A Not-So-Modern Prometheus

On first, cursory and distracted viewing of this 12 minute film (I was watching it during commercial breaks of Breaking Bad) I immediately looked for something else on which to write my review. But, spurred on by laziness, and a genuine interest in understanding early film, I decided to give it a second shot. It’s a bit surprising that the early filmmaker J. Searle Dowley chose to tackle Shelley’s complex masterpiece for a 12 minute short film.

He makes what I can only call “interesting” editorial choices, presumably for time or his audience. I’ll start with a synopsis because many people might not have had the chance to check the reserves out. The film starts with Frankenstein leaving for college. After two short years he has found the secret to life. The film, which started out as a very stark black and white, shifts in his college years to a yellowed tint and black. He writes feverishly, both about his discovery and then to his bride-to-be, letting her know that when he accomplishes his task he will come back home to marry her. In his letter, he vows to create the “perfect” human being. The next screen explains that the machinations of his evil mind create a monster (this is terrible paraphrasing; you should really just watch it for yourself).  The screen shifts from the black and white words to his yellow tinted laboratory where he blends a few ingredients together in a pot, while a skeleton sits by on the other end of the table. He tosses a few more ingredients into a huge boiling kettle, and then closes the doors and watches his creation through a small window in the heavy metal doors. A nuclear-like plume of smoke emanates from the cauldron as Frankenstein tosses in the last ingredients. I can only guess that Dowley used stop motion or reverse filming to construct Frankenstein’s monster. I’d be interested in someone with more film background telling us how he pulled off his 1910 special effects.

“It” comes together before the viewer’s eyes. Among the viewers is Frankenstein himself, who has no involvement with the process after combining the ingredients. Elements seemed to be pulled toward the cauldron from the surrounding environment and compile themselves together to create Frankenstein’s monster. He is appalled by his creation, and first runs away and then faints. His monster looms over him while he lies on the bed. He faints again, and is assisted by someone (presumably Henry, though it’s not explained). The scene color changes to white again as he returns home. Then the white script on the black background appears again informing viewers that the monster haunts his creator, is jealous of his bride, and sees himself for the first time. The screen yellows for the wedding of Frankenstein and his waity-Katie bride. As Frankenstein’s “better natures assert themselves” on his wedding night the screen suddenly turns blue upon the entrance of his creation. Frankenstein sends out his wife and his monster moves back in front of the same mirror where Frankenstein originally saw his reflection. The monster gestures wildly in front of the mirror. And then, very suddenly, disappears. His reflection remains, still gesturing madly. Then Frankenstein appears and sees the monster in the mirror instead of his own reflection. His falls down in despair. Then, just as suddenly, the reflection changes to his own reflection. He celebrates, his wife appears, and they celebrate together. The End.

It goes without saying that the film’s plot drastically diverges from the original text. Instead of focusing or analyzing plot differences (I think another review could be done on the mirror and yet another on the differences between the film and the book) I’d like to focus on the word choices made when setting the scene and some of the prophetic imagery the director uses that, to me, calls up the regret and shame early nuclear scientist coped with after the creation of atomic weaponry. Frankenstein’s desire is to create the “perfect” human. This presumes that God hasn’t already created humans to be perfect. It also shows the hubris of Frankenstein, thinking that he, with his knowledge of science, can create better than God.

The idea of progressing humanity beyond the natural order brought to mind the alternative title for Shelley’s novel, “The Modern Prometheus.” Frankenstein tries to advance humanity through his own study. And like Prometheus he is punished and haunted by his decisions to work outside the natural order. The white text following his letter to his bride-to-be calls him evil. The first time I watched the film, I thought that it was a little early to call this studious and ambitious man evil. Though the adjective definition of evil, “profoundly immoral and malevolent” might not so easily apply, the noun definition, “profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, esp. when regarded as a supernatural force” offers some possible elucidation on the strong word choice.  Frankenstein is attempting to harness and control a supernatural force. It is in the pursuit of the limits of science that he becomes, to some, worthy of the “evil” moniker.

When the actor who plays Frankenstein stands above his pot, preparing his concoction, for what will become his unholy alchemy he smiles and hurries around, excited by the promise of what’s to come. He dumps the contents of the pot into the cauldron from which his perfect human will emerge. As a post-World War II viewer, the smoke plume that emanates from the cauldron has an unmistakable likeness to the atomic plumes that both ended the war and created a new reality where complete global inhalation could be wielded by presidents and dictators. Frankenstein’s regret, not unlike Einstein’s after his involvement in atomic weapon development, creates a cautionary tale across a time and scientific advancement of the possible pitfalls of treading on the edge of science. Though these scientists will attempt to distance themselves from their scientific advancements, the things that they create refuse to fade away in light of their creators’ dismissal and take on a life of their own.

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4 Responses to A Not-So-Modern Prometheus

  1. shinybootsofleather22 says:

    I enjoyed your choice to incorporate film into our discussion of literature and science, and especially the length you went to to avoid the more cliched study of variations between film and text. In doing so, you did a wonderful job drawing parallels to modern science and shedding light on the concept of wielding power that can seem supernatural–even to a more modern, secular world. Well done!

  2. writinginmy says:

    Your definition of the word ‘evil’ as a noun brings up some interesting points, such as the fact that Frankenstein was deemed ‘evil’ because of his transgressive nature in pursuing “the limits of science” (but I wonder how one knows the limits of science without testing them, and what really can be considered transgressive?). And maybe I’m being daft but I’m wondering why you decided to bring up God in describing Frankenstein’s desires to create something better/more perfect than what God has created in His humans.

    In your own post, you write that “Among the viewers is Frankenstein himself, who has no involvement with the process after combining the ingredients. Elements seemed to be pulled toward the cauldron from the surrounding environment and compile themselves together to create Frankenstein’s monster. He is appalled by his creation, and first runs away and then faints.” I find it interesting that your description uses words like “pulled… compile themselves together…” and you mention that Frankenstein “has no involvement with the process after combining the ingredients.” While that goes hand in hand with your comment that the things we create tend to “take a life of their own,” I can’t help but feel like this has a very natural tinge to it as opposed to a rigid, scientific feel in which each step of construction is dictated meticulously. I’m almost inclined to take away from this piece the idea that when nature and science go hand in hand together, the result is hardly ever good, as opposed to simply addressing the idea that the application of science to nature harms. I suppose I’d ask whether you thought Frankenstein was a force of nature or science in that film.

    • ebbwilliams says:

      Thank you so much for bringing up an excellent point. I definitely blended the terms God and Nature. I think that, when looking at the film in the context of our class conversation God and Nature are beginning to be blended together during the Romantic era, so I used them interchangeably. Sorry if that bothered you, and that I didn’t make it explicit. There also seems a decidedly more moral bent in the film than in the novel, considering the pronouncements made by the script about Frankenstein being “evil.” I think those loaded terms call for religious elements to be brought into the conversation.
      Overall, this tension between the concern of the limits of science and scientific discovery itself were played out in novels like Frankenstein. The director seems to have picked up that tension from the novel and developed it in a completely different way. I would argue that his viewpoint is more slanted toward the vilification of science. And so, that’s what I focused on in my review.
      While you are completely correct, in the novel Shelly goes into great detail about the combining of parts to create Frankenstein’s monster, in the movie it is much more out of Frankenstein’s hands. He’s standing behind a thick door while his monster is cobbled together in a completely different room. This editorial decision made by the director, I would argue, creates a clear statement that meddling in nature is something that shouldn’t be done by human beings, and is best left to God.
      To answer your question, I think the film has a very binary view that scientific meddling is evil and something with which mere mortals should not mess. This view changes in the editorial process of later film adaptations of Frankenstein. That is not what I’d say about the novel at all. Shelly has a much more complex view of the banes and boons of scientific advancement.
      I look forward to reading your work.

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