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Last fall, as I prepared for my first semester of full-time adjuncting in New York, I thought it would be a good idea to teach texts that I’d always meant to read but never had. Maybe Heart of Darkness or Great Expectations. (The Old Man and the Sea or Wurthering Heights?) And I could read along with my students. It was not a very good idea. I still have not read 100 percent of Hamlet, even though I taught it and graded papers on it—but I did manage to keep up with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
I chose this book for both a freshman-composition class for international students and, at another school, an introduction-to-literature class. It seemed like a great choice: canonized young woman novelist, probably a straightforward ethical message, weird gender inversions with male birth narrative.
Prior to teaching Frankenstein, my knowledge of the plot was cobbled together from loosely interpreting Tim Burton films, the moment from the 1931 film adaptation when Dr. Frankenstein screams, “It’s alive! It’s alive!,” and a 1998 Twix commercial.
I think every film Tim Burton has been involved in has a bit of Frankenstein in it. Those familiar with both the 1984 and 2012 versions of Frankenweenie may find this point a bit obvious, but I’d argue that Edward Scissorhands in particular parallels Shelley’s novel: the plot is bookended by a narrator who seems to be outside the conflict, which is not unlike Peter Falk’s role in The Princess Bride. The central figure is part human and part monstrosity, a cyborg of sorts who is mercilessly attacked by more conventionally bodied human men. In the end, that figure disappears pretty mysteriously.
I have to mention that at this point in preparing my book report, I have just discovered that Tim Burton shares my birthday, a coincidence I do not take lightly. More recently, I learned that Nick Cave is also a Virgo, and this gives me hope.
Also, my memory is faulty. I thought the bullies actually killed Edward in the end, but he fakes his death and lives the rest of his immortal existence in a mansion on a hill, making it snow. Siskel and Ebert gave the film a negative review; Ebert said of the ending, “So lame it's disheartening.”
When I was a kid, my mother would call my father “Edward Scissorhands” when his knife scraped his dinner plate too loudly for her taste.
The Twix commercial shows a little girl interacting with Frankenstein’s monster on a riverbank. She asks for one of his Twix bars, scolding him, “If you have two of something, you should share it.” The next shot we see is her holding a huge disembodied arm, mouth open and stunned. Twix is so good you’d rather rip off one of you dead arms than share. The juxtaposition of a young girl and a big scary man calls to mind King Kong clutching Fay Wray on the Empire State Building, or LeBron next to Gisele on the cover of the April 2008 Vogue: the casting is deliberate. The viewer is meant to see the female body as vulnerable while the male body is villainous. Note that Twix does not argue that the monster is stupid. He doesn’t think the little girl wants his arm. Rather, his frustration at human interaction causes him to act destructively. Here he only hurts himself, which is atypical.
But in thinking back to the 1818 novel, remember, Mary Shelley wrote the original, the first science fiction novel, when she was 19, in the summer of 1816, traveling with her lover, the married poet Percy Shelley, along with Lord Byron, and her step-sister, the unfortunately named Claire Clairmont. They were all totally bored. The weather was terrible and gloomy because of a volcanic eruption on the other side of the planet, and the party busied themselves telling ghost stories. Thus, on a bad summer vacation, Shelley invented the mad-scientist archetype. Later she would also write the first reanimation short story, prefiguring such classics as Sleeper, Encino Man, and that rumor about Walt Disney’s frozen head (not true). Could any of us hope to be so powerfully cool?
The Twix commercial is a reference to the 1931 film, to a specific scene in which a little girl plays with the monster, taking turns throwing daisies onto the water. The flowers float. When the monster runs out of flowers, he tries to continue the game, picks up the little girl and throws her in the river. When she sinks, he immediately realizes he’s made a mistake and panics, running off. Here he is depicted as innocent, not malicious, but definitely not tame.
As I read the novel, I was on the lookout for this scene. I got nervous as a little girl on a riverbank entered the narrative. But in the novel’s original scene, the monster behaves in a totally goodhearted manner. Another in a series of misunderstandings, he sees a little girl fall in the river and rescues her. As he’s bending over her on the riverbank, a man, likely her father, arrives and thinks he’s attacking her; the man scoops her up and runs. The monster, confused, follows, and the man shoots him. The monster explains:
“This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and, as a recompense, I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound, which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth.”
Like so much of the monster’s narrative, the scene is about miscommunication. Its reinterpretation is the least offensive adaptation of many in the film—for example, where the hell does Igor come from?—because it basically gets it right. The monster has good intentions. People make assumptions about him based on his appearance, his body. They can’t help themselves. A family he attempts to befriend breaks their lease and moves away—it’s that bad.
The monster does kill people... And that is difficult to overlook.
I had a student last fall with severe Tourette’s syndrome. I know this for sure because he told me. I don’t know if he suffers from anything else, diagnosed or undiagnosed, but his behavior was sometimes erratic. One week, he was behaving especially strangely, interrupting me to ask random questions and then instantly falling asleep at his desk. Dropping things. Forming ink blobs on his notebook. The syndrome manifests in him as a sharp twitch in the neck. A few weeks he came to class with an ice pack held to his neck. His unpredictable behavior made me dread the class each week. I have no training in how to accommodate students with needs—nothing beyond a copy-pasted paragraph in the syllabus that essentially tells them to take care of their own problems by going to the disability office. I hoped he would stop coming.
But when he turned in his first paper, I was surprised to find it was not only coherent, but pretty smart. And then I felt like shit for being surprised by a person I didn’t want to see or take seriously, but whose mind operates more clearly than his body.
There are hundreds of film adaptations of Frankenstein, and the translation to film requires some elements to be altered. Perhaps the most gleefully bastardized of them is Frankenhooker. Bill Murray blurbed the film; his comment appears on the video cover: “If you see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker.”
It tells the story of a man whose fiancée is killed in a lawnmower accident. He builds a replacement out of miscellaneous body parts, but he has to murder prostitutes to make a “frankenhooker.” In short, she talks sexy and kills people.
“Got any money?” she asks. “Want a date?”
The guy manipulates the vulnerability of these women further by creating “supercrack,” a drug that causes its user to combust, leading to the timeless line, “Watch out for them exploding bitches.” Obviously this mad scientist lacks the moral ambiguity of the literary original.
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