By Britney Phan & Lindsay Zoladz
Today, the term ‘Frankenstein’ invokes the image of a stitched-together, grotesque green monster that serves as a warning for the pitfalls of human innovation, but how did this creature first come about?
Frankenstein, the book
Britney’s Response: Though it is impossible to gauge the barrage of emotions that Mary Shelley must’ve been feeling while she wrote Frankenstein, the macabre and often grotesque contents of her most esteemed novel details a story that extends far beyond the conflict between a man and his own design. Shelley’s ability to navigate the complex themes of grief and loss come to the forefront when she describes Madam Frankenstein’s death; the extinguishment of the “brightness of a beloved eye”, or the “despair that is exhibited on the countenance”—all of these come together to supply an experience that can be felt through the soul, and not just imagined in the mind. Of course, as art is often an extension of the creator, there is more than enough reason to believe that at the time, Shelley was grappling with her own personal experiences of grief. However, she was able to do something that few authors of her caliber could achieve, and built a legacy that is now immortalized through various films and the broader mainstream culture.
I believe one reason for this is because Frankenstein is able to tell multiple stories in one. Before, I referenced the themes of loss that can be interpreted throughout the book, but in actuality, the contents of Frankenstein can be read through the lens of heartbreak, of animosity, or of creativity. For me, Frankenstein became the most telling when I began to see the creature as a representation of an artistic endeavor, as I often find myself taken by creative pursuits that can sometimes leave me to neglect other important duties in life. It was eye-opening, and forced me to look outside of myself. This, I think, is Frankenstein’s greatest talent.
Lindsay’s Response: I had never before read Frankenstein, but I’d long been haunted by a fact about it—no, none of the eerie or macabre particulars of the plot, but that Mary Shelley finished writing it when she was just shy of her 19th birthday. I was certainly over the age of 19 when I learned that, and as an aspiring writer I thought it doomed me to failure in this culture that prizes youth and precocity above all else.
But a few year later, in my twenties, I read a sentence in Daisy Hay’s book Young Romantics that stopped me in my tracks: “In any case, [Mary Shelley] wrote in her diary, she did not expect to live very long. Her mother only lived until the age of thirty-six, and Mary decided that she would die at the same age.” Life expectancies were much shorter in Shelley’s time, yes, but her tragic life was also marked by grief and uncommonly frequent loss. Her mother, husband, step-sister, and three of her four children all died prematurely. No wonder she felt she had to compress so much living and working into her first 19 or 36 years of life. As I now approach the age that Shelley did not expect to live past, I no longer feel as rushed or as panicked about achievement. I am, instead, grateful to feel like there is still plenty of time to write whatever I have to write, and become whoever I will become.
Frankenstein, the movie
Britney’s Response: Though Frankenstein is a relatively short novel, I was surprised to find that much of its contents still had to be condensed in order to fit into a movie that spanned one hour. When watching the movie, I found it fun to play a little game in which I tried to notice all the changes that were made to the original story, ranging from small ones such as the swapping of names of the two lead male characters, to much more plot-intensive ones like the addition of a love triangle or the inclusion of a scientist’s assistant. Apart from this, what really drew me in were the classic aesthetics of an old Hollywood movie: the black-and-white filters, the diction of the characters, and the feeling that what I was watching was something that was entirely new, and never done before.
Lindsay’s Response: I sometimes think about the story—now largely considered a myth—about the Lumiere Brothers’ early 1895 short film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Many people in the audience had never even seen a movie before, so the story goes, and when the train pulled into the station and towards the camera lens, they were so startled that some of them ran away! Whether or not this actually happened, it does point towards the many aspects of moviegoing that modern viewers take for granted. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and watch very old movies with their contemporary audiences, just to see how they would have reacted. Having seen much more gruesome and suspenseful horror movies, and also having read the novel on which it was (however loosely) based, I was often not particularly scared by Frankenstein—though its chilling atmosphere and tone of impending catastrophe make me think that I might have been very frightened by it in 1931. Blessedly, the original New York Times review of the movie gives us this enduring snapshot, which doesn’t feel quite so different from the experience I’ve had seeing much more modern horror films: “[Frankenstein] aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.”
Mary Shelley, the movie
Britney’s Response: Elle Fanning’s performance in the movie stole the entire show for me, and I was very surprised to find that she was actually not British after all…What I really enjoyed about this movie is how it planted the seeds for the creation of Frankenstein throughout its duration, without putting so much focus on the novel and allowing Mary Shelley’s life to come to the forefront. After watching the film, and doing more research into her life, I was shocked to find that it was even more melodramatic than the movie had portrayed it to be, and certain parts even had to be cut out for the sake of making it more ‘realistic’.
Lindsay’s Response: I have now seen this movie twice, and seen it quite differently, before and after reading Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. The first time I saw this movie, I was swept along by its narrative, taking the facts at face value and feeling inspired by Shelley’s fiery resolve. Watching it again, it was like putting on a set of 3-D glasses: All I could see were the slight factual inaccuracies, the places the filmmakers either streamlined the “plot” of Shelley’s life or restaged certain events to appear more cinematic. Where was any mention of Mary’s other step-sister Fanny, for example? Would viewers have thought her suicide unbelievable because it happened around the same time of the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet? (But, it really did!) And what about the reason young Jane Clairmont changed her name to Clair? Oh, and Percy and Mary never met up in Scotland, although that did make for a particularly dramatic scene. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, or perhaps just a less distracting viewing experience.
My mentor Lindsay and I held a book club over the course of the year and read Frankenstein as it came to a close. As we began to discuss the motivations behind the creation of Frankenstein, and how exactly it became such a staple in popular culture, an idea for our pair project began to formulate. We decided that we would write a response to the novel and two movies which we decided to watch after we finished reading it. One of the moments which I remembered the most when making this project was when we sat down to read each other’s responses; it was fascinating to hear how different and similar our viewpoints could be!
Britney Phan is a high school junior in Brooklyn, NY. Other than writing, her main hobbies include drawing and listening to music. This year, along with her mentor, Lindsay, she read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and was so taken by the fantastical landscapes which she was swept into that she decided to write a piece that was inspired by them.
Lindsay Zoladz is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, where she writes about music. Her work has been published in many other outlets including New York magazine, Pitchfork, The Ringer, NPR and Bookforum.