Yes, we do know this story already. But ever since 1974's “Young Frankenstein,” the parody has been more famous than the original story. Can this generation stand a straight-up re-telling of Mary Shelly's 19th century classic novel?
In this backstory version, Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) begins as a circus clown. He's an orphan, a virtual indentured servant, and he appears to have a hunchback deformity. However, the brilliant young medical student, Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), visiting the circus, realizes that the slapstick clown actually suffers from a horrible cyst that is lodged near the spine, and has not received proper medical treatment for it. When the high-wire star, Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) suddenly falls from her trapeze and lies motionless on the sawdust floor, it is the clown who realizes that the broken clavicle is pressing on her lung, causing her to be unable to breathe. The young medical student and the sad-face clown together perform a quick “snap-back” procedure that saves her life. Dr. Frankenstein is so impressed with the self-taught knowledge of the clown that he tells him he doesn't have to be a hunchback, and to come with him, he doesn't have to be a circus slave, either. So the first act of Dr. Frankenstein is actually rescue and redemption.
Igor delights in his new surroundings; not only is he not an unwilling captive any longer; he's fascinated by all the medical books and experimental equipment of the medical student who can't be bothered with studying. (“The professors are all of middling intelligence, plodding along in their traditional theories, while I'm working on something truly revolutionary.”) Igor is delighted to be Frankenstein's assistant, even though it involves harvesting cadaver organs. He feels that his careful and patient analysis complements Victor's manic genius, that sometimes devolves into vituperative tirades. When they finally get out of the lab and go out to a London society gathering (Victor's father is a prominent physician), it's Igor who demonstrates social skills, as he re-connects with Lorelei, who barely recognizes him. Victor, meanwhile, is busy grossing out young women in hoopskirts with blasphemous, prescient ideas about “in vitro” fertilization.
Yes, in the early 19th century, that would have been an unacceptable form of “playing God,” even if it were technologically possible. Victor is convinced the medical technology can be harnessed with electricity. He says if God does exist, He's abandoned us to a short, brutal, and meaningless existence, so why not figure out how to conquer death?
Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) is on to the nefarious experiments of our infamous scientists, and intends to stop them, because what they are doing is unholy, and morally repugnant. (Though he's hard-pressed to find anything illegal about it, other than surreptitiously robbing morgues and veterinary clinic dumpsters of body parts.) But his dogged pursuit lends an urgency to the tale, and the conflict between Igor and Victor over the extent of the experimentation adds the needed tension.
No, it doesn't turn out the way anybody hoped. But McAvoy's Frankenstein is every bit the genius/madman we expect him to be. Igor may or may not have a romance with Lorelei, but in any case, he's developed a soft heart along with his upright stance, with an accompanying conscience, which makes him a poor partner for the laser-focused, unprincipled Victor Frankenstein. He only cares about his own name living in infamy, which it does, actually, it's just that creating a life without love makes for just another predatory animal.
Questions for Discussion:
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas