Sunday, 20 March 2011

#11 Frankenstein's Wedding: You're Doing It Wrong!

Ahh, the bittersweet taste of broken promises. Last week, I promised that this week I’d return to our gushing about zombie movies formula, but it is not to be. When I started writing this blog, I promised you I would only write about the movies, books and games that I love, because there’s more than enough people being angry on the Internet already, but this week, I’m going to be making an exception.

I didn’t mean for things to go this way. Today I meant to be writing about issues of class in Land of the Dead. But then, on Saturday night I sat down to eat curry and watch Frankenstein’s Wedding.

It wasn’t very good. The acting was awful and half the dialogue was cut and pasted directly from Every Soap Opera Wedding Ever. To make things worse, someone had decided that the best way to make the story “accessible” was to have the cast routinely break into well-known pop songs that almost, almost had anything to do with the plot. This was massively patronising anyway, but made worse by the fact that none of the cast could actually sing.

Now you mention it, their love is sort of tainted...
If this was all that was wrong with the production, then right now you’d be reading the blog entry which I’ve just decided will be hilariously called “Let Them Eat Brains” (Although I might change it to “Let Them Eat Flesh” since Romero zombies- and most of the best zombies for that matter- don’t talk, and so have never shown any interest in brains over the rest of your organs). After all, if you’re a fan of zombie movies but can be driven to apoplectic rage by bad acting and clunky dialogue, you’re going to develop stress-related heart problems.

And there’s something to be said for the BBC at least trying to do something a bit different: a live event, repurposing Kirkstall Abbey to take advantage of the creepy architecture, while working in some of that Twittery transmedia stuff that my pal Becky seems to love so much. It was, in short, the sort of thing that ITV would be way too much of a pussy to even try.

But they got Frankenstein wrong, so very, very wrong. Its biggest mistake was that, for all the occasional flourishes made to show the script writer had read the book, Frankenstein’s Wedding was a production based on the idea of Frankenstein that we all carry around in our heads that has remarkably little to do with the novel written by Mary Shelley in 1818. And here’s how:

Frankenstein’s Monster Wasn’t A Thicky
In 1931 James Whale adapted Frankenstein for the cinema, followed four years later by Bride of Frankenstein. These movies starred Boris Karloff as a slow, lumbering beast man with a flat top head and bolts sticking out of his neck. Karloff’s performance was both comical and tragic, and his clumsy “Alone... bad! Friend... good!” speech patterns worked because Karloff was able to give such a sympathetic performance. It’s because of that performance, and the genius make-up design, that Karloff’s flat-top head, bolt-neck man is the image that comes into our head when we think of Frankenstein.

Karloff’s monster looks like a beast, and is barely able to grasp the most basic human concepts, but is able to feel profound loneliness. This leads to his alienation and persecution, which in turn leads to the murderous rage.
But give him a spliff and play some Fleetwood Mac and he's cool
It’s a brilliant story, but it bares very little resemblance to the monster Mary Shelley wrote almost 200 years ago.

We don’t know much about what Mary Shelley’s monster looked like, she wasn’t overly specific in her descriptions. We know its skin is yellow and translucent. We know it was around eight feet tall. We know Frankenstein selected the monster’s parts to look beautiful, but that put together and in motion, they were grotesque. That could make the monster a patchwork of parts, which is a common depiction, or it could just be that Mary Shelley predicted the Uncanny Valley way ahead of the rest of us. Either way, the designer of a Frankenstein monster has a lot of creative options.

Frankenstein’s Wedding decided to go with “Guy who looks like he’s a bit scarred and blistery”.
And he's wearing a hoody!
Now, I don’t know much about the problems faced by people with serious facial scarring or some form of deformity. I’m sure they face a whole range of complex and difficult problems with both their self-image, and the reactions of others. However, there’s a hell of a lot of people with those problems, and if even one of them had been driven to a literally murderous rage by their circumstances, I have no doubt at all that it would have made headlines.

But we’ll forgive the Beeb this one, as let’s face it, they weren’t exactly throwing money at this production and the make-up artist had to work with what they had. The biggest problem with the Frankenstein monster wasn’t the way it looked, but the way it acted.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster was a borderline genius, learning to speak English from peaking in at a family through a crack in their wall, then teaching himself to read from a trunk full of classics that he happened to stumble upon. When he faces his creator he is easily a match for him in grand, lengthy philosophical debates where he soliloquises about the nature of existence, complete with allusions to Milton.

Frankenstein’s Wedding chooses the middle ground between this and Karloff- a monster who is seemingly articulate, and uses many of the monster’s lines from the book, but delivers them all as if he’s been doped up with morphine and hit in the back of the head with a brick. Which adds what to the story exactly?

Frankenstein + Stem Cells = Relevance?????
Everyone knows that Victor Frankenstein’s crime was that he attempted to gain forbidden knowledge. He tried to play God, and for that hubris he paid with his life and the lives of his loved ones. Which just goes to show that Everyone should crack open a goddamn book occasionally.

When Frankenstein creates the monster the worst thing about it, the absolutely most terrifyingly horrible thing about it, is that it looks creepy.
Why science is evil- if you're an idiot
However, if you could get past that tiny detail, the fact is the monster was okay. The monster claims he was benevolent and good when he was created. Then the first thing he sees is his dad freaking out, followed by a long sequence of being repeatedly shunned by all who meet him. Frankenstein’s fuck up isn’t creating a monster- it’s that he doesn’t take responsibility for it once it’s created.

Which at the time this must have seemed a delightful hypothetical scenario, alongside “If you’re vaporised and created by the transporter in Star Trek, is the person that appears on the other side still you?” and “Who would win in a fight between the Incredible Hulk and Odo from Deep Space Nine?” (The answer is Odo).

Today, however, science is facing questions that, if you think about... bear no relation at all to the morality of galvanising reconstituted body parts! None at all! Still, let’s get past that for now and accept that as our scientific knowledge increases and we’re able to do more and more with technology, we will face ever more complicated ethical dilemmas over how we apply that knowledge. It’s easy to see how the Frankenstein story could be adapted to address some of those questions.

Giving the characters laptops and a twitter feed and bandying the word “Stem cells” around is the absolute worst possible way to do that.

The monster in Frankenstein’s Wedding is apparently “grown from stem cells” with the scientist saying it’s to grow donor organs or something. Firstly: You know what you get when you grow a human from stem cells? You get you and literally every single person you’ve ever met. So take a shot for “Mankind is the real monster”.

Secondly: Of all the stem cell research going on at the moment, none of it revolves around growing people to harvest organs from. The whole point in stem cells is that they can be used to grow individual tissues when needed- bone marrow, teeth, hair follicles, heart tissue. Maybe in science fiction future times we might be able to grow entire organs individually, which would be awesome as far as I’m concerned. The only moral objections to stem cell research centre around the use of embryonic stem cells (Not all stem cells) and are entirely to do with pro-life arguments. Frankenstein’s Wedding never addresses any of these questions other than to have the priest freak out about him “Playing God.”
Which I still don't see the problem with
Why does it even matter?
I think that stories are important. I think this because I’m a writer and an English Lit graduate and so that’s how I justify my continuing existence.

But it goes double for a story like Frankenstein, which everybody knows of but few of us have actually read, because it’s become such an integral part of our discourse. With journalists happily throwing phrases like “Frankenstein foods” around, making sure that people know who Frankenstein was, and how exactly he fucked up, might be the first step towards having a slightly more grown-up conversation about the real issues.

Ahhh! I feel better now!

For a slightly less wall-bangingly stupid story that uses elements of the Frankenstein story, I heartily recommend Mark II, by Chris Farnell (That’s me!).
Next week- Zombies! Cross my heart and hope to die, rise and get shot in the head! And possibly H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert-West: Re-animator” so I can justify putting Frankenstein in here.

1 comment:

  1. "Everyone knows that Victor Frankenstein’s crime was that he attempted to gain forbidden knowledge."

    Actually, I believe Everyone is wrong. F's crime wasn't the investigation, it was the over-arching ambition. I think Shelley was trying to give his character a tragic dimension, couched in a theological context, which makes sense given both her sources and that dude she was banging. (I think Kenneth Branagh captured this dimension nicely in his film, though he too went for the representation of the monster as 'mildly scarred De Niro'). F is less resemblant to, say, the academically minded Dr Faustus and more to other active tragic characters. It's not his finding out that condemns him, it's what he decides to do with it. I don't think Shelley could have intended F as much of an ancient equivalent of our modern Science-Fiction's Evil Scientists who forfeit ethical integrity in favour of a drive towards knowledge if only because of her source of inspiration. The portrayal of F was based on her pre-marriage acquaintance Walter Theodore Frankenstein, a real scientist who seldom seemed to have any understanding of what he was doing (hence the popular expression, WTF).

    Anyways, it's good to see you've turned to rants as well - the most efficient method of communication in English, I believe. They're bound to increase your traffic, and also impoverish your spelling -- 'it bears,' not 'it bares,' and 'peeked,' not 'peaked'. But I'll forgive those since it's clear that you were writ(h)ing in spasms of rage and weren't fully in control.