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28 October 2014
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Doctor Frankenstein

Is the ultimate cosmetic surgeon a cut above the rest?

Victor Frankenstein's attempts to play God with the bodies of the dead always led to trouble with the locals. Don't even think of asking him to make you a girlfriend, either...

The vote has now ended.

Sir Christopher Frayling

Why Victor should be victorious, by Sir Christopher Frayling.

Dr Frankenstein, often confused in the public mind with the monster he created, is still the most celebrated movie scientist of them all. He first appeared in 1818, in Mary Shelley's heavyweight novel, but it was the Hollywood version of 1931 which injected him into the cultural bloodstream worldwide.

The transition from novel to film was itself dramatic: Mary Shelley's articulate and (at first) beautiful creature became in the film a shambling, grunting monster played by Boris Karloff; the young but misguided research student of the novel became an all-stops-out mad scientist with an old Etonian accent; the 'creation' sequence - the best-known sequence in the film - turned Mary Shelley's casual "I gathered the instruments of life around me" into an elaborate castle laboratory full of art deco style equipment.

Following the huge success of the 1931 film, which was directed by the Englishman James Whale, there were numerous sequels and remakes over the years - to the point where Frankenstein has entered the record-books as one of the most filmed novels of all time. Usually, the story is presented as a Faust-like morality tale about the dangers of tampering too much with nature. Or as a dramatisation - the dramatisation - of the social responsibility of scientists. Or as a debate about the arrogance of a researcher who loses touch with the scientific community. Or, most recently, as critique of masculine science from a feminist point of view. Whatever the particular take on the story may be - and it contains legions, like all great myths - Frankenstein has become the most powerful image of the scientist there is. People talk about 'the creation myth'.

Well, the modern creation myth is not Genesis but Frankenstein. That's why the word has been applied to test-tube babies, genetic engineering, cloning, genetically-modified crops - indeed any development in biology which is thought to be dangerous. There's no competition: all mad scientists start with Frankenstein; all popular films about mad science start with Frankenstein; and he's become a synonym for transgressive science in general. Frankenstein is the popular myth of the scientist, and is likely to remain so.

Sir Christopher Frayling


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