In a 1988 Sight And Sound interview, Patricia Highsmith talks about film adaptations of her novels, from Strangers On A Train (1950) to The American Friend (1977)
Posted October 11, 2012
The specter of Victor Frankenstein’s creature has been haunting me, confronting me with the horror if his creation and inherent in his being. He stalks me, in his way, as surely as he stalked Victor. Perhaps he’s just been curiously peering at me, as the creature watched humans in Mary Shelley’s novel, emulating our virtues and vices, learning our sins. I spy him in the tv show Dexter. He gazes from racks at the comic book store. In the pages of The Punisher (Marvel, 2010), Morbius the Living Vampire transforms the titular vigilante Frank Castle into Franken-Castle. In Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (DC, 2012), he works for a super secret organization. I even see him in Adventure Time. He’s most mournful in Bernie Wrightson’s illustrations for his edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (Dark Horse, 2008) and Wrightson’s collaboration with Steve Niles, Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! #1 (IDW Publishing, 2012), which continues Frankenstein’s story after Frankenstein concludes.
And, yes, I call the creature, “Frankenstein;” and yes, in Shelley’s title, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Victor is both “Frankenstein” and “Prometheus.” It pains me to refer to Frankenstein as Victor Frankenstein does, “daemon,” “vile insect” (Shelley, 104), and “abhorred devil” (107), or as Frankenstein calls himself, “creature.” I find the name’s new ambiguity is fascinating and fruitful, but I understand readers frustrated by what they see as a conflation of creature and creator, monster and man–one that might obscure how Victor wronged his creation. In fact, Niles and Wrightson’s Frankenstein says: “’Frank?’ ‘Frankenstein?’ It’s just a stage name, like ‘Tad the Frog Boy’ or ‘Shelly the Turtle Girl.’ In reality, I do not have a name. My creator never gave me one” (1).
But is a creator the only one who can bestow a name? Must we all cleave to Victor’s design? I am not on Victor’s side in this. I don’t care to be complicit in his sins. In a fit of enthusiastic mania, Victor created a person and, horrified, fled and tried to forget him. But that person still exists and Victor’s “child” should share his name, though Victor denies him. Hell, my pets have all shared mine, and they never read Milton’s Paradise Lost or understood themselves as alternately Adam or Lucifer cast out by a neglectful god. (i.e., me). So I call him, Frankenstein, not just out of current usage, but because it’s a name he’s due.
I first encountered Frankenstein in James Whale’s films, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.* Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein was mine, and that made it hard for me to see Wrightson’s version, no matter how beautifully drawn, as the creature. But I’ve come to appreciate Wrightson’s depiction. Following Shelley’s description, his creature is elongated, with long black hair and papery skin taut over his face. Frankenstein is much the same in first issue of Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! The art’s gorgeous, and it’s interesting to see his use of marker–overlaying strokes for texture–after his Frankenstein featured very fine penwork mimicking etchings. In our time, we are fascinated by the juicy dead. In Shelley’s, the semblance of (un)death was often an unwrapped mummy. And so, paired with Shelley’s book, Wrightson’s lanky, desiccated almost mummified monster is perfect.
In the novel, Victor is obsessed with knowing the secret of life. Combining knowledge he learns studying at the University of Ingolstadt with his study of scientists and alchemists like Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus (Shelley, 32), Victor creates his own human being. Horrified by his creature’s appearance, Victor flees his apartment. For his part, Frankenstein flees Ingolstadt, eventually learning to speak and read. Maddened by shunning and loneliness, Frankenstein kills Victor’s young brother and then confronts Victor, demanding a female companion. At first, Victor, feeling some responsibility for his creation, agrees. Later, he destroys the companion’s body, believing that if she accepted Frankenstein, they might rampage together, or that she, as a “thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation” (187) and Frankenstein would become murderous. Enraged at the betrayal, Frankenstein kills again and Victor himself becomes vengeful. Each act of anger and hate, springing from grievous pain, metastasizes, revealing the malignancy of revenge.
Incidentally, I appreciated Victor’s realization that the “bride” would be a thinking, feeling person who might reject their gentlemen’s agreement. In that, Shelley’s Victor is wiser than Whale’s. In Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, the utter horror of being given life, thought and feeling, only to be a gift for someone else, without choice or free will, is overshadowed by Frankenstein’s pain at her rejection. It makes Frankenstein’s “We belong dead” murder-suicide at the end of Bride of Frankenstein not so much sad as horrific to me. Killing his mate isn’t a result that Victor considers in Frankenstein, but it’s an anagnorisis in line with what Frankenstein learned from Victor. It’s also a sly parallel with arranged marriages, but then Mary Shelley’s mother was concerned with vindicating the rights of women.** I would love to see Wrightson’s Bride, though.
Like much of my preferred horror–as indicated by my use of a fancy Aristotelian term above–Frankenstein is based in tragedy rather than morality plays (as, say, most slashers are). Frankenstein and Victor are tragic antagonists. Both are driven by passions they cannot or will not control. Both have singular talents that could benefit humankind, but instead they trap each other in a morass of vengeance, grief and rage. They mirror each other and create and recreate each other throughout the book. Frankenstein suffers from wrath and tries to make others suffer as he does. Caught up in hubris, Victor creates a person and that act leads to ruin. But, unlike the common perception of the story, his sin isn’t “tampering with God’s domain” by creating life. Victor Frankenstein’s fatal flaw is not taking responsibility for the life he creates. He makes his monster not just in his laboratory, but in his rejection of his creation. He is, in short, a terrible father.
Which is why I felt Frankenstein gazing at me from the casement (187) as I rewatched five seasons of Dexter for an article last spring.*** Harry is also a terrible father and Dexter also calls himself “a monster.” In a first viewing, it’s easy to accept Dexter’s naïve presentation of Harry as a benefactor who provided Dexter–a nascent serial-killer–with a code that saved both innocent lives and himself. Seen again, it’s clear that Dexter is as much Harry’s creation as Frankenstein is Victor’s. In teaching Dexter to channel his urge into killing only killers and to avoid getting caught, Harry made a monster. Would Dexter be a monster if Harry hadn’t decided he would be one? Was Frankenstein always a monster? Would Frankenstein have killed if Victor hadn’t rejected him? And if Victor had cared for Frankenstein, would Victor, believing he was raising a monster, create one? Like Victor, Harry realized the horror of what he had done when faced with Dexter killing a human. Unlike Victor, Harry killed himself. Now Harry haunts Dexter, appearing to give him advice, as Victor haunts Frankenstein in Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! and Frankenstein’s victims haunt Victor unto death.
*I saw the opening of Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein way too young. Just his appearance was enough to make me cry and my parents shut the tv off.
**It’s easy to see a lot of Mary Wollstonecraft‘s concerns in Frankenstein: the balance of emotion and thought/body and mind; the centrality of family and friends; the emphasis on education and the ability of all people, monsters and ladies alike, to be educated and to reason.
***It kinda makes me want to ask the writers just how much of an influence Frankenstein has been on Dexter.
“Hateful day when I received life!” Carol Borden exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; by my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.”