In James A. W. Heffernan’s critical analysis, Looking at the Monster: Frankenstein and Film, Heffernan argues aptly that in film, we are unable to see the monster’s true emotions because we see the visuals that make the monster so grotesque and therefore deny his humanity. According to Heffernan, this is because film directors and script writers show us less of the monster’s personal self narrative— a narrative that the novel candidly shows as part of the monster’s self discovery. This point of view is correct in that film adaptations ultimately disrupt and affect the way readers and viewers perceive and understand the “true” story of the monster. While the story of Frankenstein and the monster is canon only as Shelley told it, understanding other points of view and discussing the nature of our misunderstanding of the monster is valuable to understanding how we perceive humanity as a whole.
Heffernan initially looks at two similarly critical essays of Frankenstein that discuss the gender roles used in the book. In Bette London’s Spectacle of Masculinity, London argues that the novel creates a “spectacle of stricken masculinity” (Heffernan 445), which she further builds upon, saying that the monster creates a warped view of the masculine by being vulnerable and pathetic. In Peter Brooks’ What is a Monster? Brooks highlights how Shelley represents the male body and points out the contrast of the monster’s ugliness and his eloquent speech. Brooks talks about how the monster uses his ability to speak well to escape his ugliness— even though he still wants to be loved for who he is. In this way, Frankenstein enters a semi-feminine role because he wants to be looked at and adored. Brooks acknowledges that “feminist criticism has sensitized us to the visual subjugation of women by the gaze of the male” (Heffernan 447), but in this way, the monster is still being exploited. Heffernan uses both of these essays to try to define, more specifically, the body of the monster. Heffernan concludes: “London turns the body of the not-yet-animated monster into a universalized sign of masculine vulnerability, disfigurement, and pathetic lifelessness,” while Brooks argues that “the body of the monster is largely consumed by what the monster himself calls the “’godlike science’” of language” (Heffernan 446). Essentially, London argues that the monster is an example of a manipulated and deformed male figure, and Brooks argues that the monster is mostly created by the world around him and the language he speaks— outside forces that create this perception of the monster.
While looking at the monster through a feminist lens allows us to see multiple perceptions of the monster, filmmakers have often taken bits and pieces of Frankenstein and put them together, similarly to how the monster himself was put together. In fact, Heffernan expresses that “filmmaking itself is a Frankensteinian exercise in artificial reproduction” (Heffernan 448). In essence, because filmmakers pick apart bits of the book and animate them, filmmakers give the story life. Animation as a whole, then, is similar to making the monster: it involves piecing together parts of film, sound, and text to create sometimes unlifelike images. In fact, Heffernan notes that “by the end of the nineteenth century, then, film could actualize the vividly metamorphic nightmare that comes to Victor right after he animates the creature” (Heffernan 449). It is ironic, then, that there are so many films eager to show this image of the monster, and yet, the act of creating the monster is in itself a monstrosity. Just as Victor set loose his creation upon the world, filmmakers set loose their own perceptions and opinions about who and what the monster is— and what the monster should inevitably look like.
Yet, Heffernan asks us to reconsider why exactly we believe the monster to be disgusting and disfigured in the first place. Heffernan points out that “though Victor abhors the creature’s looks, the novel seldom asks us even to imagine them” (450). The novel actually makes us imagine what the monster sees and hears, especially during the monster’s personal narrative. So, in Heffernan’s eyes, a true movie remake would actually never show the monster at all— just what he sees and hears. Unfortunately, as Heffernan notes, “[filmmakers] also compel us to face—more frankly and forthrightly than critics of the novel usually do—the problem of the creature’s appearance” (Heffernan 451). He points out that the monster described in the novel is actually not as ugly as portrayed in Kenneth Branagh’s film in 1994, which is a grotesque figure covered in stitches. In fact, in the novel, Victor specifically chooses “beautiful features” to create the body of the monster. So, Heffernan poses the question, “What makes Victor’s composition of such beautiful features monstrous” (452)?
To answer this question, Heffernan analyzes Branagh’s adaptation of the monster’s birth. In the film, the monster’s creation is similar to a baby being born. The monster comes from a sarcophagus filled with water. Victor at first acts in an almost maternal manner, but after he sees the true nature of the monster and its abilities, Victor is terrified. In the film, Victor is frightened not only because of the monster’s capability for movement, however. In the movie, he’s shocked by the monster’s stitched face, which is not explicitly mentioned in the novel. Heffernan points out that this addition of the monster’s grotesque face takes away from the fact that it wasn’t just the monster’s appearance that made Victor frightened of the monster—it was its capacity for movement when the monster was completely artificially assembled by Victor. The filmmaker’s addition of the scary-looking face, while contributing to the overall tone of the film, takes away from the true emotions behind Victor’s fear regarding his creation: the fear of self-created destruction; the fear of an artificially created monstrosity.
However, the monster itself is never truly defined. Heffernan asserts that you could perceive a monster as ugly and deformed, but, as an example, the monster in the film by James Whale from 1931 isn’t classically ugly. Heffernan’s analysis of this phenomenon discusses that not all good is necessarily beautiful, and not all evil is necessarily ugly. In fact, Heffernan points out three “types” of monsters. In film, evil or bad characters can be visually ugly because they are ugly on the inside. This is the first type of monster—the monster that is ugly internally and whose internal evil is mirrored by external flaws. Film allows the audience to perceive the ugliness on the outside as a direct representation of the ugliness inside. The second type of monster is contrary to the one presented in film: a kind of monster that lives in literature and in real life—one that is physically attractive, with an evil within. Heffernan provides the serial killer and sex offender Jeffrey Dahmer as an example of this: “…if we turn to recent, actual events, how would Doctors Lavater and Lombroso read the handsome face of the late Jeffrey Dahmer, whose actual behavior made the fictional crimes of Mary Shelley’s creature look like the misdemeanors of an Eagle Scout?” Dahmer is a perfect example of the horrifyingly handsome—a paradox that is lesser known in film.
The third kind of monster resonates with Frankenstein— a monster defined by Socrates’ definition of “monstrum,” which means a divine portent or warning (457). This Latin definition can have many interpretations, but a point of view that Mary Shelley most likely used was that of Alcibiades—a god of wisdom with the face of a monster (457). Essentially, the monster may seem ugly, but is in fact driven in its actions by wisdom. In this way, the monster would achieve true inner divinity. This inner beauty is what drives the monster to his goals. The monster wants to be understood and acknowledged not as an eight-foot-tall monster, but as a human with all the emotions and love that accompany humanity. While Victor wants to become famous from his notable advances in the scientific community, the monster really only wants to be accepted in society. This self-discovery is, unfortunately, forgotten in most films about the titular doctor and his creation.
Heffernan closes by expressing that even though movies may stray from the “true” plot and presentation of the novel, they help illuminate the way our culture perceives the monster. When we read the novel, we mentally construct the monster—his appearance and his gestures. When we see the monster on the screen, we see him as Victor sees him: a disgusting aberration that frightens and terrifies. The novel shields our view of what Victor sees so that we can ignore the outward ugliness and instead observe how the monster interacts with and observes reality. Ultimately, since the monster has now become a cultural symbol for the man-made and grotesque, his true humanity has been hidden from the less discerning reader. However, by considering the monster’s capacity for humanity as presented in the novel, we are able to affirm the monster’s true desires: the desire to be accepted and to be loved.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter. Second Norton Critical Edition., W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2012.
A. W. Heffernan, James. Looking at the Monster: Frankenstein and Film. Critical Inquiry 24, 1997.