It’s alive! The making and remaking of ‘monster’ - Hindustan Times
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It’s alive! The making and remaking of ‘monster’

Apr 05, 2024 08:25 PM IST

Why does a 200-year-old tale continue to draw storytellers? See how modern retellings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are taking on patriarchy, migration, AI.

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.”

Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in Poor Things, the Oscar-winning 2023 feminist retelling. PREMIUM
Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in Poor Things, the Oscar-winning 2023 feminist retelling.

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

Artificial intelligence, minorities, sexual rights, migration: A much-retold 200-year-old tale is being wielded by filmmakers, to rip the veil off some of the most troubling aspects of our world.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things (2023) is the most prominent of these, with its four Oscar wins and its sweeping storyscape that commands the viewer to rethink their views infantilisation, conditioning and agency.

But there is also Zelda Williams’s horror-comedy, Lisa Frankenstein (2024), a coming-of-age love story set in the 1980s, about a teenager and her reanimated-corpse crush. The film, currently in the midst of its theatrical run, blends details from Shelley’s life into a tale of love, desire, loss and death.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Bride slated for release in 2025, is reportedly a loose remake of Bride of Frankenstein (1935; the sequel to the 1931 film adaptation Frankenstein). It features Christian Bale, Peter Sarsgaard and Annette Bening, in a film that will likely explore the usual themes (conditioning, control, the consequences of playing God) through a feminist lens.

A still from Lisa Frankenstein (2024), a coming-of-age horror comedy about a teen and her reanimated corpse crush.
A still from Lisa Frankenstein (2024), a coming-of-age horror comedy about a teen and her reanimated corpse crush.

Guillermo del Toro’s Frankenstein, featuring Oscar Isaac, Jacob Elordi and Mia Goth, is a pet project that has been 15 years in the making. The Netflix original is expected to peel new layers off the story’s complex characters. Though it is not yet clear exactly how, previous works such as The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley make the prospect an exciting one.

But what is it about Shelley’s novel that continues to draw storytellers to it? Well, it is in many ways an origin tale, written just as a vital shift was occurring. She wrote Frankenstein, after all, when Europe was in the first grating changes wrought by the industrial revolution. New landscapes were taking shape; there were changes to systems, economies, labour and consumption that would prove to be irreversible and escalating. They already felt irreversible and escalating then.

The levels of discomfort with the scale and nature of this change are reflected in the art, literature and poetry of the time. Her tale was seminal. It would mark the birth of a very specific kind of horror subgenre, that of human vs non-human; that of death that was an undeath. It would also mark what is largely considered the origin point of a new literary genre entirely: science-fiction.

Charles Dickens, 15 years her junior, would write more literal accounts of the harshness and the horrors of the new age. It has been argued that the Romantic Revival, led by Wordsworth and Coleridge, was the poets’ response to the clanging and smoke plumes taking over Europe.

In his preface to their second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800; first published in 1798), Wordsworth wrote, “…a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.”

This was true then. It is also true now.

A still from the 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
A still from the 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

If ever there was a time to worry about the ethics and morality of a man-made entity that we’re not entirely sure we can control, that time would be the dawn of the age of AI. Frankenstein resonates because it is the ultimate metaphor for technology created in our image, that we then can neither entirely trust nor destroy; that we cannot predict, and are beginning to fear.

In a time of tilts to the right, economic upheaval and social unrest, this story, with its undertones of othering, social conflict, violence and victimisation, also opens the door for filmmakers to craft political statements, pose haunting questions and challenge the norm.

Poor Things, based on the 1992 book by Alasdair Gray and currently available on streaming platforms, is a feminist retelling that brings the viewer right up against biases they did not know they had. As Bella Baxter, a grown woman who has been given the brain of an infant, wrests agency for herself, the viewer must make their peace with how she chooses to use it. Meanwhile, they view the world through her eyes, alive to its horrors and inanities as only a child’s eyes tend to be.

There are yet more interpretations waiting to be explored, such as the trans person’s struggle to remake the self, learn and unlearn all at once. Others, such as the confusion and otherness of the migrant who wakes into a new world, Shelley put there herself. In the original novel, the creature hands his creator letters he has received from a former slave and refugee named Safie. He understands her problems; he sees himself in her, he tells Dr Frankenstein. “When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster… whom all men disowned,” he asks.

Finally, in a theme more resonant and relevant now than ever, Frankenstein raises a perhaps-unanswerable question that has rippled through the worlds of science-fiction and now sits unignorably in our reality: What marks the difference between human and non-human, and who gets to draw that line?

Perhaps del Toro can peel the layers off that one.

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