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.
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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