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‘It’s (Still) Alive!’ Why Frankenstein Is Relevant 200 Years Later

black and white photo of frankenstein's monster

Author Mary Shelley’s life holds enduring intrigue. Born in 1797, Shelley was raised by famed intellectuals and trained to think in ways that stretched far beyond most women in her time, and she was undoubtedly a rebel. In her teens, Shelley took up a lover, writer Percy Shelley, who would later become her husband. Their escapades with literary friends fueled Mary Shelley’s work.

Her life was also colored by suffering. Her mother died when she was a child, and most of her own children also passed away. When the time came to pen a horror story for the amusement of her friends, Shelley had plenty of fodder for the classic gothic novel “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.” The novel turns 200 this year, but the characters Shelley created live on in movies and pop culture.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with guests about the literary, cinematographic and scientific legacy of Frankenstein. Deanna Koretsky is a professor of English at Spelman College, specializing in 18th and 19th-century literature; Marsha Gordon is a film professor at North Carolina State University, and Rodolphe Barrangou is a geneticist at North Carolina State University. The trio will participate in a panel discussion about science in the movies at Duke University’s Griffith Film Theater in the Bryan Center on Thursday, April 19 at 7 p.m.

Stasio also speaks with author John Kessel, a science fiction writer and professor of creative writing and American literature at North Carolina State University, about his Jane Austen-Mary Shelley mashup novel called “Pride and Prometheus” (Saga Press/ 2018). 


Literary scholar Deanna Koretsky on the intriguing life of "Frankenstein" author Mary Shelley:
She was born to a woman named Mary Wollstonecraft who is commonly considered to be one of the first, if not the first, feminist philosophers. And to boot, her father was William Godwin, an anarchist political philosopher. So she had the unusual benefit of an incredibly sophisticated education for the late 18th, early 19th century. An education that women really weren't supposed to get.

Film expert Marsha Gordon on the iconic 1931 “Frankenstein” film:
This is the big one that looms in everyone's mind when you picture the Frankenstein creature played by Boris Karloff ... This was a Universal Studios film. They were producing these wonderful horror films like “Dracula” in the 1930s. And it adds a number of new plot elements. One which is particularly, I think, delightful and relevant, which is Frankenstein's lab assistant – which of course you can always blame it on the lab assistant – who breaks the container holding the brain originally intended for the creature and covers it up by stealing an abnormal brain ... It's the one that really brings in the electric, energetic, scientific aspect. Much more than the [1910 version of the film produced by Thomas Edison], and much more than the novel, which does not go into tremendous amounts of detail about the creation.

Geneticist Rodolphe Barrangou on how a Frankenstein creature would be made today:
Now we think of life as DNA. Who we are, what we do, how we work, is very much driven and designed and determined by our genetic content. And if you think of how would we go about doing a Frankenstein circa 2018 – if you think of a scientist trying to create life, design life, assemble life – rather than use organs from dead animals and dead people and dead things and use electricity to drive it, we would do it synthetically in a genetic lab. We would use tools like CRISPR and molecular biology to engineer things in the lab, create life in the lab, and then design it, assemble it, and make a new puzzle made of simple DNA letters ATCG.

Writer John Kessel on crafting a mashup novel between “Pride and Prejudice” and “Frankenstein” called “Pride and Prometheus":
Jane Austen is generally considered to be one of the progenitors of the novel of manners ... And then Mary Shelley's considered the founding mother of science fiction. And these two genres go off in different directions, and yet what would happen if you put them together? Is there any way in which they might talk to each other? What kind of contradictions or similarities would there be if you tried to fuse the two kinds of genres? That's what really intrigued me.

NOTE: This program originally aired on April 18, 2018. 

Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.