200 Years of Frankenstein

For the 200th anniversary of its publication, Impact looks back on the novel that began the science fiction genre: Frankenstein.

On 1st January 1818, an unknown author called Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley anonymously published a novel entitled Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, and changed the world of fiction as we know it. The book is often heralded as the beginning of the science fiction genre, and it sparked countless adaptations over the years. In honour of the 200th anniversary of its first publication, Impact looks back on the novel that started it all: Frankenstein.

Frankenstein’s Beginnings; Or, the Origins of a Legend

Now a staple of the horror and thriller genres, Frankenstein famously started out as a ghost story, created by an 18-year-old Mary Godwin during a particularly rainy summer spent in Switzerland with, among others, her soon-to-be husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poet Lord Byron. The central image of the story – that of a young student bringing to life a monster of his own creation – was said to have come to her in a horrific “waking dream” a few days after Byron suggested they have a ghost story competition.

“it is thought that many traumatic events in her life could have contributed to the dark nature of the story”

The dream was intended to be a short story, but it quickly became a novel, written over the course of several months with the encouragement (and editorial assistance) of her now-husband Percy. The book brought together much of the scientific foci and principles of the Age of Enlightenment, and its publication arguably marked the beginning of the science fiction genre.

Although the story itself obviously does not follow Mary Shelley’s life (no, there was not really a Creature created from dead body parts), it is thought that many traumatic events in her life could have contributed to the dark nature of the story – including the suicides of Percy’s wife, Harriet, and Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, as well as the death of the couple’s first child and Mary’s resulting depression.

The Adaptation of Frankenstein; Or, That Green Dude with the Bolts

“Of course, nowadays when we think of Frankenstein, we often don’t think of the book…”

Frankenstein was already being used in adaptation and derivative works in Mary Shelley’s lifetime. Richard Brinsley Peake adapted the novel into a popular three-act play called Presumption; Or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which Shelley herself saw in its original run. The play was first staged in 1823 in a 37-performance run over three months at the English Opera House (now the Lyceum Theatre), but it was also performed abroad in New York and Paris, and was revived in its original home until at least 1850.

Of course, nowadays when we think of Frankenstein, we often don’t think of the book or a play, but usually a film, if not the Halloween-staple image of a square-headed green zombie with bolts at the neck (itself an image from a classic movie).

According to IMDb, there are 34 titles about (or featuring) the Creature from Frankenstein, ranging from such classics as 1931 film Frankenstein (starring Boris Karloff as the Creature, where the iconic image comes from) to multi-monster crossovers like House of Frankenstein (1944), to comedy riffs like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), to modern adaptations such as I, Frankenstein (2014) and Victor Frankenstein (2015).

The list of loose adaptations, derivative works, and references is almost endless. There were films from the silent era, plays and musicals, foreign language adaptations, comedies, parodies, and satires. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Addams Family, Doctor Who, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with countless other pop culture icons, all use ideas or storylines originating from Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Today; Or, the Legacy of Mary Shelley

Frankenstein has had a huge cultural impact over the years. Even aside from the numerous film, stage, TV, and other adaptations, the character of the Creature and the mad scientist himself have ingrained themselves in our society’s cultural consciousness. The name Frankenstein immediately evokes an image in everyone’s mind.

Although the story most of us know isn’t quite the one the original novel tells us, it is clear that the invention of a teenager on a rainy summer night has massively influenced our society, our pop culture, and our storytelling methods. Mary Shelley’s creation has brought forth the sci-fi genre, provided us with iconic ideas and images, and enthralled us with its horrific ideas for two centuries.

And if that’s not a monster of a legacy, I don’t know what is.

Isobel Sheene

Featured image courtesy of Isobel Sheene.

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