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Filmic machines and animated monsters: retelling Frankenstein in the digital age

Hawley, Erin (2011) Filmic machines and animated monsters: retelling Frankenstein in the digital age. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Frankensteinian monsters have appeared on our screens since the early days of cinema. Indeed, across the history of film we see Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny” rewritten as alchemical creations, animated corpses, lumbering fiends, robots, cyborgs, replicants, dinosaurs, artificial intelligences and digital constructions. In particular, Shelley’s text shares its speculative depiction of a posthuman future with fantastic and science-fictional cinema of the digital age. At the same time, posthuman bodies are being created by filmmakers. New possibilities in the digital imaging of human presence – from the replacement of actors with computer-generated imagery to the quest for photorealism in digital animation – themselves evoke the Frankenstein tale and consequently make interesting contributions to the evolving Frankenstein myth.

This thesis investigates the retelling of Frankenstein in popular cinema of the digital age. Through close analysis of a series of chosen texts, I examine the figure of the Frankensteinian monster and his/her/its equivalents in today’s popular culture: posthuman figures who negotiate uneasily with the organic world, boundary creatures who both define and unsettle our understandings of human being. I consider the way the tale, its themes and characters have both endured and evolved over time. I also examine the way these new filmic “machines” and animated “monsters” embody crucial problems associated with the technologies that screen them and the media that contain them.

My concern in this project is twofold. Firstly, I seek to map the (changing) relationship between Frankenstein and film. Since the early 1900s, cinema has provided a fertile ground for the retelling of Shelley’s tale. At the same time, cinema itself has always been a sort of Frankensteinian experiment: a means of breathing life into stillness, of constructing and re-constructing human presence, of stitching together fragmented moments to create a semblance of wholeness. In the digital age, this experiment grows and changes: new modes of production are continually being trialled, allowing us to re-create and re-present human presence in new and often bizarre ways. The figure of the Frankensteinian monster confronts and responds to these concerns, embodying and performing the uncanny, spectacular, mechanical, or organic-mechanical nature of screen presence.

Secondly, this thesis reads the Frankensteinian monster as a mythic figure for the digital age. I move towards the assertion that Frankenstein is a tale about the artificial body and its negotiation with a lost or disrupted origin in the organic world, and that this particular problem reverberates strongly in an age of digital representation. The analyses that constitute this thesis contribute to the argument that each time the Frankenstein tale is retold, re-technologised, and re-imagined using new filmic techniques, the problem of the screen body and its troubled origin stories is revisited and complicated.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Media, Communication and Culture
Supervisor(s): Petkovic, Josko
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