“The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine…”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a curious novel: as half-formed, ill-shaped and yet peppered with brilliance as the Creature itself. It is a rare case where the iconography of its multitude of adaptations and progeny – piling on the electrodes and burning windmills – has all but superseded the original work. Returning to the novel, it is at once refreshing and jarring to find this first salvo of the science fiction genre is more mired in mysticism and myth than technology, or that the monster, often reduced to a hulking shambles on screen, claims all the best lines.
Contemporary adaptations are as likely to draw from the tale’s pop culture baggage – most distinctly the Universal Horror films starring Boris Karloff – as Shelley’s gothic revenge tragedy. So it comes as a delight to find that the new web-series adaptation Frankenstein, M.D. succeeds by keeping its focus squarely on the novel’s eponymous (almost) physician, rather than the creation that has co-opted his name in popular consciousness.
Which is not to say there aren’t a few changes. The first episode introduces viewers to Victoria Frankenstein (Anna Lore), a PhD student weeks from receiving her doctorate and relentless in her pursuit of knowledge. Or, rather, Victoria introduces herself – the series apes the format of a YouTube science series, with the soon-to-be doctor enacting weekly experiments for her loyal viewers. The gender may have swapped, but Victoria’s age and student status are actually on-book. Adaptations that cast Frankenstein as an aging and arcane mad scientist outright omit the youthful impetuousness that is core to the character on the page. Here, fourteen episodes in and with reanimation still on the drawing board, Frankenstein’s dueling traits of inexperience and genius are powering the narrative.
Victor Frankenstein is not, it should be noted, the most interesting character in Shelley’s novel. That would be the Creature. In fact, Victor is a bit of a sop, at turns (but not consistently) maddeningly ambitious, maudlin and fickle. ButFrankenstein, M.D. has its fun by letting Victoria’s single-mindedness and lack of social decorum provide half of the series’ laughs (most of the rest come from the broad antics of co-host Iggy (Steve Zaragoza) the bumbling Igor stand-in, departure though his presence may be from the hunchback-free novel). Frankenstein’s gender-swap is not immaterial either – Victoria’s resentment at ingrained sexism within the scientific community and the specter of her pioneering mother give the writers both more conflict to play with and nod towards Mary Shelley and her legendary mother, the pioneering feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. They also imbue Victoria with a stronger motivation to pursue ‘rebirthing’ than Victor’s broad curiousity – but much more would be telling.
The series comes from PBS and Pemberley Digital, the brains trust behind the popular Pride and Prejudice-as-vlog adaptation Lizzie Bennett Diaries. A less intuitive adaptation choice than a Jane Austen to-camera confessional, the story strains somewhat against the format, attempting to balance the conceit of each episode being a publicly-viewed science-show produced by Victoria (and her unseen cameraman Robert) with the development of her ethically dubious, not-so-clandestine plans to reanimate a corpse. Occasion lamp-shading (“I think he forgot that we film everything”) isn’t quite enough to cover the logical gaps. Of course, one could also posit that, just as Victoria steamrolls over any scientific and ethical boundaries, she also doesn’t know when to stop recording.
There’s a creative tension too between the Shelley’s bleak subject matter and the series’ educational ambitions. The experiment-based format is designed to engage younger viewers with real scientific techniques and breakthroughs, whilst Victoria’s competency make an implicit argument for young women entering STEM disciplines at university. A story that ultimately discredits both its protagonist and the pursuit of unchecked scientific endeavour appears at first glance an unfortunate graft for these more empowering messages.
In fact, an air of incredulity still lingers over the entire enterprise. How indeed will this little one-set show, ostensibly faithful to the novel thus far, handle the Creature’s birth and subsequent chaos? Thus far the series has remained predominantly light-hearted, deftly handling brief pivots towards discomfort and despair but always pulling back with a dose of slapstick or stray one-liner. Will the creators allow for the drastic change in tone required to enact the bloody swathe of destruction that enlivens the novel’s relentless latter chapters? Do they want to?
One imagines the integrity of either the established web series format or the framework of Shelley’s novel must be breached before we reach the climax. As exciting as it would be to see a series transform so radically, I suspect it will be the latter. Frankenstein is, after all, no stranger to loose adaptations. There is no one ‘right way’ to adapt Frankenstein; in fact, the willingness of subsequent artists to use the story as a means to explore ideas about technology, science, duality and divinity, though little considered by the original, have added immeasurably to its richness.
I have always found Frankenstein a better crucible for ideas than a novel. Indeed, I believe this accounts for its lasting power. In her original subtitle, ‘The Modern Prometheus’, Mary Shelley explicitly linked her tale to ancient mythology, and it is in the annals of mythology it belongs: the first great myth of the industrial age. In the tradition of Camus, who astutely noted, “myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them”, generations of artists following Shelly have used the silences and suggestions of her original for inspiration and invention.
By re-contextualising Frankenstein’s grad school experiments within today’s multimedia-driven mores of science education and communication, Frankenstein, M.D. has already added its voice to the tale’s rich legacy. The question of whether it dares to confront or subvert that legacy will keep me watching.
Frankenstein, M.D. (2014) Written by Lon Harris, Brett Register & Bernie Su, based on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Directed by Brett Register.