Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s titular character (and his monster!) have been made and remade, especially since the advent of film. And really, that’s one of the things that the creature can represent—a certain sort of reading of the text suggests that Frankenstein’s monster is emblematic of poetry and story-telling, of the way that novels and writings are often informed by various sources.
Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a pivotal early text of the feminist movement. Mary Shelley didn’t know her mother—she died in 1797, less than 2 weeks after giving birth to Shelley—but the legacy that Wollstonecraft left behind was a complex one. She was both celebrated and condemned for her promiscuity, for her ideas about femininity, and for her genius. Shelley’s father was William Godwin, a mostly-political writer with anarchist philosophies.
Left to care for Mary Shelley and her sister, Fanny Imlay (Wollstonecraft’s daughter from an affair), William Godwin began searching for a wife. In the meantime, he took great interest in Mary’s education, and so her early childhood education was well supervised. He remarried in 1801, and by most accounts, Mary’s stepmother didn’t seem to like her much—her stepbrother, Charles, and stepsister, Jane (who later changed her name to Claire), were formally educated while Mary was left at home; Mary’s access to her father was limited; and Mary’s mail was often opened by the new Mrs. Godwin.
Despite her lack of formal education, Mary Shelley listened to such thinkers and writers as Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, friends of her father’s, when they visited her home. They were often interested in Mary, the product of two such forward-thinking intellectuals. Mary also had access to her father’s rather extensive library, and so she grew up reading. Early on she turned to writing, too. At the age of 10, she had a children’s story published by her father’s children’s book company.
In 1812, Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his then-wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley. Over the course of many evenings dining with the Godwins and talking with Mary, Percy and Mary fell in love. It was only after his attempted suicide in 1814 that Mary was truly convinced of this, though. Afterwards, she and Claire fled with him to France shortly.
In 1816, Claire had an affair with George Gordon, Lord Byron, and it was during a visit to his home that Mary Shelley came up with the inklings of what would become Frankenstein. One evening, the group was driven inside by rain, and they began reading ghost stories. That night, as a sort of game, they were all supposed to write their own horror tale. Mary’s was to be the beginning of her novel. She was 19. And the world was never to be quite the same.
As of now, IMDB lists more than 70 films in which Frankenstein and his monster appear. Film adaptations of the novel have been in production for over 100 years, with the earliest film a 12-minute short adaptation from 1910. The short was made only a few years after the advent of film, when the line between stage acting and film acting was just being explored, and it reflects some interesting early film practices. Currently, Victor Frankenstein features as a character on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and he has been a character on ABC’s Once Upon a Time.