Start with the basics: there is a world of difference between Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel Frankenstein and the countless films that have been inspired by it. Even Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adds much to Shelley’s original vision and in doing so takes much away. Its title may signal fidelity to the original, but it ends up performing a hatchet-job on Shelley’s book, and is led to desperate attempts to stitch together the disparate pieces to form a coherent, and living, whole. The result is, if not quite a monster, then at least a mess.
But then the book is always accompanied by misreadings or misapprehensions, such as the famous conflation of the creator with the (unnamed) creature (so people talk of ‘Frankenstein’ instead of Frankenstein’s monster), or the belief that the creator is ‘Doctor Frankenstein’ (not so: in the book he is but a humble student). It is a famous book which everyone knows or thinks s/he knows, but perhaps it is the most famous book that is not read.
Shelley was just a teenager when she began writing it, in 1816. The circumstances of its genesis are well known: in 1815 the volcano known as Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted, causing a drop in the average global temperature of around 0.5 degrees Celsius. This led to a subsequent failure of many crops. 1816 was ‘The Year Without a Summer’ (Byron documented the event in his poem ‘Darkness’). Shelley, along with her poet-husband Percy Bysshe, went to stay at Lake Geneva with none other than Byron, and a young man named John Polidori. To occupy the time, the four of them held a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story. From this event, we got not only what is arguably the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, but the first vampire novel too (Polidori’s The Vampyre, which appeared in 1819, a year after Frankenstein).
But what is Frankenstein really about? It is often cited as a moral fable about the dangers of playing God, of being a sort of Prometheus figure, he who in Greek mythology stole fire from the gods and gave it to man (indeed, the novel’s subtitle is The Modern Prometheus). This is undoubtedly part of the novel’s message, but it took a scientist to clear away the science-fiction element of the story and show its main theme. He was Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, who wrote an article on Frankenstein in the July 1994 issue of Natural History (Gould wrote a monthly column in the magazine for many decades). Gould argued that the novel was not really about the dangers of playing God by creating a human life, for that is not what makes the creature turn into a monster. It is Frankenstein’s subsequent rejection of the creature he has made which leads to the creature’s violent and destructive behaviour. As Gould puts it: ‘Victor [Frankenstein]’s sin does not lie in misuse of technology, or hubris in emulating God; we cannot find these themes in Mary Shelley’s account. Victor failed because he followed a predisposition of human nature – visceral disgust at the monster’s appearance – and did not undertake the duty of any creator or parent: to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptability’ (see Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack, p. 61). The novel is not about bad science, but bad parenting.
The 1987 single by British group T’Pau, ‘China in Your Hand’, is about Shelley’s novel. The song’s opening line – ‘It was a theme she had on a scheme he had told in a foreign land’ – points to the story’s own origins (Mary and Percy Shelley sitting around with Byron in Switzerland making up ghost stories). Other lines from the song reveal deeper parallels: ‘Come from greed, never born of the seed, took a life from a barren hand,’ as Carol Decker sings. ‘To take life on earth to the second birth and the man was in command’: in lines like this, the parallels between Frankenstein and the song really are made manifest. They also show that T’Pau saw the novel’s true message. Perhaps the subsequent work of art which is closest to Shelley’s original theme is not any of the films, but this song.