Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Unexpected-Alison Miler

One of the greatest advantages of filmmaking is the lasting impression that can be formed from a single viewing of a movie. However, this advantage only acknowledges one side of the piece—the filmmaker’s. When observed more closely, film has the potential for great harm especially when based off of a novel. A perfect example of this is Frankenstein. When someone hears the name “Frankenstein” the first image they create is a mindless monster with creepy features and an evil heart. However, after reading the first half of Mary Shelley’s novel, there is no real reason for a reader to create this mental picture. This, I believe is Lynd Ward’s main goal in his illustrations—to remind the reader that the depiction of Frankenstein belongs to one artist, but that should not restrict the imagination as a reader turns each page in the book.

This attempt to bring the reader back to the reality of the literature is exemplified on page 124 ½. In order to understand the illustration, the reader must force the horrifying representation of Frankenstein out of their minds and truly analyze the information given in the text and the image. First and foremost, the “monster” is crumbled to the ground, with his head hung as to show his disappointment and misery, reflective of a direct quote from page 124—“’…but how was I horrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! …I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification”. With a mental creation of the monster like those in the movie, this illustration of weakness makes no sense. However, when taken in the context of the novel, this image not only makes sense but also creates a sense of compassion for the reader. In my opinion, this is precisely the effect that Ward was attempting to create when he drew this image.

With nothing else in the image to use as a source of perspective, this 8-foot giant shrivels into a defeated human that anyone can easily relate to. Following the theme of his relatable nature, the illustration is from an eye-level point of view. If the artist were trying to depict an evil creature, this image would be from a low point of view as to belittle the viewer and emphasize the power of the monster. But rather, Ward tried something new; what if the reader saw Frankenstein as his own kind—a human being—instead of this wretched creation?

Ward maintained the sculpted strength of each muscle in the monster’s body but now they serve a new purpose as he reaches forward, gripping a rock in order to support his disheartened body. If someone were to see this reaction from a stereotypical human, the response would not be one of disgust but rather sympathy and concern. Without a preconceived notion of violence and terror, this posture would portray a weakened being, desperate for emotional support. Instead the viewer overlooks his cry for help and continues to assume negativity.

Finally, the reader can analyze the face of the monster. Rather than the expectation of screws and scars, the reader is presented with a childish purity. At first look, his eyes seem to simply portray shock but upon further thought it becomes clear that they represent more than just that. With the perfectly circular shape and lack of any imperfection they mimic the eyes of a small child, innocent of the misfortunes of the world they’re now a part of.

I acknowledge that in the second half of the novel, the monster could take a turn for the worse and end up satisfying the image created by films. However, Ward intentionally placed this illustration at this stage in the story. While reading a book, the reader usually has the benefit of taking each word the author presents and making a mental movie but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lost this ability ever since the Hollywood movie was created. Ward successfully snaps the reader back into the words and creations of Mary Shelley through his unexpected reflection of the literature.

Shelley, Mary, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein, The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934.


  1. The portion of the essay about the "point-of-view" of the illustration depicting the monster in the specific manner is very accurate and a valuable observation. I think that sums up pretty well the argument Lynn Ward is trying to make in the illustration. I think there could be a bit more clarification in the essay when you mention the "viewer" if you are or are not referring to an individual who had seen the film previous to reading the novel. In addition, I think it was a great illustration to choose to write about.

  2. Following Alex, I admire your attention to specific details of the image itself. We aren't trained to really "read" images with care, unless we have specific training in art history, art, etc., so this was nice to see. I have a somewhat different reading of the monster's big eyes - pay attention when you read McCloud this week to various related discussions; it's something I'd like to return to, possibly using your blog entry.

    If you revise, it might be interesting to do more with a film - if I remember correctly (not 100% sure) the monster seeing himself in the water *is* filmed in the 1935 sequel (Bride of Frankenstein) to the 1931 film. I'd be very interested to see what you make of that film and of those particular moments in it (if I remember right).

    Anyway, I liked this a lot, but I do have one substantial criticism. At the beginning, you basically argue that Ward is critiqueing the film. That's fine, and likely true. But you are more arguing that he is being literalistic in his portrayal of the novel (also fine).

    But is this literal depiction of the temporarily childlike monster really out of step with the film? Remember when he sees the light for the first time and reaches up for it, while whimpering? Remember even how his first "murder" of Maria started as a game?

    What I'm trying to suggest, in other words, is that even if Ward is quite literalistic in this mater, that contradicts the film less than you might think.