English - Revive a monster tale

27th January 2012 at 00:00
The novel 'Frankenstein' deserves to be stirred from its slumber

I spoke to a group of sixth-formers at a school recently. They were starting a study of Gothic literature and had begun by looking at Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Their enthusiasm was not unbridled.

We talked about the book and their reaction to it. As we talked it was clear that, although they had enjoyed some aspects of it, and they clearly thought it was important and clever, they were just not emotionally engaged or excited by it.

This was in marked contrast to my reaction when I read the book years ago. I was far from a bookish teenager, spending a good deal of time reading Marvel comics. And yet, 40 years later, I have written a book based on Shelley's novel: Mister Creecher.

So why did Frankenstein thrill me and not these students? How can we bring Shelley's creation to life again? Does it matter? I think it does. Frankenstein is a flawed novel, but it deserves to be read and enjoyed, not digested as a chore.

I think I might know one reason why these students were not as enthralled as I was. Few, if any, had seen James Whale's 1931 movie adaptation of Frankenstein. Although they were familiar with the Boris Karloff image of Frankenstein's creature, they had not seen the movie that introduced that image to the world.

That movie bears little relation to the novel, but that just makes the book more exciting because the differences are all spectacular ones. The creature is not a shambling, badly stitched together mute, but a huge, raven-haired anti-hero. He talks. He has feelings. The terror in his appearance comes from his great size and the fact that he looks lifeless. Shelley makes no mention of scars or stitches, or even that he was composed of body parts.

The story behind the novel is great, too: Shelley, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire, Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, sitting around in Villa Diodati, daring each other to write a ghost story. Shelley was a teenager when she had the nightmare that would become Frankenstein. That amazed me and should amaze students now.

The creature sounds horribly familiar, too. Just think of the "you don't know me" rants. Surely any teenager can relate to that? I know I did. Let's attach the crocodile clips and pull that lever. Frankenstein will live again.

Chris Priestley is an author of fiction and non-fiction

What else?

What is a monster? Facetious considers this in a presentation that comes highly recommended. It compares Frankenstein's monster with real people considered monstrous.

Develop pupils' confidence with essay writing on Shelley's novel with TES English's lesson plan and activity.

Is the monster guilty? Debate this in a trial role-play shared by Temperance.

Pupils need help structuring essays about Frankenstein? Try maz1's writing frame to extend top-set pupils.

A wealth of Frankenstein resources is available on the TES website.

In the forums

In the English forum, teachers are offering advice on what to cover in an Inset day centred on literacy across the curriculum.

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources019.

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