A Frankenstein for Our Time

Each generation gets a cinematic Frankenstein made in its own image.

Now, as I, Frankenstein is released, we have ours.

On a wet night, I stood in line and bought a ticket, almost 200 years after Mary Shelley had created her work of fiction, one that has re-incarnated in the cinematic age to become a modern myth.

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This movie is not going to trouble the Academy Awards.  A 3D extravaganza aimed at a young audience, Frankenstein’s monster stands between the warring Demons and Gargoyles. Unlike the novel, he is no longer a nightmare of our subconscious, a warning to all of the danger of lives lived without moral parameters; instead he has became a Superhero, of sorts. Set aside from mere mortals by powers both innate and preternatural, he is a leader, a fighter, a better ‘man’ than us. Completely self-sufficient, he faces the threats posed to the world with greater acumen than we could ever do being a true son of what created him: scientific rationalism.

For this creation: knit together in the womb of a laboratory, cloned from corpses and animated by natural, not supernatural powers has no need to acknowledge any higher authority being no mere man but a Nietzschean “superman”—and one that battles the Underworld on its own terms.

I Frankenstein suggests that, two centuries later, what Shelley really created was not a monster but a “savior.”

frankenstein-1931-original-posterMy mind drifted back to the first time I saw Universal’s Frankenstein (1931), with the gentle humanity of the Boris Karloff monster—the embodiment of pathos.  Audiences of the 1930s identified with his sad wanderings in a world that both rejected and hunted him; the perennial outsider of Modernism come to life. This was a being that science alone had animated, and therefore one who would only know loneliness. Karloff’s creature’s battered face becoming a mirror for those left bewildered in a society of rapid technological advances—in seeming isolation from what it meant to be human—with a general populace increasingly left to fend for itself as the former philosophical underpinnings of society were demolished and the wolves of “Progress” circled. By the end of the decade, the evidence for all this would be strewn across Europe and beyond in devastation never before seen. The lack of humanity was nowhere more evident than in death camps, hidden from view, where scientists played “God” with other human beings, forgetting that they too were mere creatures and that all so called “gods”—whether national or ideological—were not God, but demons.

The 1950s gave us a revamped version of Shelley’s tale in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The focus now changed, however, from the silent creation to the man who had created it. Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein discarded anything and anyone who came between him and his quest to be God-like. Here we had a scientist without morals, driven by his own obsessive desire for knowledge—at any price.

By then, the backdrop for this was a science that had produced weapons that could eliminate whole cities, and potentially the planet. Unrestrained, a sinister view of scientific progress prevailed, just as in the Hammer production it was one that suggested if it were possible then it must be tried—whatever the cost.

Scientific marvels were to become the “wonder” of the following decades as humanity was able to do things and go places only previously dreamed of. And yet, it all rang hollow. As flags were planted on a far off globe, on our own tons of napalm was poured over forests; more effective ways were found to kill as the contraceptive pill was doled out in the Third World to mothers who asked for food to feed starving children—and so on and so forth, to name but a few examples of more “progress.” Even if science had no moral compass, increasingly it did possess the ability to do whatever we asked of it, and like our ancestors in the Garden inevitably we were tempted to play at Creator.

Frankenstein movie poster 1957So what of this latest incarnation? What does it tell us of our present age?

What is represented appears to be what Pope Francis pointed to in Lumen Fidei:

In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain.

In this latest movie, in a world at war with evil, Frankenstein’s monster, the strange fruit of our scientific endeavors, is the only “truth” we can cling to: a saviour. As fiends attack, our best defense is something made by our own hands. In this movie universe, there is no God. We are alone save for this reflection of ourselves: something shaped in our own image—now seemingly strong enough to protect us from Hell itself.

And what is this image? The eponymous character: friendless and humorless, embittered and murderous, without a conscience as well as indestructible.  He is imbued with special powers and knowledge, although where they come from is never stated. One wonders if the last sixteen centuries of the Christian epoch have simply vanished and the Manicheans returned. For this is a universe where cosmic forces—“good” and “evil”—battle it out, while we watch as helpless spectators. The culture the film depicts is a return to the Pagan darkness prior to the coming of the true Light: thus it is a world without hope. In the end, we are abandoned in a cosmos not ruled by a Creator but instead in threatening chaos.

Leaving the cinema, I noticed that the rain had gone and overhead there was a clear night sky. Looking to the heavens, past the enormous poster of I Frankenstein lit by a gaudy light, I pulled up my collar against the cold and walked away thankful for the real Saviour sent to us not 200 but 2,000 years ago.

  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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