Francesca Saggini and Anna Enrichetta Soccio, eds. Transmedia Creatures: Frankenstein's Afterlives (Rutgers University Press, 2018, 280pp, £24.95) [import only]
Reviewed by Jon Garrad (Manchester Metropolitan University)
This bicentennial celebration emphasizes the cultural value of Frankenstein, the transferable and adaptable cultural capital which it affords to later works. The essays present an ‘afterlife’ for a text in which adaptations, sequels, prequels, fanfiction, merchandising and assimilative overwriting all ‘realize and clarify the inherent potential of the original text’. They also reject the concepts of ‘fidelity and authenticity as guiding principles’, in line with a broader turn across adaptation theory as a whole. As a result, essays are grouped according to ‘anti-hierarchical transmedia dialogue’.
The first grouping is concerned with ‘transmediating technology and science’. Gino Roncaglia troubles the centrality of Frankenstein to the Gothic and sf traditions, outlining a series of overlaps where their generic coordinates are in productive dialogue through Mary Shelley’s text. These overlaps resonate through the other two essays in the group, both of which present analysis of single texts that adapt Frankenstein’s underpinning themes and structure into contemporary political and technological contexts. Lidia De Michelis’ interpretation of Robert Harris’ The Fear Index addresses neoliberal finance and automation, while Eleanor Beal presents a techno-feminist analysis of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Both readings align with the text-as-articulation-of-cultural-anxieties perspective that has been central to Gothic criticism, but articulate specific sf anxieties around control, influence and autonomy.
The second grouping offers a series of reflections on humanity, transhumanity and subhumanity. Claire Nally positions Frankenstein as an ur-text of steampunk, using this genre location to show how modern adaptations place scientific and humanitarian concerns into dialogue, using Frankenstein as a common language to articulate questions of mechanization and disability. Claudia Gualtieri offers a reading based in postcolonialism and hybridity, positing that Shelley uses the Promethean myth to colonise her present, and that further literary receptions and adaptations of Frankenstein, including The Satanic Verses and District 9, represent an ongoing colonization of the present by the postcolonial and posthuman – one in which the Creature’s composite body becomes a body politic for postcolonial society. For Federico Meschini, comic book adaptations of Frankenstein represent a parallel development to the more-frequently-studied cinematic iterations, and traces Frankenstein’s presence on superhero comics as illustrated edition, transmedia adaptation, rewriting and influence – a semiotic trail which leads to the likes of Marvel’s Doctor Doom and DC’s Bizarro.
The next grouping takes a further step into transmedia territory, opening with Enrico Reggiani’s exploration of inspiration and influence, a dialogue between Frankenstein and the world of music. Shelley’s emphasis on the intersection of music and the literary imagination has, according to Reggiani, remained an oversight in Frankenstein scholarship to date, despite numerous moments in the novel where music or musicality and the unfolding literary narrative intersect. Diego Saglia’s contribution is concerned with reception and representation of Frankenstein across national and cultural boundaries in its early theatrical adaptation, leaning on the extent to which these visualized, reified Frankensteins disseminated the story and ensured its longevity – particularly by remediating it into and out of France, bringing theatrical techniques and receptive attitudes with it. Similarly, Daniele Pio Buenza focuses on the integral presence Frankenstein has in the early American film industry, and the liberality of the earliest adaptation directed by James Searle Dawley in 1910, in which the complexity of the novel is placed into conflict with anti-censorship measures and the technical limitations of one-reel film. Finally, Ruth Heholt discusses the textual poaching of Penny Dreadful, which re-imagines Frankenstein (among other foundational Gothic texts) and exceeds the radicalism of its originals by presenting the dysfunctional characters in proximity and at greater length, cross-pollinating themes and creating an ‘uber-reading’ fantasy of texts operating together.
The fourth grouping presents three essays on Frankenstein’s postmodern afterlives. The first – Janet Larson’s reflection on the tactile textuality of Margaret Atwood’s Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein – explores the multimedia lives and afterlives of a text self-consciously created for the kind of transformed and transmediated existence that Frankenstein itself has had. Andrew McKinnes, meanwhile, attends to ‘the profoundly adolescent concerns’ of the young Shelley, reading Frankenstein as young adult fiction which represents a later cultural icon, the teenager. The three novels McKinnes analyses – This Dark Endeavour (Kenneth Oppel), Mister Creecher (Christopher Priestley) and The Monster’s Wife (Kate Horsley) – ‘all seek to fill a gap in Shelley’s original text’ and ‘see a corresponding gap, or lack, at the heart of their teenage protagonist’s subjectivity’, a reading which raises questions about the purpose of transformative adaptation. Finally, Anna Enrichetta Soccio brings the collection full circle, engaging with the matter of authoritative texts as it discusses dialogism in Back from the Dead: The True Sequel to Frankenstein. Soccio troubles the claim of a sequel upon its source text for meaning and relevance, asking us to consider the sequel as an act of diegesis, a relationship between texts that constitutes the entire Western literary tradition. Frankenstein, says Soccio, is opened by its sequels, which reread and re-acclimatise it for new readers, new responses and new perspectives informed by the play between the ur-text and its afterlives.
It seems odd, though, that none of the essays in the collection are concerned with fan fiction, despite the introduction’s emphasis on fan fiction as a legitimate cultural form. This highlights the one weakness of the work as a whole. The introduction mentions other post-textual forms – ‘computer games, transmedia web series, ballets or cartoons’ - which have been on the fringes of scholarly discourse. While this volume approaches comics and music without fear, enough of the essays remain in the traditional territories of literary and film scholarship that it promises slightly more than is delivered.
That said, the arrangement of these perspectives according to dialogic principles does work well to challenge the comparative authority and credibility of some textual forms over others, and Saggini and Soccio’s paradigm for readership and transmedia relationships between texts is refreshing. Transmedia Creatures does not present a fait accompli; it should be treated as a series of works that attempt to reshape the scholarly discourse around a keynote text – and as a call to arms for future scholarship.