Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Frankenstein without Frankenstein: The Iron Giant and the Absent Creator

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Frankenstein without Frankenstein: The Iron Giant and the Absent Creator

Article excerpt

MARY SHELLEY'S 1818 NOVEL FRANKENSTEIN HAS INSPIRED AN ALMOST uncountable number of film adaptations, many of which have in turn spawned their own sequels, series, spin-offs, mega-franchises, and finally parodies: the Frankenstein tradition has matured and mutated to include everyone from Abbot and Costello to Mel Brooks and Herman Munster. Somewhere near the top of this estimable heap, I would place Brad Bird's animated film The Iron Giant (1999), which we can conceive of as itself a sort of dramatic "reanimation" of the 1968 children's novel by Ted Hughes. Indeed, the adaptation borrows little from the book other than its title and its central characters, (1) and director Bird reconfigures Hughes's thematic concerns such that Shelley's novel and James Whale's all-influential 1931 film version supplant the original source to become The Iron Giant's primary intertexts. (2) Early on in the film, beatnik junk artist Dean McCoppin offhandedly describes the giant as "some Franken-bot with out-of-state plates," but the title character's distinctly Karloffian iconography--complete with broad shoulders and prominent bolts on each side of the head--remains the least significant point of contact between the story of the Iron Giant and the story of Frankenstein. on the most basic level, The Iron Giant tells the tale of an artificial being that, in precise contrast to Frankenstein's monster, receives the proper nurturing and moral education from a warm-hearted surrogate parent; accordingly, Bird's giant learns to reject the same rancorous violence to which Shelley's unloved monster claims to have no other recourse. Nevertheless, the film proves itself more than some simplistically optimistic rereading of the Frankenstein story, as its real innovation lies in its suppression of the most meager hint about the artificial man's creator or raison d'etre. We see in The Iron Giant a being truly abandoned by its maker(s), yet one that manages to overcome the manifold forces propelling it towards violence, thanks to a for tuitous combination of circumstance, education, rational self-determination, and human sympathy. While many would disagree with Brian Aldiss's dismissal of all film adaptations of Frankenstein--"The cinema has helped enormously to disseminate the myth while destroying its significance" (Billion Year Spree 23n)--works like The Iron Giant have undeniably continued to alter its significance, engaging with its foundational science fiction themes even as they expand the tradition with new concerns, such as, here, a turn-of-the-millennium denunciation of the excesses of the Cold War.

I recognize that I am far from the first to make a connection between The Iron Giant and Frankenstein, but the extent and sophistication of their relationship deserve much closer examination. Even at the time of its release, the film struck many reviewers as something like "Frankenstein meets E.T.," (3) and Bird himself lists these two cinematic precursors among his main influences, citing "The Day the Earth Stood Still, E.T., Frankenstein, King Kong, even The Black Stallion" (Warren 52). Told in short order, the plot of the film will appear unapologetically Spielbergian: after crash-landing on earth, a mysterious but good-natured visitor from outer space takes up residence in a forest not too distant from the backyard of a lonely boy named Hogarth Hughes. Once the boy manages to overcome his initial horror upon discovering the monster, the two become fast friends, and he must struggle to hide the giant from his mother, the other townspeople, and a nosy investigator from the government. When the monster is inevitably found out, the military descends on the little town in order to deal with it, ultimately resulting in the bittersweet separation of the two friends. Yet, while the trajectory of the film's plot may seem much more similar to that of E.T. than any adaptation of Frankenstein, I would propose that The Iron Giant in fact matches Shelley's novel almost point for point in terms of the monster's education and emotional development, with each deviation remaining explicitly within the bounds of how, in Bird's understanding, Shelley's monster might have ended up. …

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