I’d been looking for an uninterrupted opportunity to listen to Big Finish Classics‘ “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” since it came out in October 2014. As the novel’s frame narrative takes place in a harsh and unforgiving arctic wilderness, the bleakness of Snowpocalypse 2015 provided the ideal moment. My house was without power and internet for the best part of a day. Trapped in the forest with unnavigable roads and no contact with the outside world — my phone and computer both died very early in the day — the time was ripe for audio drama on my mp3 player, the only device that was fully charged.
As an audio-only work, Jonathan Barnes’s adaptation of Frankenstein is top-flight in terms of sound design, pacing, and even retains the three-volume structure of Mary Shelley’s novel. Of course, there have been countless adaptations of the novel, and each necessarily changes something of the text to fit the demands of its respective medium. For instance, I recently listened to David Llewellyn’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, also produced by Big Finish Classics, and was disappointed by how much of that text’s substance was thrown out wholesale in order to fashion a cohesive drama.
The thing that keeps the Big Finish Classics adaptation of Frankenstein from being ideal isn’t that it was altered, but the choices for what was altered. The alterations are less significant than in Dorian Gray, but no less odd. I had to go back and search through Project Gutenberg’s etext for the awkward phrase “father-mother.” This is a name that the creature in Barnes’s adaptation uses frequently to refer to Victor Frankenstein. I understand the thrust of it, that Victor usurps both generative roles in the creature’s manufacture, but it’s not in the original, and the overuse of it in this full-cast audio presentation really started to grate on me after a while.
Then, there’s the ending. As I said, I realize that every adaptor makes alterations, but in an adaptation that is, throughout, extremely faithful to the novel, the ending is changed so dramatically as to be disturbing. I have always enjoyed that part in the novel where the creature finds his creator dead and heads out onto the ice floes, vowing to seek his own self-immolation. The experience convinces Captain Walton, whose letters home provide the framing narrative, to turn back from his own Byronic quest.
In Barnes’s adaptation, the creature basically hugs Victor to death, and, in a conclusion in which nothing is concluded, Walton presses on with the search for a northwest passage to the Pacific. It’s much darker and more grisly than the limited redemption offered in the novel, where at least Walton learns something. Doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, just that I found the choices for deviation to be ill-fitting, and against the spirit of the source material.
As far as what is here, I’m so accustomed to the masterful touch of a Big Finish production, that the quality of Frankenstein is unsurprisingly immersive. This is a 3-hour production fit to be heard by candlelight with surround-sound speakers. The sound effects work, from the squish of viscera, to the creak of Walton’s ship during cut-scenes, to the sparse soundtrack, is something Big Finish excels at.
The voice acting, led by Arthur Darvill as Victor and Nicholas Briggs as the creature, is brilliant throughout. Darvill plays Victor along the character’s full range, from detached to monomaniacal. Briggs is the real treasure here; bringing so much nuance to the creature as a character. Big Finish’s audio engineers distort Briggs’s voice just enough to make him monstrous and uncanny, but not so much that he’s unintelligible. My favorite scene in the novel has always been the confrontation between Victor and the creature on Mont Blanc, where our expectations for the roles of dispassionate scientist and monster are, in the dialogue, completely reversed. That Victor’s ranting and the creature’s measured cadence are here preserved is a treat.
If you’re looking for an adaptation that captures much of the spirit and atmosphere of the source material, this is a terrific one. If you’re looking to not read the novel, I’d advise a straightforward unabridged audiobook of the 1818 text.