Sango Bidani and Zahra Rizvi.
Sango Bidani is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. He has completed his graduation and post-graduation studies from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. His research interests are in the fields of Film and Adaptation Studies, Translation and Partition Studies. His translation of Premchand’s “Rashtrabhasha Hindi aur Uski Samasyaein” has been published in Premchand on National Language edited by Anuradha Ghosh, Saroj K. Mahananda and Trisha Lalchandani, Aakar Books, 2019.
Zahra Rizvi is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, India. She is an MHRD-SPARC Fellow at the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, African and Asian Language Studies, Michigan State University, and works in the fields of digital humanities and cultural studies. Her research interests include utopia/dystopia studies, popular culture, and geopolitical issues in and of cross-platform media. She has previously taught at the University of Delhi, and presented guest lectures at Michigan State University.
This essay aims to explore the Frankenstein Myth through a close reading of select 21st century popular cultural texts, namely Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back” and Victor Frankenstein, released in the year 2013 and 2015 respectively. Through a close reading of these texts, the paper proposes to read them as markers of our current engagement with science in an increasingly technology driven society. The essay seeks to make an analysis of the Frankenstein myth and the monster through cyborgian and posthuman considerations to understand the various intersections and networks that stem from recreations of Mary Shelley’s text. A study of the seriality and virality of the aforementioned adaptations through the presence of the various ‘monster’ figures seeks to illuminate the closer enmeshing of human lives with science and technic mediated through frames of loss.
Keywords: Frankenstein; adaptation; popular culture; cyborg; posthuman
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1819) has been subject to numerous adaptations on the big screen as well as the small screen. This process of adapting the narrative of Frankenstein from its literary form into the visual medium has been going on since the nineteenth century itself with Richard Brinsley Peake's adaptation, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, being seen by Mary Shelley herself at the English Opera House (Shelley’s Ghost n.pag.). The reception history of both the novel and the film adaptations have often focused on the conflict between science and religion, of powerful questions of life and death, creation and destruction and the problem of the “monster” that was first created and then abandoned by Victor Frankenstein. However, what is interesting to note about the film adaptations of Frankenstein is that they in a way trace the evolution in the understanding of the concept of “adaptation” and, as this paper will subsequently show, its “consumption” in Western academia. When one is making this claim, what one is alluding to is the fact that the very first adaptations of the novel tried to be close to the source text, that is the novel, and thereby there was an uncanny resemblance to the novel written by Mary Shelley. However, as the twentieth century moved on, slowly the adaptations of the novel started exploring other aspects of the novel that had hitherto not been explored until that time. Those included presenting the narrative from the point of view of the monster, to his search for a companion to finally looking at futuristic representations of the uneasy relationship between the creator and the created, the consumer and the consumption. One of the examples of an adaptation that was extremely close to the original source text was the 2004 mini- series that was released in America titled Frankenstein which followed the novel more closely than most adaptations. In other words, the fabula as was discussed in the context of narratology, remains the same but the context and fluidity in the re/presentation of the fabula takes precedence. The context thereby gains extra significance in the way the adaptation appropriates the fabula and thereby highlights aspects that have remained hidden until this point.
Another way in which the adaptations
under consideration in this paper elucidate on the evolution in our
understanding of adaptations is that while the first source it looks at, the
film text, is a cinematic adaptation in the traditional sense, the second one
is an episode of a web series. It is important to point out here that the new
definition of adaptation as propounded by the Chicago School of Media Studies
allows the scope to move from the adaptation of films on the big screen to the
small screen. Mark Brokenshire in his entry on Adaptation on the Chicago School
of Media Theory says as follows: “As content moves away from notions of a
single, stable source, and an identifiable author, and towards an era of
transmedia creation by multiple entities and media conglomerates, it is the
biological meaning of the word which would appear to have a greater relevance
to more contemporary notions of adaptation” (n.pag.). Hence, an episode of a
web series becomes a part of the expanded understanding of the concept of
adaptation in media studies. Therefore, in this way the adaptations discussed
here track the evolution in the understanding of the term “adaptation.”
There has also been an exploration by some critics and scholars about why the narrative of Frankenstein continues to be such a popular narrative to fall back on whenever one is facing a crisis in the engagement between the sciences and the humanities. For example, Philip Ball in his essay titled “‘Frankenstein’ Reflects the Hopes and Fears of Every Scientific Era” published in The Atlantic on April 20, 2017 observes how while one always considers this narrative as a cautionary tale about science and the perils of misusing it, what has not been emphasized enough is that how the cultural legacy of this text is far more complicated than what has been appreciated so far. Therefore, there is a need to expand the critical horizon and look at the other aspects of this fascinating text that continues to capture the imagination of the reading and filmic public even now, more than two centuries after it was originally written. While the novel was a specific response to the contextual situation in the nineteenth century, with its conflict between science and religion, new technology and the question of the ‘human; in light of the emergence of Enlightenment in England, perhaps this text needs to be considered more as a mythic text that can be used to explore the relationship between human beings and science across centuries through its adaptive seriality.
Drawing on this unexplored aspect of the complex cultural legacy of the text, this essay would like to do a close reading of two narratives in the visual medium, one of which is a cinematic adaptation that was released in the year 2015 and the other being an episode from the web series titled Black Mirror. While focusing largely on a close reading of these two adaptations, the essay will allude to earlier adaptations and explain how these modern-day adaptations of the novel are different from the earlier cinematic adaptations of the text and how they illuminate certain aspects that have become even more critical with the current scenario across the world caused by the pandemic. Perhaps the biggest lesson that one needs to learn is about how the relationship between human beings, science and technology and nature has become far more complicated. One finds it urgent to re-evaluate this relationship to understand the ecosystem that has become increasingly disjointed and simultaneously hyperconnected due to one’s over/dependence on technology in the contemporary era and its lived experiences. This will become acutely prevalent with the episode from the web series Black Mirror that will be under consideration in this paper.
Along with looking at the re/presentation and the complicated cultural legacy of the Frankenstein myth this paper would also explore how and why the narrative of Frankenstein continues to be devoured so voraciously in the current scenario. This paper would be using the methodological tools stemming from the intersection between Cultural Studies, Adaptation Studies and Cyborg and Posthuman Studies, to explore the questions posed in this paper.
Shane Denson in “Marvel Comics' Frankenstein: A Case Study in the Media of Serial Figures” mentions an interesting dialogue from Marvel Comics' The Monster of Frankenstein #3 (May 1973) where a figure cries, "God help us! It's still alive!" (n. pag.) to introduce and acknowledge the recurrence of the Frankenstein myth in popular culture and media as “a series of endlessly quoted, conventionalized representations'' and suggests that “the comic belongs to that series and that it is capable of both taking ownership of it and writing its continuation” (Denson 531). The remark holds true for continuing representations of the Frankenstein myth in the popular imaginary but even more so for a theoretical understanding of the consumption of the Frankenstein monster and the myth. One must look at both the monster and the myth to understand this consumption because the two are so closely knit that one informs the other as parts of an assemblage, the myth being as much a part as the miscellaneous body of the monster and vice-versa.
THE FRANKENSTEIN MYTH AND ITS NETWORK OF RE/PRESENTATION AND SERIALITY
Before exploring the two adaptations that form the core of this paper, it is necessary to point out why there is an attempt and a need to look at Frankenstein adaptations as mythic in nature and why it is important to consider these adaptations as re/presentations of the original tale of Frankenstein. What lends the Frankenstein its mythic propensity is that the narrative written by Mary Shelley in 1819 in a particular context of 19th century England has captured the imagination of people across the ages, with each adaptation using the frame narrative to explore aspects of the relationship between human beings and science and thereby capturing the hopes, aspirations and fears of the age in which it was being adapted. It is this aspect of the timelessness of the narrative by Mary Shelley that lends itself to being considered as a mythic text that has relevance across ages and contexts. There is a reason why the cultural significance of this mythic text deserves one’s critical attention. The reason is that while it is generally considered a cautionary tale about science and the argument between science and religion, there are many aspects of the narrative which points to its larger significance in society that these adaptations try to elucidate and therefore unless one looks at all these diverse perspectives, one cannot understand why this text has created a monster out of a myth and a myth out of a monster.
The history of adaptations of Frankenstein begins in the year 1910 with the first silent production of the literary narrative. This process of adaptation and retelling of the myth of Frankenstein continues till date. Also, the range of the kinds of adaptations start with silent films to science fiction films to satires and parodies. The sheer diversity of the kind of adaptations shows how the text has acquired a serial and viral aspect. Also, each of these adaptations range from being extremely faithful to the texts, to adaptations which would be considered as a “loose adaptation” which just use the frame narrative to discover other aspects of the text that haven’t been explored until now. Among these is one of the adaptations that is the focus of this paper, namely the first episode of Season 2 of the web series Black Mirror, which is a dystopic science fiction web series. This episode titled “Be Right Back” was first aired on 11 February 2013 on Channel 4 in Britain.
The reason why Web Series as a form of adaptation is amenable to what this paper is calling a re/presentation of a literary narrative is because there is no compulsion to be faithful to the text given that it does not have the luxury of dwelling into all aspects of the text that is being adapted. Due to the limitation of brevity, a Web Series will have a series of Episodes which will each focus on a particular topic or theme and develop it in a nuanced manner that captures the imagination of the audience in a short space of time. This issue of brevity is turned into an advantage by Web Series makers to highlight aspects that might not have been considered due to the desire to be faithful to the text, as was the case in the twentieth century when fidelity discourse was extremely prominent in Adaptation Studies. With a Web Series having no such compulsion, it utilizes the fabula and constructs its own syuzhet to elucidate a new perspective. This is precisely what makes Web Series and their episodes amenable to exploring unique aspects of a timeless text.
Keeping this in mind, one can look at the first episode of Season Two, titled Be Right Back as a re/presentation of the narrative presented by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein. Using the fabula as a frame narrative, this episode brings to light how even though with the help of artificial intelligence, the protagonist of the episode tries to deal with the grief of the death of her boyfriend, but the mechanical nature of artificial intelligence complicates the relationship between the human and the non-human.
What sets this adaptation apart from the other adaptations and re/presentations of the Frankenstein myth is the closing sequence. While most of the adaptations till now had focused either on the creation of the monster and the terror that he wreaked or on trying to show the monster having a soulmate, this adaptation goes a step further. After Martha realizes that the AI Ash cannot be/cannot replace her real boyfriend and she lets out a shattering scream when the monster refuses to jump into the water (a refusal that is commanded by her because the AI android listens to her), suddenly the scene shifts back to her house. At this moment the audience, for the first time, sees Martha and Ash’s who is presented in the scene. It is inventive on the part of the creators of the episode that the daughter enters on her birthday, reminding one of the other birth that Martha had been party to, that is, the birth of the monster, the AI android Ash. As Martha cuts the cake for herself and the daughter, she is surprised that the daughter insists that three pieces of cake be cut. After the third piece of cake is cut, the daughter takes it upstairs to the attic where the monster is standing, looking outside listlessly. When the daughter calls out, he turns around and is pleasantly surprised that the young girl has brought a piece of cake in her hand for him and he wishes her cheerfully on her birthday. After giving the cake to the android, the daughter calls out to Martha below and asks her to come upstairs and after hesitating Martha sets foot on the stairs as the scene fades out. This ending problematizes the Frankenstein myth in two ways. The first way is by the fact that the writers show the monster in a family setting at the end of the narrative, making a marked distinction from other adaptations where the monster is either destroyed or left to a lonely, desolate life. Secondly, the ambiguity with which the scene fades away just as Martha takes her first step on the stairs, leaves it open ended but suggestive whether Martha's ‘human daughter’ might help her overcome her earlier realized awkwardness towards android Ash. In this sense then, this is a loose adaptation and thereby a re/presentation of the Frankenstein myth, adding a unique layer to the miscellaneous nature of the myth.
This episode is a powerful reminder of the wider social implications of the technology driven world that one inhabits thanks to the progress in civilization. The idea behind creating an AI replica to deal with the sense of loss felt due to the death of a human being interestingly becomes a focal point for discussing the idea of the human, the posthuman and the parahuman. At a time where our world is being subsumed by technology at increasingly more and more aspects of our lives, it is a glaring depiction of the networks of science, technological advancements, the living and the machinic and the complex synthesis of life itself.
It is also interesting to note that when Martha is told by her friend that she can use this technology to deal with the sense of loss then she screams and feels completely horrified by the idea that an artificially created human being can help deal with the personal loss she felt. However, until the very end when she realizes that the artificially induced Ash doesn’t behave like her deceased boyfriend, she did find solace in the artificial voice that she hears of Ash. It’s when the AI Ash takes human form that she realizes the inherent absence in the online presence of her boyfriend which is embodied by android Ash.
Another interesting adaptation which is a modern day take on the Frankenstein myth is the 2015 adaptation titled Victor Frankenstein. It is important to note here that there is a similarly titled film called Victor Frankenstein: Terror of Frankenstein that was released in 1977. While the 1977 adaptation focused on the havoc wreaked by the Frankenstein monster, this 2015 adaptation presents a postmodern prequel to the Frankenstein myth while being set in the 1870s, in the same century in which Mary Shelley set her narrative. What sets this narrative apart from the other Frankenstein adaptations is that this film narrates the story of Frankenstein from the perspective of a young assistant who initially wants to help Victor Frankenstein but later withdraws from the project.
The film while being set in the 1870s presents a new perspective on the Frankenstein myth by depicting a complex web of past histories that force Victor Frankenstein to enlist the services of his junior assistant who is excellent in his knowledge of human anatomy. What sets this adaptation apart from the other adaptations of the Frankenstein myth is that it shows the humane dilemma that faces both Victor Frankenstein and his assistant, and which ultimately results in an unlikely reconciliation and an acknowledgement of the problem with creating a humanoid. It is also interesting to note that while to a certain extent Igor Straussman understands Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create the humanoid, at the same time, notwithstanding his initial reluctance to acknowledge the flaws in the experiment, it is Igor who tries to make Victor understand that he is making a mistake in the very motivations of his experiment, the religious idea of guilt hiding behind the very scientific idea of the humanoid. When finally Igor Straussman saves Victor Frankenstein from his own creation, the latter realizes that perhaps his creation was flawed. Additionally, in showing the conflicting emotions that were depicted by Igor Straussman because of his own relationship with an aerialist who he had saved during a circus program that he attended, which led to him joining forces with Victor Frankenstein, the adaptation shows the humane side behind the conflict that ensues between him and Victor Frankenstein.
Another detail that needs to be kept in mind while considering this adaptation as a re/presentation of the Frankenstein myth is that while in the novel he is roundly harassed for his views and his unorthodox experiments, in this cinematic adaptation, the police officer who goes to charge Victor Frankenstein for conducting these experiments is charged with trying to carry out arrests without any warrant. This minute detail helps us in getting a sense of the postmodern as in the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for arrests to happen without any warrants. The fact that this religious police inspector was suspended shows what he considered blasphemy is no longer considered blasphemous in modern society as one is fast moving towards an age where artificial intelligence will not only be possible but will also play a far more important role than would have ever been possible in the nineteenth century where the debate between religion and science was at its peak.
CONSUMPTION, CYBORGIAN BODIES AND THE FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER
In Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back”, one comes face to face with yet another embodiment of this myth but perhaps in a sense as wildly novel as ordinarily relatable. The first episode of Season Two, “Be Right Back” features the use of technology and data by a grieving woman to generate a Frankensteinian monster of her dead partner in order to deal/prevent dealing with the loss. Just like the monster is stitched together from stolen body parts, Martha’s monster, the AI Ash, is stitched together from the ‘stolen’ parts of her partner Ash’s digital presence. Grieving over her loss after just moving in together, Martha’s life is intruded by advice from people and programs alike, suggesting ways to get over her loss. One such instance which serves to provide a striking glance at the ways technology is even more enmeshed in human lives in the near-future is when Martha receives targeted advertisement which perceptively but invasively offer books that can help deal with grief. The normality of Martha swiping away the notification from her touch-free laptop through simple hand movements offers more than a view into this future, it offers a commentary on the parahuman aspects of what it means to be human in hypertech societies where devices are increasingly as extension of one’s self and gradually, maybe even as much a part of oneself as the hand which swipes the notification away. Even before one meets AI Ash, the cyborgization of Martha’s (and Ash’s identity) is presented to the viewers through subtle cues, whether it is Ash’s deep investment in his online presence and frequent loss of attention in the events around him for the events in his phone or Martha’s touch-screen easel.
The episode suggests that events of emotional stress reveal something about the tearing fabric of reality, “It's not real, is it? At Mark's wake, I sat there thinking it's not real. The people didn't look real, their voices weren't real” (00:09:24,960--00:09:29,320). The moment of extreme grief and melancholia stemming from loss traverses an otherwise abysmal gap between affect and technology, where the virtual once again becomes the becoming, mediated by loss and technic. Martha’s acquaintance Sarah not only voices this but also becomes the turning point in the episode by offering Martha another way to deal with her loss, though not very differently from the targeted advertisement Martha so viciously deletes. “I can sign you up to something that helps…It will let you speak to him. I know he's dead. But it wouldn't work if he wasn't… It's software. It mimics him” (00:12:15,760--00:12:17,960). Martha finds the idea ‘obscene’, just as the Frankensteinian monster is found to be ‘profane’. However, she soon finds herself lonely and pregnant, and already being ‘signed-up’ to the unique service, she begins to feed the ‘monster’ parts of Ash’s public online body which is aplenty since he was an active and “heavy user” and has tweets and Facebook posts. The AI Ash begins to form and soon Martha is hooked, providing him with more parts to perfect it, including audio and video files, private data. AI Ash can now talk and unlike Victor Frankenstein, the creator who was repulsed by the monster he created, Martha is intrigued and even obsessed. In the 2015 film, Victor Frankenstein, one finds Martha’s double, another contemporary Frankenstein who seeks to create a monster to overcome or as he says “balance” the loss of his brother, Henry Frankenstein. This loss experienced by Victor in his youth prompts him to take matters of creation, life, death and destruction into his own hands. There is an almost parallel exploration of the experience of death by the living in both these contemporary re-imaginings of Frankenstein. However, Victor loses his fascination much more quickly than Martha when he beholds the monster in flesh. In a comparative analysis, it is clear that Martha’s interaction with the AI Ash is mediated through media, information generated from social media, and technology that is already deeply and openly interspersed in her life and hence, the monster, the AI Ash does not appear grotesque to her in the sense that it does to Victor. Victor’s monster is physically very different from the AI Ash. It has its beginning in a homicidal, animalistic homunculus and even when he tries a second attempt to make it in his “image”, the monster is an excess—an excess which comes from the original text and carries the multitude of interpretation or as Salotto puts it “there will always be an excess of meaning (embodied in the creature) that upsets the notion of a unitary identity, thereby disturbing the notions of origins or closure”—with a larger frame, two hearts, two pairs of lungs, a flat head (just because Victor likes it so) (199). It is surprising then that it is revealed later in his meeting with this now live monster that he always expected a brother, a strange emotional reaction from this ‘mad but scientific genius’ who beholds a figure who neither recognizes Victor nor feels anything for anyone around him.
“Be Right Back” bypasses this concern, this lack of emotive aspect of the monster in Victor Frankenstein which if one compares to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is misplaced for Shelley’s creation has feelings and desires, by an AI that looks human, though unsettlingly flawless, more perfect that its human image, and is capable of humane emotions, kinder, sympathetic…a quick learner of what it would mean to be the human it mimics, a mimicry of the perfect image that one portrays of oneself online. While Victor’s monster is an organism that suggests its cyborg identity and “is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities" (Haraway 71), the AI Ash complicates the idea of ‘human’ by the obviousness of its cybernetic organity, an obviousness that is both expected and accepted due to it being an application, a software service that one can sign-up for. However, there is a sense of dread portrayed in the scenes beginning with the actual embodiment of the AI when a plain manufactured ‘body’ is sold to Martha as part of the next “level” of the app. In a scene reminiscent of expandable water toys or ‘grow monsters’, especially ‘Grow a Boyfriend Toy’ that is often advertised and sold online, android Ash is created by the embodiment of the virtual, AI Ash. There is something uncanny in its perfect appearance, but Martha does not spurn him and neither treats him like her creation, unlike Victor whose aim is to create life and be the proclaimed ‘creator’ of life. She is looking for her partner she can keep in secret and not a scientific discovery which would grant her fame, and so she accepts the android but at the same subconsciously compares it to Ash, her partner whom she has lost. She is looking for a replacement but for her a perfect replacement should have the imperfections, the flaws and the personality traits of Ash that were not necessarily portrayed in his digital presence. In its perfection, android Ash doesn’t have these. Martha has sex with the android who does not have a record of Ash’s sexual responses but can “turn that on and off pretty much instantly” and emulates pornographic videos it can access online (00:33:53,240--00:33:58,400). Android Ash doesn’t need to eat or have sex but can do if the “administrator” desires. As Martha finds out, he won’t fight or argue unless she commands and, as the episode progresses, when she tries to destroy it, will even jump off a cliff if that is what she desires. Android Ash is a programmed cyborg, a figure of what Haraway calls the “post-gender world”—the android that is delivered is like a plain doll and all the details (including appearance, gender and sexuality) that make it Ash are programmed on to it—but this fluidity and incompleteness that makes android Ash a possibility also unnerves Martha as she, unknowing of her own cyborg status, still clings to the idea of an “organic wholeness” that is now only available in the ghost of Ash, her memories of Ash that are mediated through time and technology even without the AI and the android.
At the end of the episode, after a time skip during which Martha’s daughter is born and is growing up, it is revealed that just like Ash’s mother used to put photographs of dead family members in the attic, Martha has not destroyed the android but placed it in the attic. The android is equated with photographs of lost ones, a fragment of a presence stuck in time and yet it lives, continuing to defy the two-dimensional frame it has been designated into. Martha and Ash’s daughter, probably even more accustomed to the possible newer developments of their hypertech society which must have taken place in the years the audience is not privy to, neither treats nor imagines android Ash as a photograph, spending and enjoying her time with him. While still not fully accepting in its conclusion, “Be Right Back” might have come the closest to those “lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” that Haraway talked about in “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (72).
The unresolved presence of the android reminds one of the Frankenstein myth which continues to make its presence felt and grows in different hands and minds to embody newer concerns of technology, of cyborgs, of the post-human, no doubt, but also always an analysis of what it means to be human and the continuing questions of growing fragmentation and documentation of human life and its data. Lupton suggests,
Like Frankenstein’s monster, these personal data are new forms or extensions of human life. More than data doubles or doppelgangers, these personal data have their own liveliness, their own worlds, that exist beyond the purview of the humans who created them. They are constantly changing and moving into new formations. I have elsewhere suggested that we can think of personal digital data as companion species, living with and co-evolving with us. (n. pag.)
Densen refers to the Frankenstein monster in and across retellings and adaptations as a “serial figure...a stock character of sorts”, that while “a series character exists within a series, where he or evolves; the serial figure, on the other hand, exists as a series—as a concatenation of instantiations that evolves, not within a homogenous diegetic space but between or across such spaces of narration” (536). Victor’s monster is one in a series of monsters that fail and are destroyed and then recycled and created again and again at various levels of success mimicking not man’s “image” but also the progression of the Frankenstein myth. Just like the monster is remade every time with new and older parts, the myth too is recreated through the various parts of the serial figure in the numerous appropriations of the myth. Thus, it might not be wrong to say that the myth is as much the Frankensteinian monster in media as is the creature it talks about. Similar to the android Ash who cannot ever be totally relegated as a forgotten photograph in the attic, the myth returns over and over in contemporary ruminations on the human condition in its networked existence.
Both these adaptations can be considered as re/presentations of the Frankenstein myth. It also needs to be acknowledged that both of these adaptations capture the hopes and fears of a postmodern humanist society which is struggling to come to terms with the ever-increasing influence of science and technology in our lives. Therefore, these re/presentations of the Frankenstein myth need to be read as the markers of our society at different times.
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