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I, Frankenstein: A Meditation

Nathaniel

SportsAlcohol.com cofounder Nathaniel moved to Brooklyn, as you do. His hobbies include cutting up rhubarb and laying down. His favorite things are the band Moon Hooch and custard from Shake Shack. Old ladies love his hair.
Nathaniel

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All right, now that we’ve all seen I, Frankenstein (and read Jesse’s review) here’s a place for us to talk about it without spoiling all its twists and turns (there aren’t any) for those who haven’t seen it yet (everybody).  And anyway, I’m not here to savage the movie.  I spent the last couple of months grumbling at anybody who’d listen about what gargoyles and demons had to do with the Frankenstein story, so it’s only fair that I consider the answers the filmmakers offered.

I, Frankenstein as Adaptation:
IFrankensteinIt turns out that this epic story of the struggle between gargoyles and demons for the fate of humanity revolves around the character of Frankenstein’s Monster, a central figure in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein.  In addition to his origin in this seminal science fiction novel, the creature has a long and varied cinematic history.  Even before the iconic Universal version of the story, Thomas Edison adapted the story for film.  Over the years there have been so many additions to and variations on the Frankenstein mythology that a story like I, Frankenstein ends up being a grab-bag of elements from many different Frankensteins.

I, Frankenstein‘s creature is a soulless (or is he?) creature assembled by Dr. Victor Frankenstein from parts of exhumed corpses and reanimated by the application of electricity, obtained from a tank of electric eels.  Dumped in a river by his creator, the creature returns to murder the doctor’s wife and then flees to the arctic.  Frankenstein pursues his creation, dies of exposure, and is brought back by the creature to be buried in his family’s graveyard.  After a skirmish with some demons, the creature meets the gargoyle queen and is named Adam.

Interlude On the Subject of The Creature’s Name:
In the novel, Frankenstein does not give the creature a name.  This is tied up in his rejection of his creation, and he alternately refers to it as a “fiend,” a “wretch,” and a “monster.”  In the absence of a given name, audiences generally resort to one of two other options.  The most popular is obviously to just refer to the creature as Frankenstein.  This most likely solidified in the public consciousness in the 1930s, with the popularity of the Universal film adaptation and an advertising campaign that was primarily just the title and the image of Jack Pierce’s design for the creature.  The film so successfully colonized the public’s imagination that even now, 83 years later, if you ask somebody who Frankenstein is you’re very likely to get a description of the monster with the flat top and neck bolts (drawing the pedantic ire of nerds like us everywhere).  The second most common name for the creature is Adam.  Mary Shelley is said to have referred to the creature by this name in early drafts/tellings of the story and in letters to friends.  For his own part, after reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (Shelley’s creature is highly intelligent and eloquent), the creature tells Frankenstein that he saw himself in the story of creation, though he identified most with Satan, saying “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.”  Pop culture examples of this usage include Dark Shadows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I, Frankenstein.

I confess, it’s a little hard to know just how self-aware the filmmakers were in creating their version of the story.  Their use of Adam for his name suggests some nerdish faux-fidelity, and they included the flight to the arctic from the novel.  But did they also know that when they had their doctor use electric eels in his creation process that they weren’t adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?  This creature’s design incorporates the long hair from the book (at least it does for the beginning of the movie set in the 1700s), but understandably forgoes the yellow corpse pallor and blackened lips.  He’s also an Eckhartian six-foot-something instead of an eight foot tall giant.  Now, in fairness, Dr. Frankenstein’s ambition was to create a being possessing physical beauty in proportion to his other attributes, so I guess in this movie we are to assume he succeeded (some patchwork scarring notwithstanding).  In any case, I assume that even Mary Shelley would have approved of this Dr. Frankenstein’s ab selection.

Abenstein's AbsterBut, beyond the details of their presentation of the creature, I’m interested in trying to suss out the weird way this movie interacts with some of the themes of the original story (this may get tricky, since the movie doesn’t really make much sense).

The novel tells the story of a creator who abandons his creation, appalled by what he’d wrought (as I mentioned the creature draws explicit parallels between himself and Satan in “Paradise Lost”).  The creature is lost and angry because of this abandonment and lashes out at his creator, demanding that the doctor build him a companion.  The story ends with the creator dead and his creation heading off to destroy himself in despair.  In the universe of I, Frankenstein, God is very real and his emissaries on earth take the form of a dwindling band of gargoyles.  Their mission is to combat demons disguised as human, and these demons are specifically interested in Adam because he doesn’t have a soul.  Now, by tackling this stuff head-on, I’d say that they are making a bid to be the True Spiritual Sequel to Mary Shelley’s novel.  Let’s see how they did.

Adam spends the entire movie violently opposed to the demons (I guess because they tried to kidnap him at a particularly low emotional moment) and vaguely on the side of the gargoyles (he doesn’t seem to have much use for them, and they SUCCESSFULLY kidnap him more than once, but shortly after one of the main gargoyles tries to kill him he snarls something to the demons about how the gargoyle order MUST be preserved).  So, accepting that Adam is supposed to be the novel’s Frankenstein’s monster, that means that we end the film with the creature having shifted identification from Milton’s Satan to Adam.  Indeed, after killing countless demons, his final Batman monologue is all about how he’s going to take on the gargoyles’ mission from God and protect the rest of humanity.

To Kill a Gargoyle, or Aesthetic Innovation in I, Frankenstein:
I’d like to take a moment to praise I, Frankenstein for what I think is its greatest contribution to the “Boring PG-13 Action Movie That Travesties Classic Monsters” genre.  I’m talking, of course, about the movie’s twist on the way that these kinds of movies have their monsters burst into sparks and ashes when they are killed.  Presumably taking their cues from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had to make the deaths of their villains palatable for a television audience, the go-to move here is to have your dying monster burn or dissolve into ash.  I, Frankenstein’s leap forward in this arena is that after the demons or gargoyles burst apart, their souls take the form of fire (for the demons) or a beam of light (for the gargoyles).  These souls burst out, rush all around the room AND THEN DESCEND TO HELL OR ASCEND TO HEAVEN.  That’s right, in addition to watching a demon flake apart & scatter, you get to watch his soul burn a hole in the ground as it is taken to Hell.  This means that during the big group battles you can get some sense of how things are going by estimating the fireball/lightbeam ratio.  The effect also seems readymade for the I, Frankenstein stunt spectacular at Universal Studios Nowhere.

The movie’s depiction of Adam’s emotional journey is a little hard to follow because Eckhart spends the entire movie frowning and running in circles no matter what’s going on around him, but I think we can figure this out.  After we’ve flashed foward a couple of hundred years and picked up with Adam frowning and killing demons and running in circles in what is presumably a modern, if dystopian, world, the gargoyle queen yells at him for letting a police officer get killed by a demon during a fight.  Adam dismisses her concern over the dead man, and we are seemingly meant to take this as evidence that he lacks any connection to mankind and his war against the demons is motivated more abstractly because they tried to kidnap him before the gargoyles successfully kidnapped him.  At the end of the movie, he is willing to sacrifice himself to save man- and gargoylekind alike, presumably because he became friends with Yvonne Strahovski.  In exchange for his self-sacrifice, he is rescued from falling down into Hell by the gargoyle queen.  So in this reading, he has gone from feeling like Milton’s Satan, rejected and cast down by his creator, to feeling like Adam, a being created with a purpose and protected by God.  Which, incidentally makes it weirder to me that in his final superhero monologue he doesn’t say anything about the name Adam (which was given to him by the gargoyle queen, and would seem to align him with humanity) and instead concludes by him calling himself Frankenstein (I guess so they could call the movie I, Frankenstein).  As for the meaning of that title, your guess is as good as mine.

Scenarios That Would Have Made The Title Appropriate:

  • Taking Up The Family Business
    As the movie proceeded, I actually began to expect this one to happen.  Of course it did not.  In this scenario, Yvonne Strahovski’s character, Terra(!), would have died during the raid on the demon science compound.  After all of the demon business was resolved, Adam would have used the secrets of Dr. Frankenstein’s journal to reanimate her, forgiving his “father” for his own creation and taking the name Frankenstein himself.
  • What Goes Around Comes Around
    In this scenario, Adam has a son sometime during the course of the movie.  He abandons the kid at the end of the movie (either out of heroic “for its own good” sacrifice or because the kid is repulsive) and realizes, filled with emo self-loathing, that he’s become just like Frankenstein.
  • The Reading of the Will
    In this scenario, the movie is less about demons vs. angels, and more a legal drama about the court proceedings over the disposition of Dr. Frankenstein’s estate (naturally there is a stipulation that the heir must spend the night in Frankenstein’s castle).  In the end, the creature has to claim his creator’s name in order to be named his heir.
  • I, Frankenstein…
    In this scenario, the movie is more of a biopic, in a semi-anthology or chapter segmented format.

Prologue – “I, Frankenstein”

This is the brief recap of his creation, the death of Dr. Frankenstein, and the creature’s assumption of the name.

Chapter 1 – “I, Frankenstein, take this woman to be my lawfully wedded wife..”

This is the story of how he built and then courted his wife.

Chapter 2 – “I, Frankenstein, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States…”

In this one, he brokers the peace between the demons and gargoyles while fending off political attacks from birthers.

Chapter 3 – “I, Frankenstein, being of sound mind and body, declare this my Last Will and Testament…”

This one has him writing his will on the morning of his retirement party.

Conclusion:
Don’t go see I, Frankenstein.