Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Victor Frankenstein: The New & the Old

Frankenstein and Dracula are two of the most recognized and most retold stories out there. And yet they're also two of the stories whose retellings most differ from their novels. They've become mythology, mythology based on images and horrors and not so much on themes and possible messages.

I must admit that I haven't seen very many versions of Frankenstein--or at least it would seem that I haven't. Even if I've only seen one or two movie versions of the story, it makes its way into all sorts of TV shows and other forms of media. It's in everything from Once Upon a Time to Looney Tunes. And we all know what the old black and white Frankenstein looked like, even if we've never sat down to watch the whole thing (I have seen the old, old Dracula, though, by the way). So the imagery is there in our minds.

Sometimes it's easier to watch new things that come up than to go back and watch all the old things. Hence my curiosity for last year's Victor Frankenstein, starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. Maybe I was also interested because I do see a lot of James McAvoy's movies--and I usually end up liking them, in some form or other.

The beginning of the film was, perhaps, the most interesting. In fact, I think you can roughly divide this movie into two parts: the new and the old. The first part (I can't say the first half because I'm not positive if the division was near the halfway point or not) is a rather new take on the classic story. And yet it is a new take that displays quite well the themes that I remember engaging with when I read the novel. It's as if the filmmakers removed the skeleton of the story, inverted it, and placed it back in--and I love that sort of approach when it comes to classic stories.

Frankenstein is not just about creating a monster; it's about becoming a Man. Dr. Frankenstein creates the flesh of his "monster," but that creation then goes through a process, on his own, of learning to speak and to read and to think and to create himself as a person. It isn't so much a horror story as a philosophical one.

The film takes that concept of creating a person and gives it to Igor. He begins as nameless, a disrespected and unvalued part of a circus show. Frankenstein, on seeing his aptitude for and grasp of medical science, rescues him: he fixes his physical abnormality, he feeds him, he clothes him, and he gives him a place to live and work. Through this, Igor gains a sense of self that he never had before, until he is finally able to make his own choices and choose his own life (even his growing relationship with Lorelei reflects the monster's desire for a companion). That is the Frankenstein story, and that was the best part of the movie.

The thing is, the themes with Igor are starting to mostly wrap up well before the movie is over. This is where the old comes in, that is, the standard imagery that we're all used to. The old castle, the rain, the lightning, the machines, the monster, the mad doctor. It's all there. And while it does have a different spin to it given the themes that have already been presented, well, this part of the movie was just less interesting than the rest. It's as if the filmmakers started telling a story and they were forming it very well from their minds onto the screen--and then they suddenly remembered to make it look familiar.

The question is, did it have to look familiar? Would it have been a disappointing story if it hadn't involved the old castle, the rain, the lightning, the machines, the monster, and the mad doctor? I don't really think so, not if enough of the themes and imagery were there. I do think that the content I enjoyed in the first half or so of this movie could have been spread more to include the final pieces. That final scene felt almost disconnected from what the rest of the movie achieved.

With that being said, I did enjoy Victor Frankenstein. It was generally a good take on the story. The whole Frankenstein's brother bit was probably the worst part because it threatened to change the entire theme of the story--to turn it into something about guilt and regret rather than creation. But the Igor plot line was the best of the movie, a fresh way of looking at the theme of creating identity.

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