Giving Frankenstein A Second Chance

Making being undead cool long before The Walking Dead, how much do you know the “real” Frankenstein?

[some spoilers for the first three episodes of Penny Dreadful Season 1]

Elsa and Olaf may be continuing their reign over the costume scene this season, but in the world of decorations Frankenstein still has clout. Arguably Halloween’s most famous figure, outside of Dracula, his neck bolted image has been a staple of horror since Boris Karloff took on the role in the 1930’s film classics.

For anyone who’s ever picked up the book by Mary Shelley, however, reconciling that Hollywood visual with Shelley’s original descriptions is a feat best dropped to the wayside.

Despite the numerous film adaptations and reinterpretations the story has met with over the years, almost none directly follow the text (see the latest twist on the tale in the trailer for James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe’s “Victor Frankenstein”). To mark only a few of the many liberties that arise: In the book there is no Igor, the Creature isn’t green, and he can actually do more than grunt—immense intelligence that must have gotten lost somewhere on the cutting room floor.

These kinds of misrepresentations are far from unprecedented. Film history is riddled with movies that have made creative decisions which deviated from, and ultimately superseded, their source material. Yet while popular culture’s beloved incarnation of the monster is here to stay, it’s not without value to set the record straight on some of the films’ more grievous changes. It was only by chance that I learned the truth, after seeing a National Theatre Live production of the book at the cinema. Here was an iconic character straight from my youth. Turned out, I knew absolutely nothing about him.

Whether your first encounter with the real Frankenstein is at home or in the classroom, there are two things you should come to realize pretty fast. Namely, Victor Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who created the Creature, not the Creature. He is also a complete jerk.

I might be getting ahead of myself, though. The debate between whether or not Frankenstein or the Creature is the sympathetic character has been ensuing since the book’s inception, yet for those coming to the story from a background solely in the movies, it’s probably a simpler question. In the literary world, though, majority opinion flips back and forth between the two sides. While the Creature has the upper hand in the novel when it comes to bloodshed, Victor set him on that bloody path when he abandoned him at birth to a life of being feared and alone, his appearance scaring away any would-be friends until the constant rejection corrupted him towards a path of revenge on the man who created him. The Creature’s murders are inexcusable but Frankenstein’s denial of culpability or responsibility—the gall of his belief that he can turn his back on the person he created and escape any consequences for his actions—often feels worse, especially when we consider who the Creature might have been had he ever had someone to love him.

As I may have already signaled, I typically fall into Camp Creature. For a while I thought nothing could ever make me stray.

And then I watched Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. I’m not a premium cable subscriber so have only been able to catch up on the first season so far (the second was released on DVD at the beginning of this month) but the show is a wondrous take on gothic horror literature, situating beloved characters from the likes of Dracula and Dorian Grey in the same Victorian space and seeing how they co-exist within an original supernatural mystery.

Appropriately closing their first episode with Frankenstein bringing his Creature to life after an unplanned power outage, the show immediately takes a major divergence from its textual inspiration with Frankenstein’s reaction to the birth. Instead of running away with revulsion, as he does in the book at the first realization of reanimation, Frankenstein stays. Actually, he does one better—he introduces himself.

These acts of kindness continue into the second episode. None of that leaving his experiment to its own resources, with the hopes of disappearance or death. Frankenstein steps up. He shares a meal with his Creature and helps teach him how to eat. He treats him like a person—his child—showing him how choose his own name, by flipping through the pages of a tomb of Shakespeare—Proteus, from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He even takes him on a walk through town, offering reassurance at his initial trepidation at all the noise and sensual overload of horses, chestnuts and “fairy lights.” Frankenstein acts like a parent, and a considerate one at that.

In this way this plot thread of the show starts to look more like an alterna-Frankenstein, then anything close to resembling Mary Shelley’s version of events. Yet it is this exact appearance that works to pull off one of the most surprising TV twists I’ve encountered in a while: while discussing his future with Frankenstein, viewers are suddenly met with a splash of blood as a hand comes thrusting through Proteus’ body from behind, ripping him in half at the seams. “Your first born has returned, father,” the murderous figure speaks, as the second episode ends.

The truth is Proteus wasn’t Frankenstein’s Creature—he was his do-over. This is his Creature—the real Creature, the one who Frankenstein never bothered to name, the one he abandoned, straight out of Mary Shelley’s story.

And although Proteus himself is (or was) a new character, his addition to the cannon brings a number of new layers and connotations to Frankenstein’s character—specifically with regards to his 360° change in treatment of Proteus versus his Creature. By staying this time, and demonstrating patience and concern for his second creation’s well-being, Frankenstein displays a level of regret and recognition that he went about things poorly the first time. Yet this realization is not too extreme as to be out of character, because he makes sure to show his customary denial as well—in attempting to start fresh rather than face his first Creature again; in acting on his power to bring back life a second time, after having things go so terribly wrong, and without ever trying to amend for those past mistakes.

Proteus not only adds layers to Victor but to the Creature, as well, by being his antithesis. Their clashing experiences of being raised, with extreme opposite outcomes, confirm that the Creature could have had an entirely different life if Frankenstein had bothered to show him the same care he showed Proteus. The fear visible in Proteus’ eyes when Frankenstein had to leave him for a short while is nothing when viewed in light of the fear the Creature must have felt, waiting for his Creator to come back, and having him never return.

Penny Dreadful may not completely adhere to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but its additions play like they’re in the same vein or spirit, a homage to the original source material that pays off with compelling contributions to the moral questions posed by the book. I never thought I could feel any sympathy for Dr. Victor Frankenstein. However, in starting the show with the person Frankenstein could have been, if he’d made different choices, the show builds you up to like him. Thus even once his true identity is revealed you can’t completely turn on him because of how he behaved with Proteus. Similarly you can’t completely stand with the Creature for being Proteus’ killer. It’s always been fairly easy for me to hate Frankenstein and see the Creature as the victim but Penny Dreadful doesn’t allow such simplifications to exist. There are multiple monsters in this adventure and all have earned their right to a little sympathy, no matter how selfish, no matter how cruel.

As fun as their movie counterparts are to watch each holiday, Victor and his Creature are far more complex characters than those films ever let on. It’s time the world knew there’s another Creature out there, older and more yellow, but every bit as monstrous as his younger, greener offshoot.

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