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Review: Frankenstein: A Cultural History

By Jerome Weeks, KERA critic at large

Dallas, TX – In 1965, Ishiro Honda, the Japanese director behind Godzilla, released a pretty dreadful film. In America, it was given a title that was shamelessy overblown but, undeniably, a grabber:
Frankenstein Conquers the World.

Susan Tyler Hitchcock could have borrowed the title for her new book, Frankenstein: A Cultural History, because that's the argument she makes. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816, she was only 18. Yet she wrote a gothic novel unlike any other -- no haunted castles, no family curses. Instead, Frankenstein is the tale of a man inventing another man; it's Genesis with electricity. Coming as it did at the start of the Industrial Revolution, Shelley's novel became a world-wide symbol of technology run amok. It's been called our first modern myth.

Yet as Hitchcock shows, our knowledge of that myth is mostly drawn from the great Boris Karloff film of 1931, and that film has little to do with the novel. The hunchbacked assistant, the grunting monster, the angry villagers waving torches: All of these originally came from Victorian stage adaptations.

As the story was made more lurid, it also became less provocative and ambivalent, more conservative and cautionary. Frankenstein is about what is human. But it came to expresss our fears of science, of any tinkering with nature. In Shelley's novel, for instance, the monster learns both kindness and hatred from human society. But in the 1931 movie, we all remember, the assistant drops the good brain and steals the criminal one. Meaning people are not taught evil -- some of us are just born with evil brains -- exactly the opposite of what Shelley wrote.

This is some of Hitchcock's best material, tracing the early ways the monster was pumped up and dumbed down. Hitchcock is also good at the other end of the book, on the controversies over genetic engineering and how even the name Frankenstein was avoided by Bush administrators working to curtail cloning and stem-cell research. Bringing it up could have made them seem anti-science.

In between these two ends, Hitchcock surveys what seems like every film and comic book, yes, even Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, currently on Broadway. Unfortunately, this means Hitchcock keeps making the same observations, keeps writing about yet another story of man playing God.

Given this apparent thoroughness, it's surprising when she overlooks important touchstones -- like a 1984 essay by novelist Thomas Pynchon. He links Frankenstein to the Luddites, the rebellious weavers who became symbols of resistance to progress. His essay also points to an enduring appeal of the monster, one that Hitchcock completely misses. The monster, Pynchon writes, is "a Big Bad-Ass."

We've liked such unstoppable destroyers from Achilles to the Terminator. Amazingly, Hitchcock overlooks the Terminator, too -- a man-made, flesh-and-metal monster. He's one of the sons of Frankenstein, and according to the movie, they're going to conquer the world. So it would have been good if Frankenstein: A Cultural History had studied them -- while we still can.