Cognition & Reality

Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Modern Prometheus

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 8:48 am
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Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus, is perhaps the most influential work of fiction in English or any language. Let us distinguish “influential” from “great.” Jane Austen’s novels, written at about the same time, the second decade of the nineteenth century, are vastly superior works in literary style and merit. Nevertheless, Frankenstein produced ripples that transcend the literary and continue to be powerful today, far surpassing the social and cultural impact of other works of fiction written before or since, rendering it without parallel in any other art form. Almost two hundred years after its publication in 1818, its title remains a household word, even among those who have no idea of the novel’s existence.

Every six-year-old is aware of “Frankenstein,” the model for all subsequent monsters. Most of those who know the name  do not realize that it was given by Shelly to the monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, rather than to the monster himself. Nevertheless, the work’s content is so powerful that it continues to expand in the popular imagination long after coming unmoored from its origins in the mind of a teenage girl living among the literati.

It is practically impossible to imagine the popular culture of our time without Frankenstein’s monster. The image of the monster, as played by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 eponymous film, continues to hang on millions of walls and to reverberate within billions of minds. Because it explicitly represents the dark side of industrialization and scientific achievement, rapidly proliferating in Shelly’s time, the monster created by Victor Frankenstein has come to represent every negative aspect of human society in the modern world, from overcrowding to gridlock to global warming. There is hardly an unintended negative consequence of attempts to improve the world that has not been called “a Frankenstein.”

So thoroughly has the Frankenstein story seeped into our society and culture, that we take its terms for granted, obviating any need for explication. In particular, the monster is especially prominent in films far outside the horror and science fiction genres. Some movies make explicit reference to Shelly’s ideas, not only the numerous “Frankenstein” films, from Whale’s sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein,” to Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein,” but also many ostensibly unrelated science fiction films, such as “Blade Runner” and “Terminator.”  The CIA, designed by intellectuals as a benign protector of freedom, but ineluctably transformed into a menace, often appears as “a Frankenstein.” In “Three Days of the Condor,” for example, the “Company,” represented by Max von Sydow as an brilliant, amoral, unstoppable hit man, is a monster arbitrarily and mechanically destroying any threat to its power.


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