A decade on from the Van Helsing misfire and 20 years on from Kenneth Branagh’s earnestly romantic take, the legacy of Frankenstein is in better health than ever, even if it‘s a little more comfortable in its patchwork…
The Modern Prometheus. Scientific progress will always play its part in keeping Frankenstein relevant, or rather the human response to it. While Mary Shelley’s novel may have been a romantic answer to industrialization and even temporary climate change, the raw power of electricity in the early 19th century was revolutionary enough to question how far man could progress if he was able to harness such power. And when that question’s asked, there’s a short list of comparators.
Frankenstein was published three years prior to Faraday unveiling the electric motor. 196 years on, that Modern Prometheus won’t go away, constantly fuelled by scientific progress. In the 21st century, whether genetically modifying a crop, cloning stem cells or creating life from three donors, “playing Frankenstein” is a line easily brought to bear. Playing Frankenstein. A great phrase, keeping its fictional and manipulative connotations while posing its own challenge and sanity check. Frankenstein has been presented in multiple ways over the past two centuries of course, from visionary saviour to arrogant savant, mad man to psychopathic Baron (who’s single-minded determination gifted the above title). And by constantly maintaining this diversity, it looks as though the Doctor and his creations are faring better than ever in 2014…
In this first check-up, a look at January’s I Frankenstein, two aborted television shows that should have rocked the laboratory and the promise of a big screen revolution in 2015…
I Frankenstein (2014)
…Without Abbot and Costello…
“You go talk to the Gargoyle Queen; I’ll meet you back here in an hour”
So says Dr Frankenstein’s blonde spiritual successor to his original creation just before things kick off. The creature of I Frankenstein is named Adam by Leonore, that same Queen of the Gargoyles and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
It’s no surprise that I Frankenstein is a graphic novel adaptation, nor that it comes from the same creator as the Underworld series. Here however, a little disappointingly, the creature is thrust into the eternal and Christian-centric war between demons and gargoyles (the slightly stony Angelic lineage of St Michael). Vampires and werewolves would have been a step far too much without Abbot and Costello…
As with Underworld, CGI and odd character design is the order of the day in a plot of simply decimated good, morally conflicted scientists, an impossibly empty international city and a broadly realised McGuffin which spells peril for the human race. Of course, it manages to magic up some Romeo and Juliet moments, haphazard threat and a few digs into Frankenstein’s literary past as well. Although, amid its cluttered, character-led plot bashing, there’s little reason to care or develop the creature’s relationship with his creator as he follows his strict path of redemption.
Father and Son
The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge
The creature is pure antihero. From the beginning the monster’s journey is defined and justified– apart from a few outbursts – by the unnature of his creation. The Frankenstein story is broadly present and correct, though covered within the first three minutes of the film. That the creature is christened Adam suggests at best an oversimplification of the text, at worst a misreading. This Victor Frankenstein is a “Mad man, terrified by what he created”. His death may come in the tundra of the north, but the irony of this creature returning his father’s corpse to be buried in the family graveyard is a little lost: “It was more than he deserved”. And as soon as that story’s buried, his creation is immediately thrust into the film’s sub-theological plot. No wonder he looks so surprised when having just seen his father off… He’s attacked by descending demons then saved by ascending gargoyles.
No, as might be expected, all subtlety has been deanimated. The MacGuffin in question is the mythical Diary of Frankenstein – hidden away in a vault while the creature conveniently mans up to a sort-of modern day – the key to the forces of evil discovering immortality. Or perhaps that’s not quite right; to reanimate demons who are surely mildly immortal anyway? They certainly don’t decompose. In one of the few bits of profound scripting, the Gargoyle Queen prefaces Adam’s sabbatical by labelling him “Written proof that God is no longer the sole creator of man”. Fortunately, it’s not to his jagged little face. Sadly, some time away doesn’t improve this monster’s knowledge or ability. In fact, having the majority of his life spent in the surety that God, angels and demons exist above the world of man can only belittle Frankenstein’s core essence.
But core essence and subtlety isn’t what I Frankenstein’s all about, nor the creature mad old Frankenstein’s only genius. He can also write the secret of immortal reanimation neatly into a small journal that lasts 200 years. His creation cannot age, can’t easily be destroyed and possesses supernatural strength. This is all put down to the 3,000 volts that the diary states brought the creature to life (Volta’s first battery appeared in 1800 electro-fact fans). All details are laid out in neat writing and sketches for the crème of modern British scientific research to purloin. Well two of them at least, in much the same way as they might have written down Blue Peter building materials when they popped up briefly onscreen pre-internet.
The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge and there’s not even a single mention of a photocopier. Perhaps, coincidentally, electro-magnetism hasn’t been developed in this time stream.
…This monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs.
Character-wise, we’re a supernaturally long throw from Shelley. The modern successor to Frankenstein takes the form of blonde and sceptical Dr Wade – effectively Rosamund Pike in Doom – here working for big bad Bill Nighy. The monster though, for all its lack of authentic physiognomy is rather well done. Aaron Eckhart is fine casting but given little to play with. He’s been hacked up for sure, but typically it’s difficult to portray that he’s “A dozen used parts from eight different corpses”. Perhaps truest in intent, his main scars come from the psychological battle with himself and his creator. Perhaps the weakest part is he didn’t gain any insight into his father before his death. “He hunted me. I would have killed him too but he froze to death” Adam growls at one point, inadvertently making it sound wonderfully like “haunted”. This Creature, possessing the long hair of his literary forbear, although not nearly as articulate, is constantly told why he’s so screwed up. That’s a little mean, especially considering how the fact of his origin proves far more important that the why or hows. Cue the Bill Nighy master plan: “Niberius has been planning this for centuries, Frankenstein just made it possible”.
When a Faustian pack is suggested at one point, the bride’s promised, adding an interesting tie between the scientist and creation – but really, this monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs. It’s unlikely that a sequel will happen let alone examine those missed opportunities.
Still, by the end he’s come to terms with his lot and continues along the selfless path that has earned him a demon-shocking soul. Yes, by the end he is Batman. Sorry, no, He Frankenstein.
On a side note, the title – among its many other references to I Claudius, I Robot, er, Disney’s I-Man etc – was almost shared with the second Hammer Frankenstein film in 1958. That film, ultimately titled The Revenge of Frankenstein and featuring the late Francis Matthews who sadly passed away this week, proved to be a chilling and excellently produced addition to the franchise. It was always unlikely that its almost-namesake would be so lucky.
Stitches in time (2012 – 2014)
…Frankenstein lives on in a far more thematically just way…
It’s worth noting the almost-Frankensteins; those Doctors whom, in a parallel universe, are furthering the scientific mastermind’s agenda on television. Here they fell quickly with little chance of resurrection. First was the quickly dismissed Gothica on ABC. Albeit modern day, it saw a mashing of horror icons including Tom Ellis as a Victor Frankenstein, a hospital lead desperate to bring his dead daughter Anna back to life… Possibly with the help of ex Grace van Helsing. Also dragging Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll into the mix, it was dashed at pilot stage.
As forming gothic leagues seems to be the done thing, it’s no surprise that networks looked to their back catalogue. Bryan Fuller’s Mockingbird Lane an update of 1960s classic The Munsters and its spin-offs did see its pilot air in Halloween 2012, but proved too complex an entity for the NBC network to commission.
A natural extension of Bryan Fuller’s excellent Pushing Daisies, the pilot was also directed and produced by Bryan Singer. That’s a great deal of talented Bryans for your buck.
Fuller’s dialogue is typically witty, picking out the heritage and black humour of suburbia as reverentially as you might expect. NBC seems to have struggled with the simplistic dark sitcom leanings amid the peak of True Blood, and it’s true that the pilot doesn’t quite project the weight of story-wealth that it should. What it does have is some wise casting and scintillating banter, especially thanks to Eddie Izzard’s Grandpa. A far more malicious and less scatter-brained scientific trickster than the originals, he’s properly the Frankenstein here, pragmatically rejuvenating his son-in-law, not through any means necessary as much as the Munster way. Jerry O’Connell’s rather unorthodox Herman Munster is similarly changed. The sly, familiar silhouette joke at his introduction makes way for the creature who just “loves too hard”. In comparison to the fellas, the female characters Lily and Marilyn seem hardly changed.
If picked up, Frankenstein would certainly be more prevalent this year in suggestion alone, but its sad and quick demise has undoubtedly allowed Frankenstein to live on in a far more thematically just way. Bryan Fuller moved on to develop the former surgeon, psychiatrist and psychopath just intrigued by what will happen… Hannibal Lecter. Pumped full of the Frankenstein themes, it’s certainly one of the best things on television at the moment.
Elsewhere, there’s always the resurgent Hammer studios. With winning new material and fresh adaptations it looks as though Steven Thompson’s Quatermass reboot will be the first jewel plundered from their back catalogue. As befits Hammer, the production house is always on a lookout for a way to present a fresh return for the Baron though… While waiting for that spark of inspiration it’s over to another British outfit for the next big screen outing…
“Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s Monster. And I’m looking for my creator” – Magneto, X-Men: First Class
No, X-Men aside, Frankenstein will next return in a more direct, but not necessarily faithful way. The upcoming film adaptation from Paul McGuigan is perhaps the most interesting Frankenstein property around. Fresh from his startling and stylish hand in bringing Sherlock back to the masses, he’s a gifted powerhouse director who promises something quite different. Details are scarce so far, but during its recent and current filming some images have come to light.
James McAvoy takes the role of Frankenstein and it’s well documented that classic film assistant Igor will be not only present, but intriguingly a key focus of the film. Portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, early images show a dapper, long-haired version who’s not at first glance the Igor of popular culture. As what appears to be the third prong of a moral piece, Moriarty Andrew Scott takes the role of the film’s ‘religious head’. It’s clear there are many dynamics at play here, just as there should be in a Frankenstein adaptation worth its copper. The recent delay from January to October 2015 can only bode well considering I Frankenstein’s fate this past January.
With over a year until Frankenstein soars on the big screen again, it’s down to the Idiot’s Lantern to carry it on…
And on that note, time to dim the electric lanterns and blow out the candles on tonight’s experiments. Coming soon, the concluding part of Frankenstein 2014 AD will herald a trip to possibly Frankenstein’s finest hour this year… Penny Dreadful…