This unapologetic lead balloon of a film has created controversy among Romanticists. What gives? I sacrificed myself to find out.
For the last number of months, I’ve been surprised by how often I, Frankenstein has reared its malformed CGI head in discussions about Romanticism. The film, which came out in January 2014 and has a 3% approval rating among critics, seems oddly difficult to dismiss. The film’s “near viral” negative response has resulted in a curious sort of academic Whack-a-Mole, as dismayed scholars continually reject any influence of anything “like this” on their work and teaching. But like any supernatural villain, I, Frankenstein always comes back — and so, it is lamented, the film is bound to make an eventual appearance on some ill-fated undergraduate syllabus. Most striking of all, we’ve even been exhorted not to “give academe a bad name by writing about it,” as though thinking about I, Frankenstein would somehow legitimate it, either as a teaching tool in the present, or as a work that will gain credibility in the hereafter.
Now, it’s worrisome to me that academe is so fragile that writing about I, Frankenstein can damage its good report, since it will invariably face far more redoubtable challenges. Reader, I have forfeited my evening to the viewing and reviewing of I, Frankenstein for your exclusive benefit. Certainly, the film itself is probably not worth your ninety minutes, and you probably won’t want to put it on your syllabus either — but maybe not for the reasons you think.
I will be teaching a Frankenstein (a real, Walton-framed Frankenstein) course next term, along with novels by Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Peacock, Percy Shelley and Austen, the Last Man, poems inspired by the Geneva 1816 meeting of the minds, letters and diaries, and subsequent stage, film and hypertext adaptations. For me, it would be a dereliction of duty not to watch the film (though I wouldn’t let it touch my syllabus with a 39-and-a-half-foot pole). I recall with some nostalgia one episode in my own undergraduate education, in which a very renowned and generous senior Romantics professor was faced with a question about “the three vampire chicks” of 2004’s Van Helsing, and his gracious response has stayed with me as a model of pedagogical class. If one of my students should ask me about I, Frankenstein, I would wish my answer to be half as open and measured as his was. So I feel I owe it to the dynamic of my classroom to see the film — and I hope never to have to mention it ever again.
Yes, I, Frankenstein leaves much to be desired, though I think your spinal column will escape undamaged. The most important thing to note is that the narrative bears little resemblance to Shelley’s novel: it leaves out the Walton frame, and all deaths at the creature’s hands except Elizabeth’s. After an introduction of what the close captioning terms “Enchanting Music,” the plot of the novel is passed over in the first sixty seconds, ending with the non-canon return of the creature (Aaron Eckhart) to Switzerland to bury Victor’s frozen corpse in the family plot (?!?). We then get the introduction of an epic battle between archangel-appointed gargoyles, and humanoid demons led by Naberius, played by Bill Nighy (as himself). The bulk of the film is set 200 years after Victor’s death, though as other reviews remark, there is little to anchor the narrative in any kind of present day. The city is entirely nondescript, with even the main subway station called “Central Station,” and with all characters speaking in an English accent (except, inexplicably, the American creature, now renamed Adam by the queen of the gargoyles).
The plot is centered on Adam’s lack of a soul, which the demons plan to exploit in order to make an army of possessed reconstructed corpses. But they lack a key scientific tool to do this, and so enters Dr. Terra Wade (Yvonne Strahovski) as “one of the world’s most respected electrophysiologists,” and the creature’s potential love interest, since it’s suggested that his affection for her gives him a soul, though the mechanism by which this happens is unexplained. In his words,
My circumstances have changed. I have someone with me now. A scientist.
Is the film progressive in its treatment of gender? There are three named female characters, and though the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, two of them are certainly more psychologically complex than Adam, who in the final (eponymous) line scuppers the defiance of his “father” that has driven his actions throughout the entire film by accepting his Frankensteinian heritage. In addition to the talented and loyal scientist Dr. Wade, particularly notable is Leonore, the gargoyle queen (Miranda Otto), who displays nuance and internal conflict in her decision-making, and ultimately saves both Adam and his scientist-companion, though she also appears at one point as a topless stone statue.
As several reviewers have noted, there is much expository dialogue, as Adam’s laconic account of his troubled relationship with his “father,” Victor, attests:
I killed his wife. He hunted me. I would have killed him too. He froze to death. I hated him.
As might be anticipated, Bill Nighy brings the only humor to the film as “demon prince” Naberius / financial backer of galvanic science, Charles Wessex (an inexplicable nod to Hardy?). But even Naberius’s best lines, like “You presumed to know what I want!” and “I am a demon prince!” can’t save this script. More troubling is the film’s intra-diegetic rejection of the literary text, full stop. Victor Frankenstein’s journal (which bears no allusive similarity to Shelley’s novel, in case you wondered) contains the secret to the reanimation of the dead, and it is correspondingly prized among the various supernatural factions. But, in order to save mankind, Adam burns the text; it is this destruction of Victor’s journal that reveals his ultimate loyalty to the gargoyles, which is necessary for the positive outcome of the final battle. (I am slightly embarrassed to have written the foregoing).
Without doubt, I, Frankenstein is of little value to literary scholarship. It doesn’t add anything to a revisitation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it doesn’t build on any particular theme of her book’s legacy, and it even postulates a pernicious message about the danger of the literary text and the necessity of its being destroyed. (As well as the creature’s burning of Victor’s journal, the film performed this rejection on a meta-level with the infamous end credit that offered “Special Thanks to Mary Shelley.”) Unless this latter element is provocative for you, you do not need to see or teach this film.
But, to me, what’s far more interesting than the well-worn supernatural conflict, or the unresolvable trauma of the creature’s abandonment by Victor, is the polemic of the allegedly scholarly debate about this film: unusual amounts of “snark” have been flung on all sides. Why does this film touch a nerve? I don’t think it’s because of its sheer rhetorical awfulness, or its explicitly anti-literary message (especially since no one, to my knowledge, has mentioned this last element in any discussion of the film). Instead, I think the reactionary scholarly response to I, Frankenstein reveals an attitudinal problem among scholars that is worth investigating further. Do we still feel the Gothic might be morally suspect? Is it that we are still afraid, deep down, that “good” literature can be tainted by association with popular forms? If so, we need to seriously examine how we approach and teach literature.
It is troubling to me that any scholar would endow such a miserable product as I, Frankenstein, with enough power to damage the good fame of both Shelley’s original novel, and the profession of literary scholars at large. It is also concerning that the most strongly-voiced solution to whatever deep anxiety I, Frankenstein has elicited among scholars is to ignore or even to silence the text. Let I, Frankenstein stand on whatever merits it has. By ignoring it, we emulate the film’s own damaging message about rejecting those texts that cause us to think in ways that are uncomfortable, or maybe even revolutionary.