The Blockbuster Films You Didn’t Realise Owe Everything To Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

This year's spate of films about men battling would-be AI monsters owes quite a debt to a Gothic literature classic.

If you’ve been to the cinema lately, you might have noticed a trend. Tales of men obsessed with using technology to overcome society’s ills keep popping up on screens, namely Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina and Chappie. Movies covering the same scenario or theme at the same time are so common that there’s a name for them – twin films – but that’s not the case here. A comic book adaptation, a sci-fi thriller and a futuristic action movie, each offers their own take on the topic of wrestling with man-made consciousness.

And yet, their frames are all still filled with science-minded figures wrangling life from artificial intelligence, and then facing the consequences of their creations. You’re not only seeing them play with the same elements – you’ve actually seen all this before. In fact, you may have even read it, too. Welcome to the latest wave of movies rehashing a storyline that’s been doing the rounds for almost two centuries, courtesy of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley; Or, The Mother Of The Modern Re-Animated

When Mary Shelley unleashed Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus upon the world in 1818, she couldn’t have realised what she had done. Not just publish her first novel at the age of twenty, albeit anonymously. Not just one-up her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend, Lord Byron, two of England’s leading romantic poets, in a game to see who could conjure the scariest ghost story. And not just spark an endless cycle of people calling the re-animated figure described in her pages “Frankenstein,” the name that actually belongs to its maker, followed quickly by people complaining about it.

Yes, Shelley did many things when she breathed literary life into a medical student attempting to conquer death by stitching together corpses and then jolting the end result to consciousness with electricity. She wrote a book that lives on in countless stage and screen adaptations, starting in 1910. This year alone, television series Penny Dreadful continues to use it and other Gothic classics as its basis, a new film version starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe is due out later in 2015, and a modernised update with Carrie-Anne Moss is slated. Plus there are two TV shows in the works, one bringing cops into the mix, the other starring noted on-screen roadkill Sean Bean.

Shelley also evoked lasting fascination in her own story, with Frankenstein‘s origins almost as famous as the piece of prose itself. 1988’s Rowing with the Wind featured Hugh Grant as Byron and Elizabeth Hurley as Mary’s stepsister, for example. Two new takes on the tale behind the tale are about to go into production, one directed by Wadjda‘s Haifaa Al-Mansour and starring Elle Fanning as the author, the other with Sophie Turner – because every TV series or film has to feature a cast member of Game of Thrones, it seems.

Matters Of Would-Be Monsters And Men

Today’s filmmakers remain enamoured with Frankenstein, and creative minds keep delving into its midst in more than just the obvious ways. We’re not talking about the misguided, Melbourne-shot update I, Frankenstein, but other contemplations of scientific pursuits gone awry. Much may have evolved since Shelley composed her tome, yet ideas of science conquering death and technology creating life still stir the same feelings that she committed to paper.

In our current cultural climate, those age-old anxieties combine with our constantly online world to start trains of thought about where IT-fuelled advancements might lead. Joss Whedon, Alex Garland and Neill Blomkamp have jumped on board that particular locomotive, with Frankenstein providing the track for their movie musings to coast along. They don’t hide the inspiration for their obsessive men and electronic would-be monsters, or the debt they owe to Shelley in the dynamic between the two.

When Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) convinces Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to help him create the peace-keeping program he’s always dreamed of (aka the titular, James Spader-voiced AI), he’s infected with the kind of feverish passion seen in most on-screen depictions of Victor Frankenstein. The moment Ultron starts questioning and interpreting his purpose, echoes of the philosophising of Shelley’s nameless creature can be heard. And then there’s the scene when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) jolts the Vision, the Avengers’ attempt to overcome Ultron, into being with lightning – though sadly without the cry of “it’s alive!” linked with Frankenstein films since James Whale’s seminal 1931 feature.

Where Avengers: Age of Ultron offers a matryoshka doll of Frankenstories, Ex Machina favours a more traditional approach. Author and screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut is sparse in the steely images it presents, and in what basically comprises a three-person chamber play – well, one reclusive search engine company CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac); one eager employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson); and one AI-infused android, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Though doled out as a thriller predicated upon secrets and lies, the film’s parallels with Shelley’s novel can’t be shaken. Swap re-animated humans for artificial intelligence and immortality for a sentient computer program, and the battle between the pursuit of knowledge and the existential ramifications from pushing the boundaries plays out. Ex Machina does also add a jaw-dropping dance scene for good measure, though.

Fancy footwork aside, Ex Machina is actually more interested in Ava’s experience than Nathan and Caleb’s, with her journey to understand her place in the world at the heart of the film. Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie takes such sympathies a step further, presenting the titular robot (played in motion capture by Sharlto Copley) as a surrogate child. There’s much that doesn’t work in the director’s exploration of Chappie’s maturation, Die Antwoord’s casting included; however, the unpleasant awakenings the military-manufactured machine faces as he mentally comes of age brings the pain of Frankenstein’s monster to the 21st century. When he’s not being taught how to be a gangster, Chappie simply wonders why he exists and tries to cope with the answers. It’s a line of thinking in a man-made being that not only mirrors Shelley, but also adds a surprisingly human core to a movie otherwise overloaded with messy, mechanised warfare.

What’s New Is Old

Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina and Chappie offer Frankenstein adaptations in disguise, though they’re not the first films to do so – nor will they be the last. Indeed, Shelley’s greatest feat might just be crafting a tale that remains timely, relevant and influential in a wealth of guises, be it Tim Curry playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, John Hughes indulging teenage male fantasies in Weird Science, or Tim Burton giving birth to his seemingly never-ending collaboration with Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands.

Yes, movies have been stating Frankenstein‘s case for decades, in everything from the gore-heavy Lovecraftian horror of Re-Animator, to Blade Runner‘s much more subtle focus on technology worship, and even Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘ depiction of the evolutionary consequences of medical research gone astray. Is a scientist trying to create a new creature, humanlike in appearance and/or intellect? Does said creation inspire a wealth of weighty questions about the nature of life? Does trouble follow? That’s Mary Shelley’s playbook, and filmmakers have been cribbing from it for years.

Sarah Ward is a Brisbane-based writer and film critic. She writes for artsHub, Concrete Playground and FilmInk, talks about film on ABC radio, and tweets  at @swardplay.