then the modern re-telling of Frankenstein by filmmaker Kenneth Branagh speaks much for the justification of its classification as a classic. In this 1994 cinematic feat, Branagh attempts to re-construct the story in a way that is more meaningful for his 20th century audience. When Mary Shelly first penned her ghastly tale, England was at the dawn of a scientific age. The experiments of Darwin were ripe subjects for discussion and opened new vistas of unimagined opportunity. It was one of the last points in history when educated people felt that could possibly know everything. They would have had an opportunity to read every classic text, be aware of every experiment in physics, and be in a position to discuss the latest medical advancements. Nothing was beyond their reach.*
Now, in the era of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, we are at a similar though even more dangerous point on the path to acquiring all knowledge. Today s scientists push on industriously, chasing what once seemed like impossible dreams. But what should be the role or motive of the scientist in this pursuit? Branagh s Victor, like Shelly s is not completely mad nor in it solely for the glory. There is a point in the film when he remarks
Listen if we can replace a heart or lung, then soon we will be able to replace every part. And if we can do that, we can design a life, a being that won t grow old, won t sicken and die and live to be more intelligent, more civilized than any of us. *
Victor sees his ambition as a doorway to the betterment of mankind. This isn t unlike the modern scientist who is within a hair s breadth of conquering cancer or AIDS. The movie therefore does not condemn all investigative bravery or risk as it is necessary for scientific advancement, but rather adds the warning that one should also not ignore the effect their advancements will have on the world. This is particularly valid in a world plagued with issues such as should a scientist interfere in matters of life and death? Should parents be able to determine the sex of their child? Is cloning moral? With this weighty issues to represent, it is no wonder that Branagh s Frankenstein doesn t just slink away out of the laboratory after his labor is finished, but rather looks upon his creation with an instant realization of horror and utters the cry Oh what have I done? when he first faced with the impact of his actions.
Also updated in this modern re-telling are new psychological perspectives on Shelly s view of childbirth. The connection of childbirth with misery and destruction are made early on as Victor s mother dies while giving birth. This portrayal though inaccurate ( Frankenstein s mother dies on scarlet fever in the book) is nevertheless significant as it connects with many of the deaths in Shelly s milieu as well as that of her own children and sets the mood for creation and its price.
It has also been said that, in part, the story of Frankenstein is an expression of the frustration men feel at not being able to have children of their own coupled with the revulsion of the birthing process. The film exploits this aspect quite a bit and the creation scene is an array of explicit pregnancy/childbirth images.
After the operatic fervor of the creation process, as this film depicts it, with the camera swooping across the lab and a great sense of power being embodied by Victor Frankenstein the sarcophagus is suddenly thrown open , birthing fluid rushes forth and reveals this little stained burping thing which Victor is revolted by *
The sudden shift from the anticipation of his goal, from his feverishly idealized imagination to this hard reality, this deformed living creature is too much for him.
But the revolutionary creation of the monster is only the introduction of a radically different take on this creature. Unlike the 1931 film version, Branagh s monster arrayed in a monk-like cloak with clear piercing eyes, attains an almost noble aspect. His eloquence is restored to what Shelly first intended and enhances some of the themes that arise with his rude awakening to the ways of the world. His treatment at the hands of the DeLacey family after he reveals himself, first to the old man and then to the children, can be looked on as a testament to the injustice of prejudice. A lesson which maybe rings more true now, after the horrors of racism and the holocaust, than it did during Shelly s day.
The last half of the film accentuates Shelly s theme and actually has the monster refer to Frankenstein as his father. When the monster confronts Frankenstein in the ice cave, we are moved to pity as he asks of him What were you doing? What am I made of? Did you ever consider the consequences of you actions? You gave me emotions but never showed me how to use them. Do I have a soul or is that the one thing you left out? In these haunting questions, the monster articulates the necessity of good parenting and in them, a modern audience can hear the echoes of the child questioning his father about being abandoned.
And although Mary Shelly never heard of dead-beat dads , Freud s view on psychological development, the Ku-Klux Klan or Dolly the cloned sheep, the themes of child abandonment, childbirth and creation, prejudice and the danger of scientific advancement are so imbedded in the novel that these things are just as relevant to the interpretation of the novel as if she had known about them.