The story of humans creating monstrous beings in their image may have perennial relevance, even if it seems specific to our contemporary cultural moment. What, after all, is Oscar Isaac’s AI inventor in Ex Machina but a 21st century update of Victor Frankenstein? And what is Frankenstein’s monster but a Gothic recreation of the Golem, or any number of folkloric automatons in cultures far and wide? It’s an age-old archetypal story that seems to get an update every year.
People have imagined making artificial people, perhaps for as long as people have told stories. But each iteration of that story emerges from a historical matrix of particular technological, philosophical, and metaphysical anxieties. In the case of Ex Machina, we have not only a thinking, feeling humanoid, but one created out of mass data collection and designed to serve the prurient interests of a Nietzschean venture capitalist engineer. How very 2015, no?
In the original Frankenstein, a novel written by a woman, Mary Shelley, we have a very different kind of monster, born out of a Romantic convergence of interest in alchemy and the occult—the original domains of early modern scientists like Isaac Newton—and more modern, industrial scientific methods (hence the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus). Many critics have called the novel the first work of science fiction, and many, like Maurice Hindle in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, have described its main theme as “the aspiration of modern masculinist scientists to be technically creative divinities.”
And yet, writes Ruth Franklin at the New Republic—drawing convincingly on Shelley’s own traumatic experiences with birth, including her own—Frankenstein might “also be a story about pregnancy.” Intriguing as this possibility may be, most interpretations of the novel have seen it as “a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually.” That tradition continues in the movies with the first film adaptation of Frankenstein, made by Edison studios just over 100 years after the novel’s 1818 publication.
The 1910 short silent film, which you can watch above, bills itself as “a liberal adaptation from Mrs. Shelley’s famous story,” and opens in its first scene with Victor Frankenstein leaving home for college. Two years later, the Faustian mad scientist discovers the mystery of life, uses the knowledge to make his “creature”—a surprisingly grotesque scene—and, appalled at the sight of it, rejects the thing in horror. The rest of the story proceeds along the usual lines, as the monster, in rags and fright wig, seeks recognition from his creator/parent and wreaks havoc when he does not receive it.
This first Frankenstein film, directed by J. Searle Dawley, arrived two years after Edison’s Bronx, New York studios began full and very lucrative operations, and, by this time, writes Rich Drees, motion pictures had begun to receive unwelcome attention from “moral crusaders and reform groups, who decried the new medium as being dangerous and encouraging of immorality.” Edison responded quickly, fearing “a serious threat to his bottom line,” and ordered that his films’ production quality and “moral tone” be improved.
Frankenstein, writes Drees, “was the perfect choice to kick off production under this new moral banner. It’s a story that deals with the extremes of the human condition, life and death, and the dangers of tampering in God’s realm.” Edison released the film with the following disclaimer:
To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.
Five years after the Edison studio’s short, another silent adaptation, Life Without Soul, appeared. Made by the Ocean Film Corporation, this film is now lost to history, but it qualifies as the first feature-length adaptation at 70 minutes. A review of the film, writes the blog Frankensteinia, “reveals a story that hews fairly close to Mary Shelley’s novel,” making a “bold attempt at capturing the world-spanning sweep of the tale.”
Several dozen film adaptations in the ensuing years have tracked more or less closely to Shelley’s narrative—giving Frankenstein’s monster a bride and having Victor Frankenstein reanimate his dead lover with the mind of a wrongly-executed man. But none of these films, so far as I know, has drawn out the subtext of Frankenstein as a novel about pregnancy and childbirth. Such an adaptation remains to be made, perhaps by the first woman director to take on a Frankenstein film.
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