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Continuum SF: Planet Earth's newest science fiction magazine

Frankenstein Meets Frankenstein, or, Faithful Adaptation vs. Weak Retelling

by James Palmer

(originally published in Continuum Science Fiction)

There’s something about Frankenstein’s Monster that still fascinates us hundreds of years after eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley penned her classic novel. Perhaps it’s our macabre fascination with death. Maybe it’s simply our love of a good story well told. Whatever the reason, Frankenstein’s stitched-together creation has become one of man’s most intriguing monsters.

This month, both the Hallmark Channel and the USA Network unveiled versions of Frankenstein. Hallmark’s is the most faithful retelling of Shelley’s novel to date, while USA’s attempt is an intentional "re-crafting" if you will, which takes Shelley’s characters and brings them into the current day. And there’s not a neck bolt in sight.

Hallmark’s Frankenstein begins just as the novel does, with a ship stuck in arctic ice. They take in an injured Victor Frankenstein (Andrew Newman) who begins telling the ship’s captain (Donald Sutherland) about the amazing events that led him to this cold waste. Captain Walton listens intently to Victor’s strange tale, and the two men’s quests for knowledge–Walton seeks a Northwest passage through the ice–are juxtaposed nicely. Victor tells of his privileged childhood in Switzerland, and his early exposures to death which led him on his current course. The death of the family dog, and his witnessing of a lightning bolt that splits a tree in half convinces Victor that he can find a cure for death.

Vowing to plumb the secrets of life and death, Victor goes off to University, accompanied by his friend Henry Clerval. There he begins to experiment, despite the warnings of his advisor (played by William Hurt). Even a pair of gravediggers threaten him with bodily harm if they see him snooping around the cemetery, but Frankenstein is determined to bring a dead body back to life

He succeeds of course, but runs in horror when the newly revivified being comes to him. He soon falls into a fever, and is nursed back to health by his lover Elizabeth, who has come to see him. Meanwhile the shunned creature takes Victor’s journal and wanders into the countryside where he is soon chased by the requisite angry villagers, and takes up residence in the woodshed of a kind family. He learns to read from the lessons the mother teachers her daughter, and borrows their books to read. He also reads Victor’s journal, and comes to hate his master for making him something to be hated and feared.

What follows is Victor’s attempt to rid himself of the creature, who wants him to make him a female version of himself, so he will not be alone.

This is a beautiful adaptation of Shelley’s classic, and is well worth a look. The scenery is beautiful, the script sticks closely to the novel, and all the actors involved turned in powerful performances (William Hurt and Donald Sutherland prove once and for all that there are no small roles, only small actors). The creature (Luke Goss) is a sympathetic monster who I found myself rooting for more so than Frankenstein who, just as in the novel, came off as an arrogant fool next to his creation’s passionate, intellectual soul. And did I mention that William Hurt and Donald Sutherland are in it?

USA’s offering is a complete departure from Shelley’s novel, and is intended as such. Based on characters created by Dean Koontz and set in modern day New Orleans, this is a story of genetic engineering, with Parker Posey and Adam Goldberg playing detectives on the trail of a mysterious serial killer. In this version, Frankenstein is renamed Dr. Helios (Thomas Kretschmann), a mad scientist who wants to create an army of creatures. His first creation, called in this version Deucalion (played by Vincent Perez), seeks to help the police stop the killer, who is another of Helios’s abominable "offspring". It seems the killer has plans of his own, and is killing the doctor’s other creations to reach his goal.

I believe this was the pilot for a potential series; it certainly feels like it. But while the premise is interesting, the end result is too muddled to arouse much interest in a continuing series. The acting was great, and New Orleans is the perfect place for a two-hundred year-old monster to hang out, but the story had a thoroughly anti-climactic ending that will unlikely arouse interest in a continuing series.

Which brings us to the question of why Hollywood feels the need to recast this classic in a modern mold. What’s wrong with the original material? If it’s lasted this long, why mess with it at all? But the fact that they keep bringing Frankenstein back from the dead is cause for celebration. And the fact that Hollywood can tweak with the original idea and still come up with something entertaining is a credit to the power of the original concept. So, whether you’re looking for an adaptation that’s true to the original book, or a modern day recasting, you can’t go wrong with these latest offerings. You might be a little disappointed with the latter, but it’s still worth a look. Hallmark’s Frankenstein comes to DVD October 26th, while USA’s version will be on about twice a week from now until Halloween.

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