The Idea of Originality and Adaptation in Shelley’s Frankenstein

The research paper is dedicated to the study and analysis of originality and adaptation theory on the basis of the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, and its screen adaptation, Universal Pictures movie “Frankenstein”, 1931. The objective of the research is to compare and contrast two works in terms of their form and content; to trace the differences and transformations the screen adaptation has undergone with respect to the original text; as well as, to examine the correspondence between the screen version and its original literary basis.

The theoretical basis of the research work is the contemporary studies of adaptation theory concerning literary works. First of all, it is necessary to define and discuss the issue of adaptation, its peculiarities in comparison with the source. The correlation between the literary text and its adaptation are often viewed as such “where the literary work was conceived as the valued original while the film adaptation was merely a copy, and where fidelity emerged as the central category of adaptation studies” (Aragay 12). To some extent, this level of fidelity, which in many cases of adaptations is very low, can give the right to consider adaptation being original work based on the idea or partially the plot of the novel.

Speaking about literary texts and movies, it is necessary first of all to state that these are two absolutely different kinds of art with different forms and functions. The main distinction between the novel and the movie, as stated by Kamilla Elliot, is that the novel is “linguistic, conceptual and discursive while the film is primarily visual, perceptional and presentational” (qtd. in Aragay 12-13). Movie, first of all appeals to emotions, whereas book - to mentality. Cinema is more entertaining and does not demand much mind tension and work though it, of course, can contain important ideas and bear a meaningful message to the audience. On the contrary, the book, classic novel in this case, is profound and endless source of speculations and conclusions. One more distinctive feature of two genres is based on the financial issue. Adaptations were popular during the classic period of Hollywood as safe and sure profitable investment, and they are popular now. These conceptual differences shape our perception and form our notion about the aesthetic and meaningful value of the work.

There are two approaches regarding the value of the adaptation and the original text. One, as expressed by Bluestone, is that

…the novel is more complex… more self-conscious and self-reflective, far more deeply steeped in metaphor, far better equipped to render thought and other mental states. Film, as primarily visual medium, can only aspire to metaphor, in a highly restricted sense. (qtd. in Aragay 13)

Bluestone bents for the “intrinsic superiority of literature” (qtd. in Aragay, p.13). This

idea is supported by many authoritative scholars including André Bazin; and it comes from the assumption that literature is senior and superior to the movie genre. Later on, the approach towards the adaptation has changed tending to view cinema as an independent interpretation having a different purpose and means as Cardwell put it “…textual characteristics within the end-products of different media arise from the unique properties of the media themselves” (qtd. in Aragay 18) or Linda Hutcheon’s position: “Although adaptations are also aesthetic objects in their own right, it is only as inherently or multilaminated works that they can be theorized as adaptations” (Hutcheon 6). Every adaptation is followed by the aura of its primary basis, but this fact should not depreciate the merits of absolutely new creative result. Coming from this assumption, it is necessary to draw a demarcation line between the literary work and its screen adaptation and examine both from different perspectives based on different criteria. The purpose of this research is to examine the two works of art in terms of their uniqueness and dissimilarity departing from the low level of fidelity of the screen adaptation. Though there are theorists who consider fidelity criteria to be inappropriate and unsuitable, it still remains one of the main points of contact between the novel and the adaptation as they both share the same plot and are supposed to transmit the same main idea. In this research, the screen adaptation of a famous novel regarding it not as a reproduction but rather an interpretation will be analyzed.

The original text, the novel “Frankenstein or Modern Prometheus” written by Mary Shelley was first published in 1818. It combines the elements of Gothic and Romantic styles and is considered by some critiques to be the first science-fiction novel. The novel tells about devoted young scientist Victor Frankenstein who, once raptured by the power of electricity, is willing to penetrate into the secret laws of nature and life. In this passionate endeavor, he creates something like a human being from the parts of the dead bodies, but aghast by the ugliness of his creature runs away leaving this being in the lurch. The subsequent unfold of the plot bears very profound and important meaning and message. Mary Shelley has raised many important philosophic issues in her novel concerning morality, spirituality and humanism in general.

Mary Shelley’s work has had a great influence on the popular culture in general and has given the plot for numerous interpretations and horror stories. There have been thousands of theatre plays and screen adaptations of the novel starting from 1910 including silent movies, short films, parodies and full-length screen adaptations. The first full-fledged screen interpretation of the famous story was shot in 1931 by director James Whale for Universal Pictures and is still considered being the most famous and a classic example of the adaptation of the novel.

The research paper aims at examining the “Frankenstein” screen adaptation in terms of Kamilla Elliott’s definition of adaptation taken from “Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate”, which at best reflects the concept matter of the research: “…the film metamorphoses the novel and is, in turn, metamorphosed by it. Adaptation under such a model is mutual and reciprocal inverse transformation” (qtd. in Adaptation studies 15)

First of all, it is important to admit that movie changes the role of the author. The image of the author stands back and plays the only role - it supports the image of the new creation, which relies on the respectable name of the author. Roland Barthes has noted that the author holds no authority over a text’s inherently unstable meaning (Edwards 169). The movie presupposes some minor or substantial changes of the meaning, which are inevitable in the process of adaptation and at the same time stand apart from the author’s original plot and intention.

The main value of the literary text is that its idea is revealed not only throughout the plot but with the help of a number of different techniques and devices. The reader’s perception is not restricted by any means and only depends on the perceptiveness, open-mindness and mental abilities. At the same time, this presents the main conceptual difference between cinema and literature as two different kinds of art because cinema uses absolutely different approaches to imagery creation and the development of the plot. In the case of cinematography, the limitless imagination of the reader is bounded by the frames of the director’s vision of the story and appropriate devices used. This is one more reason why the author’s name moves to the background and in most cases is the pledge of film success and acclaim. It also can be viewed as one aspect of the relations between the original and the adaptation where the original text serves the support and foundation for the subsequent adapted work that relies on this basis. The same thing happened in the case with “Frankenstein’s” adaptation. Moreover, it has relied upon not only the author’s name but on the other earlier stage and screen version, which has influenced this one greatly. Except subjectivity of the director’s vision, film is typically subdued and restricted by the laws and specifics of the field. Whereas literature, being to some extent also subjective, is more free, unconditioned and unrestricted.

“Frankenstein” movie, which is the first full-length screen adaptation of the famous

novel, follows all the necessary peculiarities of the genre: in this case, it is a classic horror movie of the time (1931). Due to the visual nature of the film, it is first of all aimed at impressing the audience starting from the opening scene.  Which is typical, it is more concerned with the limits of its genre, and all visual means serve to create and support this impression of tension, suspense, fear. The director follows his own goal to convey his vision and opinion. All means, images and characters are well thought-out to support this idea and create proper impression. Except those outer divergences regarding the form, of more importance in this case are conceptual differences that allow considering this particular case of adaptation to be absolutely different creative work that has borrowed some initial ideas from the well-known gothic poem. The formal difference between two genres is good sated in Charles Bane’s dissertation research:

Style is no longer about the author’s use or choice of language but about the director’s choice of shot, angle, lighting and diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Film is a tool that can be used to open up texts to new interpretations, yet film also stands alone as an art form on its own merits (Charles Bane 14)

This concerns mostly the process of transformation of words into images that constitutes

one of the main formal differences between the movie and the novel: the novel undergoes semiotic changes from one sign system into another, from words to images. This formal difference results in the meaningful and content transformations of the media work.

On the assumption “writing a screen play of a great novel is foremost a labor of simplification” (qtd. in Hutcheon 2), one can say with confidence that the movie under analysis has simplified the novel greatly. This concerns not only plot variation and changing but more serious, conceptual simplification, which makes the film a brilliant example of the horror-movie preserving only one idea raised in the novel – the idea of imposing the role of God upon a human being. As well as a movie is a type of novel transformation, it also introduces some new viewpoints concerning the plot of the original. In this case, movie spotlights only one of the ideas of the book but turns it into an edifying parable of human vanity and ambition. The general mechanism, which can be traced in this case, is that book creates an image supported by certain idea; in this case it can be considered a myth. What movie does is that it introduces some subsidiary elements which either help to support the image or myth, or change it, or even transform and modify. In the case with “Frankenstein”, the movie has centered around one particular idea of the novel and has developed it into another, similar but different story of full value, transforming the original. It is a typical approach to adapting literary material – the core idea is preserved and developed and forms the backbone of the whole plot of the movie. The original plot is recognizable but not identical with the movie script. The level of fidelity here is low, which gives the right to consider “Frankenstein” movie to be absolutely different work of art which, though having much in common with the novel, is independent and to some extent original:

The film becomes a different thing in the same sense that a historical painting becomes a different thing from the historical event which it illustrates. It is as fruitless to say that Film A is better or worse than Novel B. (qtd. in Charles Barn18)

As it was mentioned before, the movie presents an example of a horror story, while the book is more complex and ambiguous. Nevertheless such shift of the genre is not groundless, as the initial intention of the author, inspired by ghost stories and her own nightmare, was to “…awaken thrilling horror” (Shelley, p.7). This intention is realized in the book, though not as the main idea, but as one of the underlying plot lines. This horror motive of the story gives fruitful soil for different variations in screen adaptations leaning towards the horror genre.

However, there are negative responses to the “Frankenstein” as the novel adaptation including O’Flinn who considers “the 1931 film to be an inadequate recreation of the original literary text” (qtd. in Kyle D Edwards,114), we are tending to view it as an independent creative work rather than “recreation” of the literary text. According to Linda Hutcheon, “adaptation is a repetition, but repetition without replication” (Hutcheon, p. 7). She has also defined the term “adaptation” coming from three perspectives: adaptation is “transposition of a recognizable other work”, “creative and interpretive act of appropriation”, and “an extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work”. “Frankenstein” movie is a good illustration for this statement and fits this classification perfectly. If to examine adaptation from this perspective, it can be compared to a branch of a tree that originates and is nourished from a trunk but has its development into its own direction. One more important reason for this is that the movie was inspired by the theatrical parody adaptations popular at that time more than by the original text.  Those parodies very often turned the original plot upside down and subsequently caused many misconceptions, one of which is that the name Frankenstein was often confused with the name of the monster himself instead of the name of the scientist. The universal tendency of the development of “Frankenstein” adaptations was that it more and more tended to transform the original story into the breathtaking horror story that would attract the audience and bring good box-office receipts. This tendency is very noticeable in the 1931 movie. All of the above can be concluded with the citation from Kyle D. Edwards dissertation:

Thus, the 1931 film is no direct transformation of the novel to film; in fact, adaptations never are. Rather, film adaptations are merely one entry in a continuing succession of cultural transformations undergone by a text and various elements associated with it after its publication and dissemination. The first sound era film adaptation of Frankenstein is a vivid example of this. (Kyle D.Edwards 113).

The first thing to undergo changes in the process of adaptation is the outer form. This includes characters, theme and the elements of the plot including omitting or transformation of the whole scenes. In the movie under analysis, all kinds of outer transformations are presented: the name of the protagonist is changed (Henry Frankenstein), the image of the creature is reduced to a mere wicked criminal though in the book, it is complex and philosophic, and other minor characters are changed; many scenes have been added (detailed description of the monster creation, opening scene at the cemetery, etc.), some has been cardinally changed (death of the creature, attack at Elizabeth, the denouement of the story); and the shift of the theme focus, which has been already mentioned. The outer transformations of the plot and form are due to several reasons. First of all, it is the time limits that movie-makers are restricted to. Their task is to put 300 of pages of text into an hour of the film. This fact presupposes many abbreviations of the plot and narrowing of ambiguity and abundance of ideas in the original literary text to one or two ideas of the movie supported by the chosen scenes which will please and attract the spectator. Another determining factor here is the commerce-oriented nature of the film-industry, which also defines the preferable plot of the media product. Gilbert Seldes expressed his negative attitude towards this tendency stating that “adaptations have no choice but to be corrupt, and most adaptations actually benefit from this corruption by distorting characters, twisting plots, changing endings, or carrying different messages” (qtd. in Charles Barn 29). Analyzing reasons for the changes that the initial plot undergoes, Alice Evans (qtd. in Charles Barn 23) has singled out three major techniques, or “adaptive changes”: condensation, which is cutting of the number of scenes; incorporation, which is adding some elements; and modification, which is introducing the changes. All of these are presented in the movie.

One more criteria for the assessment of the adaptation work besides the level of fidelity, which has been already discussed, is the director’s creativity “to make the text one’s own and thus autonomous” (Hutcheon 20). Every creative work is a dialogue between the creator and the recipient. Whether the audience is accustomed to the source or not, every single spectator will evaluate the end result according to his/her emotional response to it. This response, in its turn, depends upon the aesthetic and creative value of the work, the mastery of the director and other members of the crew and their ability to create the proper effect and to impress. In this case, the level of fidelity does not play an important role, and the outcome depends only upon the perception of every single person in the audience:

Audiences, according to Bluestone, will likewise accept films that deviate from their source as long as the film is enjoyable. So if a film is successful—either financially, critically, or both—questions of fidelity disappear on “the assumption that [the film-makers] have mysteriously captured the ‘spirit’ of the book (Charles Bane 38).

The “Frankenstein” film has expanded the meaning of the novel introducing new point of view on the well-known plot. Moreover, it has been a success during its time and still remains a famous horror movie example of the classic Hollywood era.

“Frankenstein” is a brilliant example of a literary text screen adaptation which falls within the frames of the genre perfectly and corresponds to the theory of adaptation studies. In the paper, it was examined different perspectives regarding adaptation theory and have proven that the movie under analysis presents an example of independent creative work of art, preserving the connection with its original inspiring source. The movie is an example of how adaptation deviating from the original basis under the influence of many factors becomes a full-fledged completely different art work and introduces its own value and ideas to the original. We have also examined how it influences and shapes the audience’s perception and response to the original work and finally creates its own contribution and takes its own place in the world of media.

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