Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Getting to the Heart of What Makes Us Human
DeLani Bartlette: Hello and welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. My name is DeLani Bartlette. On this episode, Lissette Lopez Szwydky-Davis, assistant professor of English in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, discusses her research on the enduring nature of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Welcome to the show!
Lissette Szwydky-Davis: Thank you for having me.
DB: You are so welcome. So this year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein. People are still reading it and enjoying it. What do you think makes it so enduring?
LS-D: Well, the thing about Frankenstein itself is that it’s one of those stories that is so interested in really kind of getting at the heart of what makes us human and what makes us act out in monstrous ways. That, and I think it’s a story that is very easily molded into a number of different contexts, and so it’s a story that, like a lot of other classic or canonical stories or texts, has been largely popularized through adaptations. And part of the reason for that is because it’s a story that’s so fascinating; it has so many moving parts, and it really lends itself to a number of different retellings and re-imaginings. So I think that that’s probably one of the major reasons why. And it touches on so many themes that are still relevant to society, and specifically the fact that humanity’s always up against kind of new technical technological developments … Mary Shelley’s novel is widely considered to be one of the first science fiction novels and it has so many different applications today in a number of different contexts. So it’s really, I think, one of the reasons why people are still so fascinated by that story, and monster stories in general.
DB: So one of the things that you teach about is that it’s been adapted quite a bit into a lot of different media in so many ways. So do you see sort of trends in how Frankenstein is adapted? So, for example, are the adaptations that you see more currently different in some way than maybe the earlier adaptations like the Universal Studios adaptation?
LS-D: Yeah. So basically one thing that people don’t know about Frankenstein is that it’s a text that was adapted almost immediately. So the novel is published in 1818, and in 1823 it’s already on the stage. And between 1823 and 1826 there’s at least 15 different versions on stage in both England and France. So that’s not an anomaly per se, that basically everything has always been adapted into other forms in media. But what you do see in adaptations more generally, but specifically it’s very easy to trace with the Frankenstein story, is that it – and depending on the genre that it gets adapted to or the form that it gets adapted to – it’s very interested in kind of picking up on the cultural anxieties or fears of a particular moment.
And so in the 1930s films that you mentioned, the Universal, the classic kind of Universal Studios films, you see, for example, a real emphasis on the technological context of that period. It’s very much interested in this kind of post-WWI moment. It’s interested in the rise of psychology in particular, so you have like that first instance of this abnormal brain to come into the story – which, you know, before that had never appeared in other adaptations. And so you do see specific moments or particular cultural contexts popping up in any given moment.
In the 1950s you have a revival of the Frankenstein story through the Hammer Studios films, and you see you see very much a post-WWII context emerging there, and specifically the way that gender gets treated in that film. In the 1977 film it’s actually – you know, sometimes we like to think of a gender [equality] being kind of always kind of a linear progression – and you see it’s actually much more much more conservative a depiction of Elizabeth, the main female character, in that film when compared to the 1930s film.
In more recent adaptations we’re starting to see a lot more artificial intelligence and cyborg narratives getting kind of caught up in, or retooling, the Frankenstein myth – and even films that aren’tvspecifically tied to Frankenstein. So, like a film like Splice, which came out in 2009, which is basically it’s a Frankenstein story that’s not Frankenstein. And that one has everything to do with kind of genetic modification and gene splicing, and, you know, thinking about, can we create new hybrid creatures that are kind of beyond the human? So you absolutely see these new contexts and you see absolutely trends coming up depending on the types of technologies that are available or a particular cultural moment.
DB: So many people are most familiar with Frankenstein’s monster from the movies and have never read the book. What if that’s all you’re really getting of Frankenstein’s monster are the movies, the monster movies, what would they be missing if they haven’t actually read the book?
LS-D: So you’re probably gonna hear something that you probably wouldn’t expect to hear from an English professor: I actually think that the adaptations are incredibly valuable. So I’m not going to say that they’re not valuable. They do, usually, they take a different turn and depending on whether it’s film or television or comic book form – I mean every form and every genre and every medium has its own conventions – and so I’ve actually seen some really great comic-book adaptations that I would argue, you know, if this was what you got and this is the only version you were gonna find … but the thing with reading the novel and then looking at it, in particular kind of with the hindsight of understanding 200 years of adaptation, I think one of the things that people will maybe forget or don’t realize in reading the novel is that it’s very much a philosophical novel. It’s very much a novel of ideas that’s not interested in kind of the flattening out of any kind of specific moral tradition or position. It’s very much a novel of ambiguity, but it’s a novel that’s also very much interested in being an adaptation itself. And so Mary Shelley is in many ways rewriting or kind of doing a mash-up of Paradise Lost and of Faust and of the Prometheus legend. And so she’s taking these three main stories and remixes them into a new Gothic tale for her day and her particular scientific moment. And I think that that’s something that maybe people kind of forget until you read the novel and you see how many literary allusions there are, how many references to all of the books that she was reading along with her partner, and, you know, her friends and her family members. When you start seeing this kind of richly layered narrative, we start realizing that what Mary Shelley’s doing is not only just trying to create a new story, but to create a new story out of old parts. And so the novel itself becomes this kind of metaphor for reanimation of an old story of all the stories that have become outdated or out-moded and that need to be refashioned for a new era. So I think that that’s one of the things that the students who take my class on Frankenstein – where, you know, we’ll spend a third of the class on the novel and then two-thirds on adaptations – I think that that’s what they leave with more than anything: that this is about a larger tradition of remaking new stories and remaking monsters of our own.
Matt McGowan: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts, go to KUAF.com or researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.