Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Arts and Popular Culture

by Hilary Rappaport

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has something of interest for everyone—from the literature lover, to the scientist, to the pop culture fan. And artists from virtually every discipline have adapted the story in some way or used it as a direct inspiration.

Theatre

An adaptation of the novel, “Presumption or the Fate of Frankenstein” was produced on stage in London in 1823 and Mary Shelley attended the day before her 26th birthday.  The well-known actor T.P.Cooke starred in the popular production, and he revived the play often, becoming associated with the creature on the 19th century stage much as Boris Karloff’s film portrayal became synonymous with the creature in the 20th century.  Cooke’s portrayal laid the foundation for the image most have today for Shelley’s “hideous progeny.” Shelley was not overly protective of her work. She took pride in the audience response to her story and did not criticize the changes that the adapter, Richard Brinsley had made. Shelley appreciated that they did not name the creature and praised the actors’ portrayals.  Referring to Cooke she said his work was “well imagined and executed” and that she was “much amused.” The play was so popular it was moved to a larger theater, though critics and moralizers attacked it as “immoral.” By the end of 1823, five different retellings of the story had been staged in London and stage productions multiplied in the 20’s and 30’s including one in New York that was also well received.

Film

The most well-known artistic interpretations of the story have appeared on film, starting with a 1910 silent version. The 1931 film with the Karloff portrayal is the most famous and was a huge success, one of the industry’s first blockbusters. Though this version also altered Shelley’s story, Karloff created a complex character that audiences both feared and cared for. Between 1931 and 1948 Universal Pictures made eight Frankenstein films with the final one being a slapstick version with Abbot and Costello. The films vary in their faithfulness to the original novel – many prominent elements of the story in popular consciousness were introduced by the movies, such as the mad scientist’s castle, the hunchbacked assistant, and the iconic look of the creature with a flat head and bolt in his neck.

There are countless other adaptations, including many foreign films, as well as hundreds of films that contain a Frankenstein reference or are greatly influenced by the ideas of the novel. These include numerous direct parodies such as Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”  (Fun fact: The Beatles “Yellow Submarine” has an image of the monster drinking a potion and turning into John Lennon.)

Visual Art, Music, and Dance

Visual artists have also drawn inspiration from the story, with entire art exhibits focused on the work. Several graphic novel versions are available as well as countless comic book adaptations.  Many popular songs refer to the creature and an entire instrumental piece called “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group was released in 1972. (Fun Fact: The Royal Ballet even performed a version with perhaps the only dissection scene in any ballet.)

Television

Many television shows have characters inspired by the creature such as The Addams Family and The Munsters, and even more have had episodes with elements of Shelley’s story, from Dr. Who to The Simpsons. (Fun Fact: SpongeBob Square Pants, Scooby Doo, Arthur, and Sesame Street all have Frankenstein inspired episodes.)

Cultural Impact

“Frankenstein’s Monster” evolved as a concept beyond the story, taking its place in the canon of horror featured in everything from cartoons to Halloween decorations. The creature himself made cameos in media of all types while the broader concept of a stitched-together living creation appears in places from Frankenweenie to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Shelley’s novel has had another effect on our culture—one less clearly identified, though still important.  The risks, difficulties, and responsibilities surrounding the creation of sentient life have found their way into many science fiction plots, particularly ones involving clones and robots, and stories such as Blade Runner or the recent Ex Machina might be said to contain echoes of Frankenstein.

The impact of Mary Shelley’s work on literature, the arts, and popular culture, over a 200-year span, cannot be overstated and our world is richer because of her extraordinary talents.

Sources:

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, A Norton Critical Edition edited by J. Paul Hunter, 1996
Making the Monster, The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup, 2018
Frankenstein, A Cultural History, by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, 2007
The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 2003

 

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