Rethinking Frankenstein

The book Frankenstein is one of those rare works of literature that is both well-regarded as a work of literature and is popular to a large audience. Written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818, the idea of a mad scientist building a murderous monster remains very vividly ingrained in the public imagination. The image of a green giant with neck bolts is iconic enough to be instantly recognizable to anyone in the Western world. Yet Frankenstein’s monster as depicted in almost every movie was very different from the one originally depicted in Mary Shelley’s book.

In the movie, the monster is a mindless killing machine who can only speak in simple grunts. In the original book, although the monster is very strong and hideous (as depicted in the movies), he is also very intelligent. He learned how to speak by listening to other people talk, and was able to teach himself how to read. Judging by the way he spoke in the book, you’d think he has a college degree in English literature. At the beginning of the book he was also very kind and caring. It was only when he encountered the bigotry of society (which was horrified by his ugliness) that he turned into a murderous monster.

Frankenstein has often been taken as a parable against the hubris of scientists messing with nature, but in some portions of the novel it seemed like the message was the opposite. While the novel portrayed Frankenstein’s monster as monstrous in the eyes of humans, the novel also portrayed humans to be monstrous in the eyes of Frankenstein’s monster. In one scene where the monster was quietly listening in on a history lesson, he was shocked by the terrible things humans have done to one another.

Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike… For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.

This is one aspect of Frankenstein, the book, that never made it into any film adaption. Ultimately Frankenstein is a very morally ambiguous book. The monster is neither a hero nor a villain, but instead a classic antihero. While he suffered much after he was abandoned by his creature and rejected from society, he was also a deeply flawed character who turns to vengeance as a reaction to his traumas.

In the 19th century such a deeply flawed character was hard for the audience to understand, so all this moral ambiguity has been stripped by subsequent adaptations of the book. This has probably damaged the Frankenstein franchise as it made the character much more one-dimensional and less interesting. However, in the 21th century an antihero like Frankenstein’s monster may be more acceptable. Therefore I hope that future adaptations would revive some of the complexities of the original novel.

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