Book Review: Frankenstein; or, the Modern Day Prometheus

Well, I did read this book maybe a dozen years ago, so giving it a re-read for Halloween-time, I expected to really like it. I have recommended it as seasonal reading for years and I remember being really excited about it. Perhaps I was surprised by it the first time, but this time the fact that it differs tremendously from our cultural perception of Frankenstein did not overwhelm or impress me. Also, I already knew it was an old-fashioned story, written before traditional horror (and as a precursor to it), and much more of a cerebral, internal exploration of a social topic (playing God in science and the human reaction to those who appear different from us, as well as the origins of criminality). It was a forward-thinking novel, embodying Enlightenment thinking by a woman who was at the center of the Enlightenment. As such (and as an atheist, to boot), Shelley leaves us unmoored a bit, as Frankenstein, the monster, everybody waffles about looking for some sort of meaning. (That’s not what she intended: word on the street is that she was trying to prove that morals could come from elsewhere than religion and the church, but as far as Frankenstein goes, I would call it a failed experiment). It’s not very long, so even though it can be slow reading at times, it is of novella-size. There are themes of ambition, guilt and revenge, and lines of romance, family, and friendship.

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Would I still recommend it, after this read? Yes? Yes, I would. But I would be clear that this is not light reading and it is not horror. It’s written in a much older style than most of us read day-to-day, right down to the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. That’s right: in order to get different perspectives, before the modern assumption of an omniscient narrator, Shelly tells her Frankenstein story through the letters of a ship captain to his sister, and when we haven’t gotten enough perspective, the Creature actually sits Frankenstein down to tell him what he’s been up to. (And that’s also right: Frankenstein is not the name of the monster—he goes mostly by the being/demon/creature/monster—but the name of the science student who makes him, Victor Frankenstein.) There are really long speeches, extrapolation on things modern readers could care less about, and the ol’ telling instead of showing. We’re told things are pretty or cold or desolate, but there is not as much description as these passages might warrant to set the mood. But lots of thoughts. Lots of people telling us what they’re thinking and who they are instead of letting their actions show us. It’s also more of a tragedy than scary. It has certainly inspired many an imagination and is also written very well for the populace of the time, reflecting the thinking of the time, at least for the intellectual elite.

So, if you either like Gothic-Romantic literature or are curious about the origins of Frankenstein’s Monster, then I would give this a read before Halloween. I can also see a dark-minded teen or moody young adult getting into this book, like thinking about existentialism and aesthetics, and perhaps even extending to humanitarianism and ethics. But I also think you can improve your read by making it a Frankenstein-themed October and, when you are done reading, watch a series of Frankenstein movies, through time. The ones I list below are perfect for observing the metamorphoses.


“I was their plaything and their idol, and something better—their child” (p33).

“It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she whom we saw every day and whose very existence appeared a part of your own can have departed forever” (p43).

“In other studies, you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder” (p49-50).

“If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possible mix, then that study is certainly unlawful” (p54).

“I was myself when young, but that wears out in a very short time” (p66).

“He can no longer be a subject for pity; we must reserve that for his miserable survivors” (p71).

“…hers also was the misery of innocence, which, like a cloud that passes over the fair moon, for awhile hides but cannot tarnish its brightness” (p84).

“…eternal woe and tears she then thought was the just tribute she should pay to innocence blasted and destroyed” (p88).

“Victor, when falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness? (p89).

“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it” (p95).

“I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution” (p97).

“…and yet a man is blind to a thousand minute circumstances which fall forth a woman’s sedulous attention” (p147).

“I was formed for peaceful happiness …. But I am a blasted tree” (p153).

“Here also we made some acquaintances, who almost contrived to cheat me in to happiness” (p154).

“How mutable are our feelings, and how strange is that clinging love we have of life even in the excess misery” (p164).

“Of what materials was I made that I could thus resist so many shocks, which, like the turning of the wheel, continually renewed the torture?” (p169).

“Ah! It is well for the fortunate to be resigned, but for the guilty there is no peace” (p181).

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change” (p188).

“…the monster whom I had created, the miserable demon whom I had sent abroad into the world for my destruction” (p189).

“But revenge kept me alive; I dared not die and leave my adversary in being” (p192).

“They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they may be afterwards modified, are never eradicated” (p201).

“…and so, poor souls, they were chilly and returned to their firesides” (p204).

“Be men, or be more than men” (p204).


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Frankenstein (1931)

My kids thought I had gone off the deep end when I monopolized the family room TV one night to watch a movie from—gasp—1931. This is the one with Boris Karloff as the Monster, though it’s not the first film adaptation of Frankenstein: that would be the 1910 version. By 1931, actually because of this version, we now have many of the changes that have obscured the original story. We have the hulking, square-headed creature (did he have bolts on the side of his head, too?), all the whirring gadgets and tessla coils, the gurney that lifts through the ceiling so that the monster can be electrocuted to life. We have the movement of Frankenstein’s hand to hearten a disappointed creator. The fear of fire. The town’s inhabitants as a mob with their pitchforks. The drowning of a little girl. The hunchbacked helper. Etc. etc. Much of what happened in this movie would become the tradition, and the schtick, of later Frankenstein, though none of what I just listed is in the original story. If you have any interest in this, then you will want to begin with this movie. Otherwise, it’s an okay movie and it is interesting to observe the differences in movies from then until now. (I don’t watch movies this old, very often, and certainly my kids don’t.) The story is now on it’s way to being horror, but isn’t very scary to the modern viewer at this point.

The Bride of Frankenstein follows this movie, but I skipped it.

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Young Frankenstein (1974)

Well. I can’t say I expected what I got, here. It’s like National Lampoon remade the 1931 Frankenstein, and I was not prepared for all the innuendo and cleavage-baring. Though, as my kids passed through the room, they were more appalled that the director chose to leave the film in black and white when he didn’t have to, and would not accept my explanation of style. Well, this version is interesting because of all the continuation/spoofing of the earlier versions of the movie. It is funny, though most of the time it’s more goofy. It has an old-timey feel but is even more at home in the 1970s. As with the other movies, the story is changed significantly from its original, leaving me wondering, again, why these movies even bother calling themselves “Frankenstein.” It is a Halloween favorite for plenty of fans, but I probably don’t need to see it again. Just make sure your kids are in bed.

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Frankenweenie (2012)

There is an original, short version of this movie, a live-action film from 1984, which was based on Tim Burton’s idea. Tim Burton remade his own movie into a feature-length, Claymation-style blockbuster that remains popular at this time of year, every year. It is clearly nodding, over and over, to the 1931 film and to all the kitsch that has arisen from the early movies. I’ll bet you can tell from the name, however, that this is about a dog brought back to life, instead of a human created from corpses. It has plenty of its own thing going on: it’s the story of a little boy who lives in a super creepy town (classic Burton all over it) whose best friend is his dog. When the dog is hit by a car, Victor (of course) uses his science genius to bring the dog back to life. And while it pays tribute to the Frankenstein story, it is really it’s own story. This is my favorite of everything I watched, but I am a die-hard Tim Burton fan, though some of my appreciation came from my watching of the earlier movies. This could be a family movie, too, just for older kids.

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

This one is out of order chronologically, because it brings it all back home. In other words, this is the remake that tried to curve back around to the original story. Starring Kenneth Branaugh and Helena Bonham Carter, it is definitely the film that follows the novel most closely, discarding most of the added traditions of the earlier films. It is decently acted and has some beautiful scenery, sticking pretty close to Mary Shelley’s telling. Until. Al Pacino plays an unlikely Monster, and he does a pretty good job except for one thing: the make-up in this movie destroyed it. With the Monster looking only a little disfigured, it completely changes your reaction to the story. The Monster is supposed to be so horrifying that people can’t find it in themselves not to be terrified or even to relate, and Pacino’s Monster isn’t even close to how the book describes him. Nor is he large, agile, or strong enough, which also changes the way the world sees him. Add to that the crazy last several minutes of the movie in which we devolve suddenly—really suddenly—into the accumulated bizarreness and gore of a more modern telling, and I don’t know if I can recommend this or not. I want to. It is perhaps the best one. But between the Monster and the bizarro-world climax, I just don’t know. It makes me realize that with modern CG, we could finally make this movie as a true-to-the-original that really works.

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BONUS MOVIE REVIEW: Mary Shelley (2017)

First off, it wasn’t dark or scary. Personally, I think a movie about a person who is known for writing Frankenstein should have been a little jumpy and creepy, or at least very Gothic. Besides that, the movie was okay. I love to watch movies about writers, so I wouldn’t unwatch this movie, but sometimes I watch or read something and think, Wow, I’m glad I wasn’t these people. This was one of those times. It’s funny, though, because it’s the same feeling I got from reading the novel: these people, floundering around in new Enlightenment ideas, were so very lost. They were trying to reinvent which way was up and of course they got confused. They made life so hard for themselves. Also, of course, as with most movies these days, the history of this movie was completely on steroids. There are some facts in there, and if you are going to watch the movie I suggest a little biographical research following. However, the movie here took a lot of speculation and pumped it up into a rather seditious and sensuous life that is probably much over-dramatized. It is interesting to note, though, that Shelley really did hang out with (and marry) these other famous authors and her sister really did mother the child of Lord Byron. While the period-details and acting were notable, the overall story was a roller coaster and the movie was only okay, at best.

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