Welcome to By The Book. Every fortnight, we’ll compare a book with its visual adaptation. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? Tune in every fortnight to find out…
Published in 1818 and written when author Mary Shelley was just a teenager, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus is one of the world’s most-adapted novels – from the stage versions performed during her lifetime to the upcoming Max Landis movie in 2015. I, Frankenstein is an action thriller from the producers of the Underworld quadrilogy, starring a beefed-up Aaron Eckhart as the Creature and bringing him into the modern era to join the eternal fight between gargoyles and demons (really).
First things first, guys. Despite it being an oft-repeated mistake – the kind that scuttles around in the collective conscious like a mouse under the floorboards – the Creature which takes centre stage in Mary Shelley’s novel is not called Frankenstein. Rather it’s the name of his creator, or “father”, Victor. The film does technically avoid this trap by calling him Adam – a name which Shelley herself used outside the novel and which symbolises the God/Adam relationship between creator and Creature – but it’s all a bit fuzzy thanks to the film’s title. I, Frankenstein does win points for its focus on the power of names and naming, echoing Shelley’s book, but the film doesn’t have enough setup (despite the most exposition-heavy voiceover since ever) to get that across.
Am I to be thought the only criminal, y’all?
For someone created in Germany by a Swiss scientist, the Creature in I, Frankenstein – hereafter referred to as Adam – is very, well… American. Having whizzed through his two-hundred years of existence in one small voiceover, the film then fails to explain why Adam has a distinctly Yankee drawl. No doubt the culprit is Eckhart’s star power and the reliance on his image (clearly also why this “hideous monster” is a gymaholic with a few scant battle scars) – but that still doesn’t explain why American Yvonne Strahovski and Australians Jai Courtney and Miranda Otto struggle through English accents while Eckhart’s Adam sounds like an impression of the Dark Knight. It must be the Kevin Costner effect.
Science vs. faith
This is where it gets a little heavy. Mary Shelley was an enlightened and radical young woman, brought up by a philosopher father and moving in scientific, dissenting, and political circles since she was a child. The novel’s themes of religion vs. science are clear as day and far advanced for the time of its publication. Instead of her nuanced approach, I, Frankenstein bludgeons the viewer with the personified battle between God and science; the Gargoyles are God’s army on Earth, fighting the good fight, whilst the film’s antagonists, the demons, spend the whole film in pursuit of scientific knowledge. Though that’s meant to reflect Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with galvanism – which ended badly for everybody – I, Frankenstein reduces the debate down to good-and-evil, black-and-white, and rather throws aside Shelley’s nuanced approach. Where she crafts a psychologically complex tale of hubris and humanity, I, Frankenstein jumps in with some blunt force trauma and on-the-nose dialogue. Whether intentional or not, it comes into the debate firmly on the side of God, and produces a less convincing argument than an eighteen-year-old Shelley did in the 1810s.
Creative license: is this really an adaptation at all?
So, having departed from the novel so drastically, can I, Frankenstein even be called an adaptation? It’s a blurry line between adaptation and appropriation, or “borrowing”, and the film veers perilously close to it. The events of the novel are in fact pre-film, and all covered in the first five minutes; Frankenstein the novel is the Old Testament to I, Frankenstein‘s New. Unlike the previously covered Sherlock, this film doesn’t so much update to present day as craft a whole new narrative, with many elements completely missing. It’s a new story with old names; not so much an adaptation as an addendum.
What would Mary Shelley think?
Two hundred years of culture and the ensuing confusion aside, an eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley might well have loved popping down to the local Odeon and watching Adam Frankenstein stick it to the demon hordes. On the other: I, Frankenstein is wafer-thin and doesn’t have much to engage a mind like hers. The daughter of the first feminist might also have less time for a film where the female characters, whilst not exactly window-dressing, are madly outnumbered by the men and mostly flounce about providing exposition or doing double takes at Adam’s super-ripped abs. On balance, it’s safer to assume that Mary’s frown would not be turned upside down.
The most frustrating thing about I, Frankenstein is that with just a little more work and a few degrees to the left, it could actually have done some justice to Shelley’s novel. Heavy-handed thematics, anomalous accents, and its actual adaptation status aside, its problems are at a basic story and entertainment level. Transforming a mind-expanding, page-turning book into a join-the-dots action thriller that delivers no thrills is, sadly, unforgivable.