Frankenstein is one of the greatest stories of all time. When will we get a decent modern adaptation?
I’m going to be honest: Frankenstein is one of my favourite works of gothic literature. It’s a seminal text (Mary Shelley invented science fiction, after all), but it contains so many eternally significant themes that have plagued writers for millennia: what are the limits of our humanity? Will science and technology save us, or be our downfall? What do I do when my eight-foot-tall gothic son swears vengeance against me? Two centuries after the novel’s publication, it is still widely revered as a paragon of literature, and hailed as the dark prince of gothic fiction. So why can’t we get a decent film adaptation?
Just a disclaimer: this tear down of Frankenstein film adaptations does not include Universal Pictures 1931 original, or even Gene Wilder’s 1974 Young Frankenstein (your dad’s favourite horror-comedy). Those are of course valued treasures of the Frankenstein catalogue, and essential viewing for any horror fan. But a story as significant as Frankenstein is still owed a faithful, modern adaptation in the 21st Century.
In 2015 we got Victor Frankenstein, starring James McAvoy as the titular mad scientist and Daniel Radcliffe as his faithful assistant Igor. It was a critical and financial flop, earning only $34.2 million against its $40 million budget. Before that, in 2014, we got I, Frankenstein, again attracting the big names of Aaron Eckhart and Bill Nighy. Again, it was a critical flop, garnering only 5% on Rotten Tomatoes. However this action-oriented, incoherent mess fared slightly better at the box office, earning $76.8 million against its whopping $65 million budget. As a fan of Frankenstein, it’s hard to see filmmakers try to bring adaptations of the classic horror novel to the screen—and continuously fail.
So why is it so damn hard for Frankenstein to be brought to the big screen in the 21st Century? It might be because too many filmmakers attempt to bring a ‘new’ or ‘original’ take to the source material. More often than not the Monster is made a suffering antihero, throwing away his thirst for acceptance and vengeance in order to save humanity from itself. As much as the Monster is worthy of sympathy, he’s hardly a hero—let alone an antihero. He did murder an innocent woman on her wedding night, after all. It’s a disservice to the original tone of the novel to make the Monster a saviour; he’s a pitiful creature, an intelligent being with no chance of acceptance or love who is condemned to wander the world alongside his creator. He’s no hero.
Another take on why Frankenstein seems to evade a decent adaptation, is that it seems to always be viewed through the male gaze. It’s important to remember Frankenstein’s author was an 18-year-old Mary Shelley, who was more likely than not nursing her second baby whilst writing Frankenstein, and pregnant with her third when she finished the novel. Shelley had suffered the loss of a baby two years prior. By 1823, at the first theatrical production of her novel, Shelley had buried three of the four children she birthed and lost another to miscarriage. Perhaps the reason Frankenstein remains such a revered and seminal text is that its horror is so uniquely personal—so uniquely female. Shelley’s own mother died 11 days after her birth—Awoke, and found no mother—such a feeling of loneliness and separation is hard to replicate when filmmakers are preoccupied with giving the Monster rippling muscles, or making sure the death scenes are at their most gruesome.
At its core, Frankenstein is about the arrogance of man and how far a sentient being can be pushed when they are rejected from the group. It endures, because we rapidly approach a society so consumed by technology, we could lose our humanity. It deserves a faithful adaptation, if not to honour Mary Shelley then to remind us all of how damn good horror can be. In the meantime, read Frankenstein if you haven’t already, and marvel at how one of the greatest novels of all time was written by an 18-year-old woman over two centuries ago.