The Frankenstein We Deserve

(Rainmark Films/Netflix)


The 1818 novel Frankenstein, which has birthed so many subsequent versions, was itself an update of the Promethean myth for Mary Shelley’s time. We might fairly call Frankenstein its own myth now, told by each teller in her own register.

William Gass would say these versions are from “the realm of Forms,” and are simplifications: “there is a point; there is a message, a moral, a teaching. And that is a consolation … to believe that our lives have a shape, a purpose and direction. …” (He much prefers “fictions” over “the story’s simple determinisms.”)

Maybe for these reasons the Frankenstein monster has legs. It arguably has more cultural influence than any other monster tale except vampires, who run neck and neck-bolt with Frankenstein. Frankenstein is useful as a story because it is about overstepping, hubris, and unintended consequences; vampires are similarly useful in feeding on others, Faustian eternal life, and the erotic side of the Gothic. (That is, ego versus id.) The werewolf, Dr. Jekyll, the invisible man, the mummy, the blob—other matinee monsters fail to achieve the same viral power in culture.

So what seems to matter more to us than a version’s fidelity to the original is this use—how strongly its message registers, and the amount of its consolation.

Scholars have pointed out, for example, how the first film monster, shot in 1910 by Thomas Edison, was silent by necessity, but it seems to have served a need. The version most people think of first is the 1931 Karloff film, when synchronized sound technology was used but the monster is still mute. In the novel, Frankenstein does call his creation a monster and a demon, but the monster is aware and eloquent, and uses “thy creature.” The films almost always strip him of intellect—dumb him down, in effect.

The Frankenstein for the drive-in theater made the good doctor into a middle-aged creep elevated to the smoking-jacket baron, and his dalliance with the maid is one of the most bizarrely erotic scenes in film (see Peter Cushing at 22:40, here). In the age of Monty Python, George Carlin, and Frank N. Furter, we got Young Frankenstein, which stripped the story of its usual piety and went to work on other cultural referents as well. Wikipedia lists hundreds of Frankenstein films, TV episodes, radio, stage, prose, and musical versions, with more on the way from Guillermo del Toro (as director) and Javier Bardem (as actor) in separate projects.

Each speaks to its time. Blade Runner and Terminator deal with our discomfort with the tools we have made; Rocky IV wants us to be very afraid of the Russians but to be consoled that the spunky American will always win by carrying logs through the snow.

Which version is to be nominated for serving our time? One vote might be cast for The Frankenstein Chronicles, a BBC series that barely made it to the US market via Netflix three years after its original airing in the UK. It is not loyal to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by a stretch. For several episodes, the only referent is sewn-together corpses washing up in the Thames.

Sean Bean is Inspector John Marlott, a “river detective” in grimy 1830s London, who gets obsessed with trying to stop the murder of children from a poor neighborhood, found patched together from different victims. The show’s writers have included historical characters such as Shelley herself, an obnoxious Charles Dickens as a young muckraker, and William Blake. Suffice it to say there is indeed a doctor trying to reanimate the dead, we eventually learn, and that Marlott himself becomes a monster.

As with so many of our TV narratives, Chronicles makes reference to many other texts that influence it, as widely flung as The Fugitive, Kolchak: The Night Stalker , and The Hulk. Marlott sees dead people.

Bean may be one of the least-celebrated top actors of our time, and though you may not know his name, you will recognize him from National Treasure, Game of Thrones, Percy Jackson, and Lord of the Rings. He has an everyman quality, less glamorous in his ruggedness than Daniel Craig. Bean looks like a Yorkshire drayman with a powerful but aging body who has been through it, whatever “it” was, but who still tries to be civil.

The brief series (only twelve episodes) is ready-made for today’s drive-in: Netflix. (My students had to explain “Netflix and chill” a couple of years ago.) It is also “about” the hubris of the science of our time (some sort of gene-splicing, it seems), class division, germ warfare, and a vampiresque deal for eternal life. Through it all—and “it” here includes murder, dying, new life through technology, mutilation, madness, lost love, and struggles against maniacal politicians—John Marlott not only survives but triumphs. He is badly damaged, in mind and body, by a divided society on the verge of chaos. This is the consolation on offer at this time.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.