MARY SHELLEY’S (HIDEOUS) FILM PROGENY: A LEGACY IN NEED OF RENOVATION

Last week I skipped my weekly appointment because I was extremely busy finishing the edition of my latest e-book project with students. Here it is, finally!: Frankenstein’s Film Legacy (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/215815). Since 2013-14, when I taught a monographic course on Harry Potter, I have been developing a series of projects with undergrad and postgrad students, consisting of publishing e-books based on their course work. The new e-book is my seventh project (you can see the complete list at http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books) and I’m already at work on the eighth, which will be an e-book about how the United States are represented in 21st century American documentary. In fact, I have started to think of my elective courses as a space for new teaching projects. Thus, I’m already thinking of next year’s MA course on Gender Studies as a chance to explore gender issues in recent fantasy films, after producing already an e-book on science fiction (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282). By the way, I was immensely pleased to present this e-book both at Llibreria Gigamesh (in June) and in our recent national conference of English Studies AEDEAN at Alicante (in November).

Frankenstein’s Film Legacy is exceptional in my collaboration with students because it has been based on work by second-year students. So far, I had only worked on the e-books in third/fourth year BA electives and in MA electives. A little bit too rashly, I decided to include an e-book in our exercises for the BA course on ‘English Romantic Literature’, in which we read the ‘six males’ (as a co-teacher calls them), that is, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats, and the ‘two females’ as I should call them –Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. The reason why I used many entries in this blog last semester to discuss these authors, and the reason why I thought of the e-book is that I assumed mine would be a temporary incursion into Romanticism and I would soon return to teaching Victorian Literature. The e-book was meant to mark, then, a singularity in my teaching.

In fact, this is not what has happened and I’m teaching Romanticism again next Spring, but with no plans for a new e-book. The reason is that, although the students have followed quite well my guidelines (I wrote a model fact sheet /essay they were supposed to imitate), my intervention in their writing has been more intensive than usual. The main reason is that their essays were too focused on comparing specific aspects of each of the films with Mary Shelley’s novel (as I had asked them to do, indeed) and in this way, the larger picture was missing. In some cases, simply because they are young and little used to watching films released before 1999, when they were born. In other cases because only I had the complete picture of the e-book and could connect the dots (yes, The Island and Never Let Me Go share exactly the same Frankensteinian topic). The good news is that most of these students will be soon participating in the e-book about the US documentary, and now have a basic training to do so. Incidentally, if you’re thinking that I have used too much time for this project, the answer is ‘not really’: the time I did not use to prepare lectures (thirty students did class presentations based on the films), is the time I have used for the e-book. My own writing and my constant other deadlines have just delayed publication (though obviously the course marks were awarded punctually in June).

So, what’s this e-book about? I selected 75 films, beginning with Metropolis (1926) and ending with Mary Shelley (2017), which dealt with the topic of artificial life and connected, indirectly or directly, with Frankenstein. The final list is down to 57 because I got work from fewer students than I expected, and also because I finally discarded a few fact sheets that were incomplete. Here are the films, in the same order in which they appear in the e-book:

• 1920s to 1970s: Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Godzilla/Gojira (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
• 1980s: Blade Runner (1982), WarGames (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Bride (1985), Weird Science (1985), The Fly (1986), Robocop (1987), Akira (1987), Making Mr. Right (1987)
• 1990s: Bicentennial Man (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mary Reilly (1996), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Gattaca (1997), Gods and Monsters (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Matrix (1999)
• 2000s: Hollow Man (2000), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), S1mOne (2002), Hulk (2003), Van Helsing (2004), I, Robot (2004), The Island (2005), WALL·E (2008), Splice (2009), Moon (2009)
• 2010s: Never Let Me Go (2010), EVA (2011), La Piel que Habito (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Hotel Transylvania (2012), Frankenweenie (2012), Robot and Frank (2013), Her (2013), The Machine (2013), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), Lucy (2014), Victor Frankenstein (2015), Chappie (2015), Morgan (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Shape of Water (2017), Logan (2017), Mary Shelley (2017) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).

A mixed bag, yes, undeniably. By the way: the e-book ends now with Alita because a student suggested that we include this title. At first, I believed that it would diminish the coherence of the e-book, which I intended to finish with Mary Shelley’s biopic. But, then, I finally saw that Alita works as a sort of ‘to be continued…’. My aim, as I hope you can see, was to teach my students that the influence of Frankenstein is indeed colossal, even though in many cases the films depended on an intermediate source or made no direct allusion to Shelley. The moment, however, you see these 57 films from a perspective that takes Frankenstein into account, interesting things happen. Pedro Almodóvar can now be said to be a science-fiction film director. Both A.I. and the live action version of Pinocchio force us to consider what Mary Shelley’s novel would have been like had Victor made a young boy rather than an adult male. The presence of women, or females, in films such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Ex Machina (2014) also raises the question of how Mary’s dark tale would have differed had Victor made a woman originally, or finished making the female mate for his monster.

There are many films I like very much in the list and I think it is necessary to highlight once more the turning point marked by Blade Runner (1982), the first film to hint, albeit quite confusedly, that our future replacement at the top of the animal hierarchy might be flesh-and-blood artificial humans rather than mechanical constructions. I’ll clarify once again that the Nexus-6 replicants whom Detective Deckard must ‘retire’ are not robots but adult individuals made like Victor’s monster out of separate organs. The difference is that Victor scavenges the organs for his Adam from dead people (and animals) and the replicants are assembled using living organs tailor-made for them, using genetic engineering. This is the same method used to make the ‘robots’ of Karel Čapek Shelleyan play R.U.R. (1920). In its original Czech ‘robot’ means ‘slave worker’ and this is what caused the confusion. November 2019, when Blade Runner is set, has come and go and we are not closer to seeing replicants in our streets. Yet, what is already being discussed is whether the humanoids soon to be our companions will be fully mechanical or fully organic. In just two hundred years, then, since Mary Shelley published her Gothic novel, what was pure fantasy is now almost reality.

The films examined in the e-book tell the same story which Mary Shelley told but with variations on the main roles (the creator, the creature) and the background. What is frustrating is that none of the direct adaptations of Frankenstein is minimally good as a film. James Whale’s 1931 version is iconic because it did literally provide popular culture with a major icon in Boris Karloff’s performance and looks, but it cannot be said to be a great film. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not what its title promises, though it comes a bit closer. There are more embarrassing attempts at transferring the tale onto the screen: Victor Frankenstein (2015) is a mess, full stop. My first intention, in fact, was to focus the e-book exclusively on direct adaptations of Mary’s novel but I did not see what the students would learn by seeing tons of bad movies. This is why I opted for the indirect adaptation, the Frankenstein-themed film if you wish.

The other major disappointment is Haifaa Al-Mansour’s recent biopic, Mary Shelley (2017). I had included Ken Russell’s eccentric Gothic (1986) in the list for the e-book but this is one of the movies that was finally not covered. I thought, anyway, that Al-Mansour’s feminist credentials (she’s the first Saudi Arabian female film director ever) made her a very good choice to lead the team behind the film. Then I saw her biopic in the middle of teaching Frankenstein and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Trying to compress the eight years (1814-1822) of Mary and Percy’s romance in just two hours did not work well at all. Biopics, as a matter of fact, work best when they focus on a single central episode for there is no good way you can summarize real life. I come to the conclusion that a documentary would have served the same purpose but much better; yet, the fictional representation of reality still dominates over the non-fictional.

I don’t know if I am here projecting my own fatigue but after seeing Alita, yet another disappointing film, I have the impression that the topic of artificial life needs an urgent renewal. To begin with, this is a strange case of knowing, yet not knowing Mary Shelley, which possibly explains the failure of Al-Mansour’s biopic (and Jeannette Winterson’s inclusion in Frankissstein of yet another retelling of Mary’s creation of her monster). The treatment of Mary’s person is too superficial for fans to be content and for non-fans to be recruited to the cause of vindicating her genius. Next, her novel still lacks a good audio-visual version, whether this is for cinema or for TV. I don’t mean by this one that is faithful down to the last detail but a version that gives a better impression of that peculiar thing called the ‘spirit’ of a novel. In the third place, the new tales need to get closer to actual science or to actual scientific speculation (in the vein of the first Jurassic Park) and not just be vehicles for shallow plots with skinny girls beating the hell out of bulky male villains. Or with artificial women playing femme fatale or unexpectedly having babies (doesn’t anyone know what a tubal ligation is?). The plotline “scientist makes creature that goes berserk” is, let’s recall it, two hundred years old already. We need to start thinking of a new angle –but just don’t mention the word ‘reboot’… Except for Planet of the Apes!

Enjoy, in any case, the collective effort that my students and I have made to show you the way into Frankenstein’s immense film legacy. And celebrate Mary’s powers of creation, always vastly superior to Victor’s.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL: PATRIARCHAL SYNERGY AND THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF PRIVILEGED SURVIVAL

In my previous post I argued that the solution to the widespread problem of misogynistic patriarchal violence is working to increase the empathy for women by seeking allies among the good men and by re-educating the less recalcitrant segment of the perpetrators. The case that occupies me today, climate change denial, is far harder to solve even though it is also due to patriarchy’s lack of empathy. I wrote that it is very difficult to understand a species in which a remarkable percentage of the male half hates the whole female half. Yet, this might be a minor problem in comparison to how that hate-filled male minority is about to destroy the planet and all its species following their deeply rooted sense of entitlement and the wish to protect their privileged position. The current Madrid UN Climate Summit (2-13 December) has highlighted who the ‘fanatics’ (as President Pedro Sánchez has called them) are: there is a complete overlapping between the worst patriarchal men in power and the major absences from the conference. You know the names.

I attended last Friday a workshop organized by my good philosopher friend Marta Tafalla on climate change and, to begin with, allow me to tell you that things are much worse than what the media is saying. A scientist in the room declared that he has no courage to tell his three young children what is coming soon, most likely in the next 10 to 15 years. I have a certain sense of déjà vu remembering the many warnings against the use of nuclear weapons back in the 1980s but also a certain hope that if WWIII was then avoided perhaps we can avoid environmental apocalypse. The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 might have soon an equivalent toppling down of the current patriarchal-liberal regime if the younger generation, now led by Greta Thunberg, manages to find the weak spots. The problem, in any case, with the scientists’ dire warnings is that they do not know with certainty how civilization will collapse, and thus suffer collectively from Cassandra’s curse. Recall how Apollo gave this Trojan princess the power to issue exact prophecy but sentenced her to never being believed (she had rejected his sexual advances).

One of the talks that interested me most was given by Núria Almirón, from the Department of Communication of Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She heads a research project that studies denialism and advocacy communication by looking into the texts issued by the main European think tanks sponsored by right-wing individuals and organizations (see https://www.upf.edu/web/thinkclima). Prof. Almirón demonstrated that there is a clear overlapping of economic liberalism and right-wing policies in those think tanks and showed a very complete map of the international alliances operating below the radar of the media. Typically, she mentioned the gender factor as a prominent feature, meaning that all these thinks tanks are headed by patriarchal men, but quickly put it aside, stressing instead the question of privilege. I will insist again that patriarchal power also appeals to women but that right now all our serious problems are caused by power-hungry men and, so, gender is indeed a factor in the trouble they cause. Anyway, Almirón explained that there is no conspiracy linking the European think tanks with each other and with their counterparts elsewhere but an enormous synergy which makes their efforts collectively even more dangerous than if each acted alone.

According to Almirón, climate change deniers take their inspiration from the policies of the tobacco industry. Tobacco manufacturers had known for decades that their product is potentially lethal but that didn’t stop them from denying scientific evidence and glamourizing the ugly habit of smoking. Cynically, they put the survival of the tobacco corporations before the survival of their clients, sowing the seeds of doubt and even convincing smokers that they had a right to invoke free choice to defend themselves from negative pressure to stop smoking. The question is that, despite the devastating impact that smoking has on the human population, its damage is limited. Homo Sapiens is not at risk of being wiped out by tobacco, animal and vegetal species are not significantly damaged by smoking, and the planet can survive the hurt inflicted on its addicted human inhabitants. Claiming, in contrast, that pollution is not causing temperatures to rise is a totally different kettle of fish for, as the slogan goes, ‘there is no planet B’. This is the reason why the mentality behind the patriarchal denial of climate change baffles me. One thing is putting profit before the lives of a few million people (excuse me) and quite another putting profit before the whole planet. This is like nuclear war: it cannot be won because even if you win, most of life will be gone forever. How will you claim victory?

I asked Almirón about this strange state of affairs: do climate change deniers, either individuals or organizations, truly mean what they say? Don’t they know that an altered Earth will be home to no one? She replied that it might well be the case that most individuals in those circles truly believe that their privileged position will protect them from general disaster (remember the billionaires buying properties in New Zealand for safety against apocalypse?). Others, she added, possibly know the truth but must obey higher interests and few, she mused, perhaps already feel remorse. I heard in another talk that one of the most important ideas that needs to be abandoned is the expectation of constant economic growth. That might explain the resistance of patriarchal capitalism to accept the evidence gathered by the scientists: if it is just the Earth doing its natural thing, then there is no reason to stop economic growth, they argue. At this point nobody can deny that something is going on and so deniers stress that the changes we’re witnessing are not human-made. However, even this position is hard to maintain: can they be possibly defending the right to pollute the planet before we are anyway killed by its atmosphere? Does this make any sense?

I confused Prof. Almirón very much over lunch following her talk when I told her that there is another strand of denialism at work: the refusal to see that Homo Sapiens is not worth saving. She and many others, including myself, are asking for an ethical approach to this pressing problem which places the needs of the species above individual needs. There is much trust that, with the right tools of persuasion –with the right rhetoric– the majority will be convinced of the urgent need to abandon many comforts of our privileged life and welcome a necessary rationalization of consumption. There is, then, a fundamentally optimistic belief that people in general can be persuaded to do their best for communal survival which is totally at odds with our polluting habits so far.

Take as an example the campaign Stay Grounded, which was also presented in the workshop, and that calls for a gradual elimination of short-distance flights and a progressive elimination of long-distance unnecessary travel by air. I told the speaker a bit peevishly that she should eliminate Instagram to begin with and convince the low-cost generation that taking holidays locally as their grandparents did is cool. In fact, it’s quite funny, because I interpreted the label ‘stay grounded’ as ‘stay punished’ instead of ‘stay rooted to the ground and try to be a sensible person’. I hate flying and have no problem with taking local holidays but I’m part of a tiny minority, currently not that popular. Tell frequent fliers that they need to stop for the sake of the planet and see how they react. Is let Homo Sapiens rot, then, my solution to climate change? To be honest, it is, except that there are younger generations to think of and they deserve a chance to survive. I just don’t think that we’re fair-minded enough to think of the children first. When have we, as a species?

I started by claiming that empathy is the main tool to end misogynistic violence and I’ll claim now that empathy is also instrumental to end the violence done to the planet. The cause of all trouble, I stress, is the worship of power, which leads to the defense of privilege based on a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds. The threat of total wipe-out after a nuclear war already showed between the 1950s and 1980s how far patriarchy was willing to go in the pissing contest between the capitalist and the communist blocs. Now the blocs at war are different: we have shameless patriarchy on one side, ready to destroy the planet with an impressive array of polluting weapons, and the rest of us, trying to defend it with blades of grass. This is not even a civil war but a most uncivil onslaught by the privileged few against the rest of Earth. I have no idea how one convinces the elite destroying the planet that they should stop, if only for the sake of their children but it seems to me that there must be some empathy at work there which can become a bigger flame. Or I’m ranting and we are all doomed.

I saw yesterday The War Game, a documentary film commissioned by the BBC to show the British public the effects of nuclear war. Peter Watkins, the director, made such a good job of it that his extremely scary film was never shown (funnily, it won an Oscar after a few clandestine screenings). Take a look, it’s only 50’ long: https://archive.org/details/TheWarGame_201405. As I watched, terrified, it occurred to me that this is what we need to shake us out of our complacency. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2004) is crystal-clear but too elegant and no cli-fi (whether novel or film) has offered a convincing picture of what the future might be like. This is a job for someone like Quentin Tarantino, and I am by no means trying to be flippant (maybe I am). I would call the movie Before it Gets Worse though, at the pace we’re going, it will probably be called The Unavoidable End.

Sorry, bad black humour might be the last thing we need but I fail to find a more positive note to end.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/