Watch the First Film Adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1910): It’s Newly Restored by the Library of Congress

In his Cri­tique of Judg­ment Immanuel Kant made every attempt to sep­a­rate the Sublime—the phe­nom­e­non that inspires rev­er­ence, awe, and imagination—from ter­ror, hor­ror, and mon­stros­i­ty. But as Bar­bara Free­man argues, the dis­tinc­tions fall apart. Nowhere do we see this bet­ter dra­ma­tized, Free­man writes, than in Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, which “can be read almost as a par­o­dy of the Cri­tique of Judg­ment, for in it every­thing Kant iden­ti­fies with or as sub­lime… yield pre­cise­ly what Kant pro­hibits: ter­ror, mon­stros­i­ty, pas­sion, and fanati­cism.”

Rea­son, even that as care­ful as Kan­t’s, begets mon­sters, Shel­ley sug­gests. It’s a theme that has become so com­mon­place in writ­ing about Franken­stein and its numer­ous prog­e­ny that it seems hard­ly worth repeat­ing. And yet, Shelley’s dark vision, like that of her con­tem­po­rary Fran­cis­co Goya, came at a time when elec­tric­i­ty was a new force in the world (one that her hus­band Per­cy used to con­duct exper­i­ments on him­self)… a time when Kant’s phi­los­o­phy had seem­ing­ly val­i­dat­ed empir­i­cal real­ism and the pri­ma­cy of abstract rea­son.

Steeped in the lat­est sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy, and liv­ing on the oth­er side of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, Shel­ley saw the return of what Kant had sought to ban­ish. The mon­ster arrives as an omi­nous por­tent of atroc­i­ty. As Steven J. Kraftchick points out in a recent anthol­o­gy of Franken­stein essays pub­lished for the novel’s 200th anniver­sary, “the Eng­lish term ‘mon­ster’ (by way of French) like­ly derives from the Latin words mon­trare ‘to demon­strate’ and mon­ere ‘to warn.’” The mon­ster comes to show “the lim­its of the ordi­nary… expand­ing or con­tract­ing.”

As a being intend­ed to show us some­thing, it seems apt that Vic­tor Frankenstein’s cre­ation became ubiq­ui­tous in film and tele­vi­sion, first arriv­ing on screen in 1910 at the dawn­ing of film as a pop­u­lar medi­um. The first Franken­stein adap­ta­tion pre­dates the tech­no­log­i­cal hor­rors of the 20th cen­tu­ry (them­selves, of course, well doc­u­ment­ed on film). Rather than tak­ing tech­nol­o­gy to task direct­ly, this orig­i­nal cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion, direct­ed by J. Sear­le Daw­ley for Thomas Edison’s stu­dios, vague­ly illus­trates, as Rich Drees writes, “the dan­gers of tam­per­ing in God’s realm.”

It was a trite mes­sage tai­lored for cen­so­ri­ous moral reform­ers who had tak­en aim at the mov­ing image’s sup­pos­ed­ly cor­rupt­ing effect on impres­sion­able minds. And yet the film does more than inau­gu­rate a cin­e­mat­ic tra­di­tion of bet­ter Franken­stein adap­ta­tions, both faith­ful and lib­er­al­ly mod­ern­ized. The cre­ation of the mon­ster in the 13-minute short is some­what terrifying—and cer­tain­ly would have unset­tled audi­ences at the time. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, it takes place in giant black box, with a small win­dow through which Vic­tor peers as the spe­cial effects unfold.

The scene is not unlike a film direc­tor look­ing through a colos­sal camera’s lens, fur­ther sug­gest­ing the dan­ger­ous influ­ence of film, its abil­i­ty to pro­duce and cap­ture mon­strosi­ties. The Library of Congress’s Mike Mashon describes the Edi­son pro­duc­tion of Franken­stein as not “all that rev­e­la­to­ry.” Maybe with the ben­e­fit of 108 years of hind­sight, it is not. But as a cri­tique of the very tech­nol­o­gy that pro­duced it, we can see it updat­ing Shelley’s anx­i­eties, antic­i­pat­ing the ways in which Franken­stein-like sto­ries have come to tele­graph fears of com­put­er intel­li­gence, in films increas­ing­ly cre­at­ed by intel­li­gent machines.

This 1910 Franken­stein film has been restored by the Library of Con­gress, and Mashon’s sto­ry of how the only nitrate print was acquired by the library’s Packard Cam­pus for Audio Visu­al Con­ser­va­tion may be, he writes, “more inter­est­ing than the film itself.” Or it may not, depend­ing on your lev­el of inter­est in the twists and turns of library acqui­si­tions. But the film, which you can see in its restored glo­ry at the top, rewards view­ing as more than a cin­e­ma-his­tor­i­cal arti­fact. Its effects are crude, its sim­pli­fied sto­ry moral­is­tic, but this trun­cat­ed ver­sion can­ni­ly rec­og­nizes the hor­rif­ic crea­ture not as the exclud­ed oth­er but as the mon­strous mir­ror image of its cre­ator.

via Indiewire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Very First Film Adap­ta­tion of Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, a Thomas Edi­son Pro­duc­tion (1910)

Mary Shelley’s Hand­writ­ten Man­u­scripts of Franken­stein Now Online for the First Time

The First Hor­ror Film, George Méliès’ The Manor of the Dev­il (1896)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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