History, Science and Frankenstein
Aaron Eckhart stars in the new action/horror adaptation "I, Frankenstein."Courtesy of Lionsgate Entertainment
Of all the movie monsters in the pop culture canon, Frankenstein is certainly the least sexy. He doesn't have the dark glamor of vampires or the animal magnetism of werewolves. Even ghosts and zombies get to enjoy the occasional heroic role or love story in the movies.
Poor Frank has it tough -- what with the lumbering and the groaning and the stitched together corpse parts. He's a hard sell as a movie star. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood from trying. The new film "I, Frankenstein," opening in theaters today, hopes to flip the script by casting the impossibly handsome Aaron Eckhart as a modern-day Frankenstein, squaring off against gargoyles and demons and other CGI baddies.
The Frankenstein story has taken many forms in films and sci-fi literature over the years, to the point where it's become a genre unto itself. Here we take a look at the history and science behind the Frankenstein story, from its origins as a 19th century Gothic novel to contemporary notions on the scientific possibilities of reanimating dead tissue.
The reanimated monster, played by actor Boris Karloff, meets his maker, played by Colin Clive in a scene from the 1931 Universal Pictures production of Frankenstein. John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
To begin with, Frankenstein isn't Frankenstein at all. He's the creation of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, mad scientist, in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus." In the novel, Victor is obsessed with overcoming death and stitches together an 8-foot tall creature out of spare body parts, which he animates by way of chemistry, alchemy and electricity. (Presumably -- Victor actually never gets specific in the novel.) The creature doesn't have a name in the book, either, but is referred to several times as Frankenstein's "Adam" -- an allusion to the Biblical story of the first man.
Indeed, Shelley did base the book on a branch of science that was just in its infancy and already sparking imaginations, as it were. Galvanism, in the beginning of the 19th century, referred to the idea of running electrical currents through organic tissue. Electricity itself was a brand new science in those days, and its potential applications were seemingly limitless. Galvanism was a kind of science that bordered on magic, to Shelley and her contemporaries, and often grouped in with the fashionable occult topics of the day.
The term was named after Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, who observed that a dead frog's leg muscles would twitch when adjacent to a metal scalpel charged with static electricity. It was just a short notional jump for scientists to conjecture that electrical charges could prompt the re-animation of dead tissue.
The cover of a 1910 edition of Edison Studio's film catalog.Wikimedia Commons
With its wild mix of horror and science, rationalism and romanticism, Frankenstein pretty much bewildered the literary critics of the day. But the novel was an instant popular success and quickly inspired a series of theatrical adaptations across Europe.
The first film adaptation of Frankenstein came with the 16-minute short made in 1910 by Edison Studios and the prolific silent film director J. Searle Dawley. In this version of the story, the monster is created in a giant chemical vat. But the association with electrical pioneer Edison would later prove prophetic.
Nikola Tesla and his famous Tesla coil.Michael Nicholson/Corbis
In Shelley's novel, Victor's use of galvanism and electricity to animate his creation is only briefly alluded to. It was the subsequent film adaptations of the story that introduced so many of the electrical motifs we now associate with the Frankenstein story -- the mad scientist's lab … the rooftop lightning strike … "It's alive!"
Generally considered to be the most successful screen adaptation of Shelley's story, the 1931 version of "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff boasted some of the most spectacular special effects of the era. Except they weren't effects at all. The dramatic electrical arcs in the film's famous laboratory scenes were achieved by simply filming on-set Tesla coils. These devices, invented by famed engineer Nikola Tesla, had previously been displayed in touring exhibitions, but most of the general public had never seen them in action until the 1931 film.
Space capsules and radiation figure into the weird plot of "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster," in which Mars actually does need women.Courtesy of Futurama Entertainment
Adaptations and updates of the Frankenstein story would continue to pop up in radio, theater and television (The Munsters!), but the popular conception of Frankenstein's monster has been mostly informed by movies. The 1931 film kicked off a successful run of sequels during the Universal Studios monster-movies era, but the Frankenstein movie soon devolved into schlock and self-parody.
Interestingly, while Frankenstein movies would eventually wander all over the map ("I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," "Frankenstein Conquers the World"), the core concept of Shelley's vision persisted. In all the Frankenstein adaptations, the monster is always a creature born of science, not magic or myth. Later films would incorporate the emerging weird science of the day -- atomic power ("Frankenstein 1970,") the space race ("Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster") and genetic engineering (the 1992 TV movie, "Frankenstein.")
Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Teri Garr appear in a scene from the 1974 movie "Young Frankenstein."Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images
But is there any real science to the Frankenstein story? Could the right application of chemistry or electricity, or some other form of energy, actually reanimate dead tissue?
It depends on how you define dead. The emerging science of resuscitation medicine -- which grew out of the medical technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) -- suggests that, on the cellular level, death is more of a process than an event. In his 2013 book "Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death," Dr. Sam Parnia of Stony Brook University's School of Medicine details instances in which people are brought back to life hours after the heart and brain appear to cease functioning. Brain cells can remain viable up to eight hours after blood flow stops, according to Parnia's research, and consciousness may indeed persist through this period on a kind of low simmer.
But as for grabbing up a spare brain, stitching together body parts and reanimating the dead with a bolt of lightning? Not yet.