The Framing of Frankenstein; or, Is There a Reader in This Picture?

by Harry Heuser

Mary and Child: A Set of Pictures

As the most cursory study of film history or even infrequent excursions to the local multiplex confirm, there exists a small catalogue of perennial favorites of western literature that, time and again, are subjected to the Hollywood treatment.  To wit, an updated Emma Woodhouse returned—“as if!”—a valley girl in Clueless; a gym-trimmed Hester Prynne turned up with Demi Moore’s abs of steel, and a mondo Disney Quasimodo transmogrified into a huggable Hunchback-in-a-lunch bag.  Few novels have inspired as many cinematic variations as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the most celebrated of which, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), exemplify effective makeovers.  Notwithstanding box office failures such Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 take on Frankenstein or the Daniel Radcliffe starrer Victor Frankenstein (2015), the public’s fascination with the story of a scientist and his humanoid creation appears to have remained undiminished, or at least is judged to be strong enough to warrant further revisits.  In fact, since Albert J. LaValley’s genealogical study “The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey” (1979) or Steven Earl Forry’s Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present (1990), the Frankenstein “family” has grown considerably.

How those younger Frankensteins are placed in relation to Mary Shelley and her novel depends on who is in charge of creating the family portrait.  While some pictures now display a motley crowd of Gods and Monsters, others still show a solitary figure.  Is there a parent in these pictures? If yes, who is it: Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Frankenstein, pop-cultural phenomenon? Is it, perhaps, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or Mary Wollstonecraft, or Milton?  Even traces of the Golem or Prometheus, creator of mankind, may be discerned on some canvasses.  Yet surprisingly, one figure rarely moves into the frame: the figure of the reader as creator of Frankenstein.

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