Frankenstein: or a Modern Prometheus is a complex, engaging and intriguing classic Gothic story that poses questions about morality, humanity and sexuality. It's the story of the naive and egotistical Victor Frankenstein, in his quest for scientific (and arguably sexual) supremacy - and the consequences of this quest. Victor slaves to create a new living race from dead matter - but upon the animation of his prototype, spurns and abandons it in disgust of its physical features. Lost and completely alone, the Creature wanders through the human world, searching for companionship. He is spurned everywhere for his gruesome and macabre appearance - and there's only so many flaming bricks you can have lobbed at you before you stop being so sunny in your outlook. Spurning his creators' race as they spurn him, the Creature asks Victor to create for him a companion. Frankenstein refuses, and in his fury the Creature begins an unstoppable quest to murder all those that Victor loves. Eventually, creator and Creature chase each other into the arms of death in the frozen North.
The element of this story that is most strikingly misrepresented in popular culture is the nature of the Creature. He's not a monster. He's just not. He's a child, brought into this world by an incapable parent with wildly inappropriate motives. Victor unceremoniously abandons an innocent creature of his own making purely because it's not pretty enough. Shelley's opinion of this is made clear in the Paradise Lost quote that she placed on the title page:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clayArgh! Victor! You are just a terrible person!
To mold me? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
As to Victor's motives, no matter how you look at it, they're egotistical. He's desperate to play God to an entire race: "how many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me!" he exclaims as he stitches bits of his creature onto other bits. That he then goes on to think of how "no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should claim theirs" is very telling. To put it simply, Victor is sexually insecure. He's not only anxious about the actual act, but also deeply threatened by the power the exists in female sexuality: the power to create life. So much so that he finds a way to by-pass using, um, a WOMAN to reproduce. He reproduces all by himself. Eww. Seriously. That's just desperate.
This fear is pretty obvious in the Creature's threat that he will "be with him on his wedding night." This threat instills in Victor a mortal dread of the time when he would otherwise be consummating his marriage. So when the time actually comes for Victor to go upstairs with Elizabeth and confront his fear of her lady parts, he sends her to bed - and then paces around anxiously downstairs with a gun (ahem, phallic).
But in my love of ranting about Victor Frankenstein I seem to have digressed. My point is this: it's a complex and interesting novel with nuances and themes that you wouldn't necessarily expect. But, somehow, popular culture has transformed that into this:
How did that happen?? And, seriously, where did the green come from? Green is only mentioned seven times in the novel, and every time it's in reference to either foliage or GREENLAND (I know, I looked it up on Project Gutenberg). So seriously, what happened to completely savage Victor Frankenstein and his Creature in the minds of millions?
It seems that this distortion's genesis lies in the first film adaption, written by J. Searle Dawley and released in 1910. In this nineteen minute (very free) adaption, the Creature is like a loyal, if revolting dog, following Frankenstein and jealously despising anyone loved by him. Bizarrely, all Victor has to do to get rid of his creation in this version is, um, fill his heart with love. Then the Creature literally disappears before his eyes. Sorry, but WHAT? Ridiculous as this is, it does pinpoint the origin of the Creature becoming represented as the villain. I mean, he must be evil, right, because he's magically expunged by love. Barf.
It was Universal Studios' 1931 version, however, that really put the last nail in the coffin for Shelley's Creature and birthed the square-headed, bolt-necked, green-skinned, criminal-minded villainous monstrosity that reigns today. There is literally nothing accurate about this version, and yet it's the one that lives on. They didn't even get Frankenstein's name right. Henry Frankenstein? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
So, we've traced green-block-head to his source, but that doesn't answer the question of WHY? Why take an interesting and compelling story and turn it into something trite and simplistic (and WRONG)? I can only conclude that it's because it's just easier. It's so much easier to turn a Gothic Romance that questions morality and sexuality into a straight-up horror. It's so much simpler to just know that the human is a Goodie and the other thing is a Baddie. And that sucks.
It's true that not all adaptions and distortions of Frankenstein are terrible. I won't deny that I loved Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. But the thing is that this particular adaption/spin-off really has nothing to do with Shelley's masterpiece. Quite apart from the fact that Sparky is a cute and beloved puppy as appose to a abandoned and hideous giant uber-human, he is simply reanimated, as oppose to assembled out of bits of dead human and animal.
There is, however, hope for Shelley's creation, although it comes in the disguise of (surprise surprise) another really terrible movie. I haven't seen it (nor do I intend to), but Stuart Beattie's I, Frankenstein is, by all accounts, vomit in film-form. I've read the plot summary on Wikipedia, and it sounds like that's a pretty accurate description. But there's something different about this one, and it's important: the Creature is not the villain. No, actually, he's here to protect humanity. Ok, it's nothing to do with A Modern Prometheus, but it's a start. And at least he's not green.
PS - In this post I mentioned Project Gutenberg. If you haven't checked it out, you should: pretty much every piece of literature in public domain is on there for you to either read online or download for you Kindle for free