It's not all that uncommon for Hollywood to take a perfectly good story and screw it up beyond all recognition, but until you read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein you have no idea how bad it can get.

While in school, I never read Frankenstein. It seemed pointless. I'd seen numerous Frankenstein movies, so I assumed I had gotten the gist. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Frankenstein is not the story of a crazed scientist who creates a big, stitched-together, bolts-in-the-neck, hulking monster who is terrorized by torch-bearing villagers. (Pretty much the entire premise of most Frankenstein movies.) It's a psychological and emotional tale complete with its own set of literary influences and moral dilemmas.

In short, it's a literary masterpiece. No really, I know that's what your junior high teachers said about Cheaper by the Dozen, but, in this case, it's true. Anyone who has seen Kenneth Branagh's 1994 adaptation of the novel (the only version I'm aware of where it's clear somebody read the book) should have a general idea of the actual story.

Victor Frankenstein, a promising university student from an upper- class family, becomes obsessed with "the cause of generation and life." His insatiable thirst for knowledge drives him to toil tirelessly until he discovers the cause of life and becomes determined to animate lifeless matter, thereby creating the big green guy from the movies. (He was big, but forget that whole green skin business.)

Horrified by the apparent monstrosity that he has created, Frankenstein abandons the creature, hoping never to see him again. But, of course, he does. The "monster" is understandably confused. Imagine being born into a huge, hideous body with unbelievable strength and motor skills, but an entirely undeveloped mind.

The creature flees humanity to live in the wild. He discovers refuge in a cabin where he can observe the day-to-day life of an ostensibly admirable family. From watching the family, he learns the language and quite a bit about history, geography and politics. This newly educated creature then attempts to interact with civilization.

Bad move. The rejection by civilization coupled with the constant loneliness of being a one of a kind drives the creature more than a little crazy. In time, he begins on a path of vengeance, determined to bring about the constant misery and eventual downfall of his creator.

That's sort of a Cliffs Notes version of the story, but you get the idea. Shelley, who wrote the book when she was 18, supposedly drew a lot of inspiration from Milton's Paradise Lost and Ovid's Metamorphoses. (Not to be confused with Kafka's Metamorphosis.) Frankenstein's creation even refers to Paradise Lost in the text:

"Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other human being...I was wretched, helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition."

That's some brainy stuff for the dumb, grunting, lumbering brute of Hollywood lore. At the end of the book, the reader is left with several questions: Who is the real monster? Frankenstein or his creation? Was Frankenstein's creation born a monster or were his actions a result of society's behavior? And, the list goes on. The point is Frankenstein engages the reader and inspires actual thought -- something nearly unheard of for movies. So, for the sake of writers everywhere, read the book before you see the movie. As an added bonus, you get to sound smarter than your celluloid-centric friends.


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