Déjà vu burnout
I had a very interesting conversation at work the other day. Major Tom, Captain Steve, and I were talking about spoilers. We weren’t talking about the usual spoilers, like when someone gives away the ending of a film. Instead we were talking about cultural spoilers. Sometimes you can be so familiar with something that it becomes clichéd; even if you haven’t read it, heard it, or seen it. Some movies, books, and music become so heavily referenced that we become overly familiar with them. This familiarity causes the work to become predictable, even if you haven’t experienced it.
A prime example of this for me is Frankenstein. I love Frankenstein. I had the Remco action figure when I was a kid. I watched the Boris Karloff movies I lot. And I feel that Karloff’s performance in the original Universal films is superb. I really dig Peter Cushing as the titular doctor in the Hammer films. However, I can’t sit through reading the book.
Major Tom had asked if it was the writing style, or the language?
No, it’s not that. I’m used to that style of writing. What gets me is that I’m so familiar with the story that I lose interest in it. Even though I haven’t read the book, I still know what happens.
Captain Steve suggested that I really don’t know what happens. But I really do know what happens. I know it from commentaries about the novel, and various documentaries. I’ve been mostly spoiled for it.
Frankenstein is so ingrained in not just our culture, but also world culture. Even if you haven’t read Mary Shelley’s novel, you are already spoiled for it. It is one of the most popular novels of all time, and rightly so. The portion of it that I have read is stunningly beautiful. It was way ahead of its time. It also signifies the birth of the horror and sci-fi genres respectively. If it wasn’t for Frankenstein, we’d have no horror. We’d have no sci-fi. And on top of that, Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she wrote it! She is the mother of all monsters.
As for the adaptations of Frankenstein, they are a mixed bag. They run the gamut of glorious (the James Whale directed originals) to the gory (Kenneth Branagh’s version from 1995). Hammer Films made a whole series of Frankenstein movies; in which Peter Cushing, as Baron Frankenstein, was the lead. These films took a drastic departure from the original novel; especially since they were about the mad scientist himself, and not the creature. They are fun pastiches in their own right. And while Whale’s adaptation isn’t faithful to the source material, it is the standard by which all other adaptations are judged. Karloff’s performance is one of the best every committed to film. And Colin Clive was both frightening, and magnetic, as Baron Frankenstein. There was also the underappreciated, but wonderful, The Bride; starring Sting as Baron Frankenstein, Jennifer Beals as the titular Bride, and Clancy Brown as the Monster.
All of these films have one thing in common: The Monster is sympathetic. Frankenstein is the villain. This same thread runs through Mary Shelley’s original novel. Though unlike Whale’s film, the monster isn’t as childlike in her novel. He’s well-spoken, worldly, and somewhat dangerous. Still, you can’t blame him for wanting his revenge. His own father rejected him out of disgust. This is an echo of Shelley’s own relation ship with her father. She was somewhat of a wild child. So much so, that she eloped at age eighteen with Percy Shelley. And for her mother (also named Mary) she died after giving birth to Mary. Yes, she wrote horror, and lived it. Part of me feels as much empathy for Mrs. Shelley herself, as I do her most famous creation. I feel that I need to both honor her, and satisfy my curiosity, by reading her most famous work.
However it has gotten to a point where I may never have the patience to read it. I’m so familiar with the story that it has become been-there-done-that territory. This is a real shame, because I’d love to read it through someday. I didn’t encounter the same problem with Dracula by Bram Stoker. I also didn’t encounter the same problem with Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. But I have this stumbling block with Frankenstein. Similarly, I had a mild stumbling block with Dante’s Divine Comedy, but that was eventually overcome.
What if I were to read something more contemporary? Let’s say Stephen King’s The Shining? Granted, Kubrick’s film is different in tone from the novel. But would I find myself just reading over a book that I’m overly familiar with culturally? One wonders how I’d react if I’d read Shelley’s novel first, before seeing the James Whale version. Though that’d be a neat trick if I could read a Victorian novel before age five!
Familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, over-familiarity can be a very bad thing. For example, I can’t listen to a Beatles’ album without being bored. I know the lyrics, the album titles, the track listings, there’s nothing new there. It’s gotten to a point where if I hear a Beatles song I think, “Not this again.” I can probably handle a song or two, but not an entire album. My mind feels numb, and I feel bored.
I’ve talked with people who couldn’t watch The Godfather the whole way through, because of all the parodies over the years. Though they haven’t seen the movie before, the parodies of Marlon Brando as Don Vito have made it redundant for some people. And we all know the story of Romeo and Juliet. This can make it very difficult for even experienced Shakespeare watchers to sit through.
There’s also the over-used movie quotes. I could easily live the rest of my life without hearing, “Say hello to my little friend,” ever again. That’s one movie quote that can, and should, be retired. I hate to say it, but, “Luke, I am your father,” is headed there as well.
In other words: You can have too much of a good thing.
I sometimes feel that something similar has happened with Star Wars. It’s part of the culture, which is a good thing. But when shows like How I Met Your Mother (and everything else) over-reference it, it becomes a bit stale. Granted, that’s not a fault of Star Wars itself, more the perception of it.
And that brings me back to Frankenstein. Perhaps this has more to do with perception, than the actual novel? Of course it does deal in perception. There’s nothing wrong with the novel. I’ve just been born in a century when the mass media allowed for various adaptations of Frankenstein. On top of that, it is a public domain work; anyone can make a Frankenstein movie (even Andy Warhol). This allowed for the cultural saturation of the novel. This is a good thing, as it has kept the story alive for over one-hundred years. In four years, we’ll have the two-hundredth anniversary of its publication. There’s no sign of the love for this novel diminishing. All writers everywhere wish they could have such longevity and popularity. Mary Shelley wrote other novels, which will be rediscovered in time. But her most popular work is so rich in texture, that scholars are still examining new layers of this work.
And that brings me to a final thought…
Maybe I have unconsciously cheated myself by not allowing the novel to wash over me? Just as some people will avoid the most popular books ever written, just because they are popular, I could have denied myself of a great read. In that case, this may have more to do with perception, rather than over familiarity?
Sometime, before the year is out, I will read Frankenstein in its entirety. And you will all read what I thought of it.
Text Copyright Johnny X. 2013.