June 11, 2018
Promethean Promises: Frankenstein and Jurassic Park

Professor Cassandra Bausman from Trine University reflects on the legacy of Mary Shelley's famous novel and its connections to a more modern story.

The Promethean Promise of Frankenstein’s Legacy: Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, and Scientific and Imaginative Vision

by Dr. Cassandra Bausman

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was a triumph of creative vision and scientific possibility, and its afterlife is perhaps even more impressive. At its bicentenary, Frankenstein’s legacy can be traced through much genre-fare, itself a creative source to adaptations and appropriations as much as the lightning so often and so iconically shown to animate Creature.

 In one noteable homage, “The Postmodern Prometheus” episode of The X-Files (1997) positions Agent Mulder to comment on the common lineage between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and contemporary science fiction, clearly tracing its influence into the present day. As Mulder passionately declaims, “When Victor Frankenstein asks himself whence did the principle of life proceed and then…as the gratifying summit of his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man, he prefigures the post-modern Prometheus: the genetic engineer, whose power to reanimate matter—genes—into life—us—is only as limited as his imagination.” As the development of science fiction, unfurled from Shelley’s seminal creation, demonstrates, sf often takes its science as catalyst, tapping into the reigning scientific paradigm of the era in constructing its cautionary tales. For Shelley, that paradigm was electricity, the sizzling lightning bolts and arcing volts powering the burgeoning Industrial Revolution; for Godzilla (1954), it was radioactivity and the Bomb; for Jurassic Park (1990), it is biotechnology, the manipulation of cells and genes an echo of Frankenstein’s enlivening of dead matter, of the pieces and potentiality carefully assembled, then animated (“Here Come the DNAsaurs”). And yet, there is more to Mulder’s glib claim than a simplistic commentary on how sf heralds or reflects scientific advancement, just as Frankenstein is more than a myth whose threat updates its shape to keep pace with time. Deliberately recalling the subtitle of Shelley’s iconic Frankenstein, Mulder here seems also to speak directly, and perhaps more importantly, to the foundational link between scientific achievement and the imagination. Indeed, this same association might be said to anchor sf broadly, as the critical and creative mode of storytelling which perhaps best explores this fertile relationship, this fantastic pursuit of what comes—of science and the creative writing process—of testing limits, superseding the known, and bolding asking ‘what if.’  In this double-barreled “science fiction” genre, the nature and forms of our fictions matter, too, their shapings much more than vessels packaging nascent science.

The countless re-workings and re-imaginings of the Frankenstein mythos within contemporary sf are testament to that rapacious truth. Thus, in the spirit of Mulder’s assertion, this essay explores the mutually-illuminative benefits of the combinatory examination of Shelley’s Frankenstein and the genetic-engineering-centric Jurassic Park, positioning the latter as the predominant re-working of the Frankenstein myth within contemporary sf. As one is a classic work of English literature and the other a beloved mass-market thriller and franchise-spawning blockbuster film, the two texts may seem jarringly dissimilar. Yet, each forces a consideration of such weighty questions as the ethics and morals of scientific process, the commercialization of scientific achievement, the interplay of power, control, and respect for the natural world, and—perhaps most poignantly—the generative and yet also potentially problematic relationship between scientific progress and imaginative vision. Indeed, this union of the monstrous and miraculous, the glittering promise of science set against the nameless horror in the shadows—whether of our own creation or of our own selves—is why the proliferation of Frankenstein or Promethean narratives continues so rapaciously in the contemporary moment. Calling attention to the issues each text surfaces and to how the values, questions, and criticisms contained within each might be enriched in comparative conversation, this essay is an invitation to explore the critical mileage to be gained from considering Shelley’s novel alongside Crichton’s. Furthermore, as the late Richard Attenborough brilliantly portrays a Promethean figure quite different from the visionary of Jurassic Park the novel, Spielberg’s distinct filmic adaptation (1993) demands particular consideration here as well, much as we might also consider what light viewing these texts as variations upon a common theme may shed upon the (stunningly inferior) Jurassic World reboots (2015; 2018). Pieces of a shared mythology, we will examine the common themes and uncommon narratives of these two Promethean tales which continue to give the iconic ‘mad scientist’ story its relevance and persistent potential for new reinterpretations. Indeed, in this exploration, my attention will be focused not simply on the particulars of adapting the Frankenstein-inspired story into new (and dinosaur-laden) cultural touchstones but will use these adaptations as a way of exploring and understanding how Shelley’s legacy proliferates. Through the lens of the comparison, we will see how Shelley’s legacy is not so much her content nor her plot, ample and influential though they prove, but one which lies at least as much in her exquisite exploration of the creative process, her seminal model a testament to the scientific and imaginative vision that resonates through all subsequent sf creation.

Promethean Pairings: Frankenstein and Jurassic Park

Frankenstein itself is much like the ‘monster’ it gave life. It is, textually, an assemblage of dead fragments, stitched of 26 characters of language, masterfully united and animated by its creator and actively consumed and interpreted by its readers to make a living whole. Yet more significantly, Frankenstein’s legacy—as this special anniversary highlights—is not contained within one text, one corpus. While Shelley gave it life, other texts, across media, genre, and decade, have contributed to the mythos, remaking and reshaping it into the legacy we inherit today—one still alive, still actively growing and mutating before us. At 200, it is that very question of life-giving influence and subsequent interpretation and proliferation, that galvanizing font of intertextual potential and seemingly inexhaustible endless possibility for renewal, repetition or reinterpretation that primarily captures us: How does a text persist, we ask at this bicentenary, how does its influence pervade culture so powerfully, how is Frankenstein so wonderfully and vibrantly still “Aalliiiive!”? What is the secret of this powerful spark, what new light has it shed, and into what new shapes channeled?

Chris Baldick’s reception history (1987) of Shelley’s novel suggests some essential illumination. Contending that all texts have the potential to achieve their own immortality, in language redolent of Frankenstein, Baldick argues that “books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own” (30). The case of Frankenstein’s legacy particularly demonstrates how “like the monster it contains, the novel…escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth” (30), as cultural processes take over in the aftermath of initial writing, and the audience (so fascinatingly, in Shelley’s case, one invited actively into the tale) assumes control. Their consumption and new, inspired creative retellings produce textual adaptations allowing the story to continuously expand beyond initial audience and “native reach” (Troost and Greenfield, 432), its legacy prospering “not through simple reproductions but through re-interpretations, quotations, and transformations” (431). Indeed, Creature’s desire for friends, for a mate, for connection instead of a life spent in isolation is achieved intertextually through this powerful legacy of influence, this eternal proliferation of adaptation, transformation, and transmutation that is the Frankenstein mythos. As Baldick argues, it is all these variants and modes of engagement, all these Frankensteins, all these Creatures, all these texts and forms, these experiments and incarnations, all these filial relationships, from slavish homage and careful reference to the outrageous or tangential, subtle or explicit, that are at once “Frankenstein.” As he says of the layered, complex legacy we know at 200, “that series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows up on Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth” (4). Like her Creature, Shelley’s legacy has become a composite, a pastiche of pieces of text and media, a cultural tapestry, a living creation whose legacy and influence looms large.

Thus, as we must speak in multiplicity when speaking of the polyphonic Frankenstein mythos, cognizant of the breadth of interlocking image and theme that stretch, complimentarily and contradictorily, across text and time, the particular shapes of these transformations become compelling, and, underlying them all, the central work of imagination, of the creative vision informing and manipulating both the science and the fiction, becomes especially key.

Frankenstein is a classic story that has endured dozens of retellings and reshapings of its original format since it first was published in 1818, and it continues to be revisited, thick with themes that compel us even today. This year brings not one but two new Frankenstein-based TV shows. One; ITV’s Sean-Bean-starring period crime drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, in which it appears the Doctor and his Creation are the crime being investigated. The other; Fox’s crime drama Frankenstein, which will follow a retired corrupt cop brought back from the dead in a variant in which ‘the monster’ is seemingly reimagined as the conflicted anti-hero criminal-investigator protagonist. In this case, both new takes are departing strongly from the source material (Fox’s, in particular, seems to be inspired solely by the ‘man brought back from the dead’ element) (Trendacosta). Yet, while there are many contemporary iterations whose surfaces suggest an alliance with Shelley’s classic science fiction masterwork and bank on explicit connection and name-recognition, (take, for further evidence, last summer’s iffy I, Frankenstein)[1], in many ways, Jurassic Park might be viewed as the dominant 21st century iteration of Frankenstein.

For example, while there may be little in common between Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at first glance, there are central aspects that are extraordinarily similar between the two. Jurassic Park, broadly, is about the cunning recreation and genetic manipulation of extinct animals in the modern world and subsequent attempts to control them. Set alongside a discussion of why this plan must inevitably fail, regardless of the precautions taken, it is a cautionary tale of the limits of man’s ambition and understanding of nature (particularly when commercializing it), a critique of his delusions of control and supremacy, the fallibility of his assumptions as well as false narratives of progress. Frankenstein, similarly, is about a young scientist’s ambition to create life, and the resultant morality tale explores how his attitude towards his experiment backfires on him.

Both stories center on the idea of achieving the impossible: re-creating life. In Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein assembles his Creature as a pastiche of dead bodies, garnered from charnal houses, re-animating him with the help of lightning; In Jurassic Park, John Hammond and his team, including head geneticist Henry Wu, devise an ingenious method of cloning extinct dinosaurs: recovering their preserved DNA from mosquitoes frozen in amber and filling in the genetic code with extant amphibious strands.

In both stories, something monstrous is created by artificial means; and in the creation, and resultant fall-out, both texts ask if it is the created or creator which is the more dangerous and aberrant. Both feature protagonists who disregard the ethics of their scientific experiments, and a common theme is the dangers and hubris of science without conscience (as the Jurassic Park screenplay elegantly puts its central critique: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should”).

Indeed, both tales reflect concerns of the day and are known for figuring science as a powerful and misused tool and playing out the devastating effects of reaching into the unknown, both critical of ambitious science and scientific curiosity without moral limits. Both Frankenstein and Jurassic Park were written at times of great technological shifts: Shelley was caught up in the Age of Enlightenment, when a burst of new scientific ideas and systems were troubling some who thought Rationalism was taking humans and the idea of ‘progress’ further away from their connection with what was truly important, like nature, God, and their own intuition and emotions. Similarly, Jurassic Park was written at the cusp of the internet boom and an increasing paranoia about a world too dependent on technology, as well as a rapid expansion of genetic engineering and debates about cloning and stem-cell use—Crichton even prefaces his novel with an essay charting recent scientific breakthroughs in biotechnology and pointing out, in the spirit of Shelley, potential problems. Both share the old adage that in science, as the saying goes, what is not strictly prohibited is, in principle, possible. Jurassic Park’s vision of hubristic scientists determined to shape the future, damn the consequences, recalls the physicists of the Manhattan Project: when they set off the Trinity test in Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945; they were not sure that the atomic bomb would not ignite the planet’s entire atmosphere, consuming Earth in a world-ending holocaust. They did it anyway. Jurassic Park’s cataclysmic ending, in a fiery holocaust as the island preserve is bombed to smithereens, as well as Frankenstein’s, in the Creature’s heart-breaking promise of consigning himself to his own funeral pyre, both recall this imagery. Indeed, Crichton sees in “Jurassic Park” a reflection of science’s delusion of control, commenting in interviews about his novel’s adaptation for the silver screen:  “Biotechnology and genetic engineering are very powerful…The film suggests that [science’s] control of nature is elusive. And just as war is too important to leave to the generals, science is too important to leave to scientists. Everyone needs to be attentive” (“Here Come the DNAsaurs”).

Of course, what was supposed to be breakthrough in science that would mean taming the powers of life and death turns out to be a perversion in Frankenstein, a pale and grotesque imitation of what is truly human, much as the titular doctor’s obsessive pursuit of his breakthrough turns him into a similarly grotesque figure. Similarly, man’s attempt to control nature using technology goes horribly awry in Jurassic Park, and even man’s own technology, such as the park’s massive computer system that controls everything, the battery-charged missiles, even the locks on the doors, fail and put many people in harm’s way.

Indeed, in terms of making readers more critically aware, both novels are deliberately framed as cautionary tales. Structurally, both begin with frame stories that make clear the tragic trajectory of the adventure. In plot, both Victor Frankenstein and John Hammond (and his biologists and engineers, and even his lawyers and PR and marketing specialists) make a futile try at harnessing nature’s power with man-made technology. In both novels, man and nature are shown in violent conflict. In Dr. Malcolm’s memorable words, encapsulating both Jurassic Park’s central message and recalling the age of the Romantics, “What’s so great about discovery? It is a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”  Ultimately, nature overpowers man, as both Crichton and Shelley’s novels argue that man should not try to play god, for the power of nature is too wide and unfathomable to be understood by man, let alone predicted or controlled.

Mary Shelley emphasizes nature’s power in that Victor, try as hard as he may to control nature and manipulate it to his abilities and desires, simply does not have the capability or temperament or empathy or understanding to play God. In Jurassic Park, this same theme is reflected mostly through Dr. Malcolm, a rough analogue of Crichton’s critical voice in the novel, the “chaotician,” whose mathematically-informed theories argue that one cannot predict nature, no matter how much science one has. This is why the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park start to breed even though the biologist’s only engineered females: nature cannot be controlled or delineated by man. Indeed, to further underscore this essential theme, both texts make heavy Romantic use of storms and setting (as, also, does Speilberg) to signal the power of nature and man’s lack of control. Similarly, Frankenstein and Jurassic Park are both essentially criticisms of Rationalist thought and explore how man’s intellect is fallible. Pushing the boundaries of morality with technology causes Victor’s alienation from his friends and family; likewise, science and ambition has done the same to John Hammond, who risks the lives of his own grandchildren. This is also likely why our hero in Jurassic Park, the paleontologist Dr. Grant, notably hates computers. As both works argue, science can alienate man from himself and his world; it is a distracting and dangerous tool interposed between himself and nature, a divide from which no good can come.

There are other central similarities as well. In Jurassic Park, Hammond treats his animals like objects that are easily manageable and predictable enough to contain. Meanwhile, in Frankenstein, Victor also treats his creation like an object, as a ‘thing’ that can be brought back to life and then forgotten with impunity. Both assumptions are, of course, harshly shattered, the way of thinking that gave them rise soundly critiqued and villianized. Similarly, the dangerous situation unleashed, and the tension of the adventure told, is heightened by the danger of innocents–Elizabeth, William, and Justine in Frankenstein, the kids Tim and Lex in Jurassic Park. In both, their plight highlights the reckless and foolhardy attempts of the scientists as well as their callous disregard, and leads the reader to a critical epiphany about the errors of the scientists’ practice and ethics.

Indeed, blind obsession is the common thread that most closely unites the two ‘mad scientists.’ Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant young man (perhaps a pre-med student in today’s terms) whose sights are set so narrowly on one obsessive objective that his blind ambitions ultimately lead him to destruction. Shelley uses her main character as a symbol of the fallibility of man’s ambitions, man’s perception of his own power, and man’s moral judgment in the face of accelerating technology.

John Hammond, the visionary behind Jurassic Park is in many ways Victor Frankenstein’s parallel. He, too, is the reckless creator of new life, although his focus is on the resurrection of extinct animals. Similarly, Crichton also comments on the corrupting nature of business and commercial gain, an element that is absent from Frankenstein. Hammond’s pursuits are not only scientific but also economic, a perversion which is centrally frowned upon in both book and film.

And thus there are, of course, some key differences. The question of intention is one particularly important point of departure.  From an early age, Frankenstein is consumed with the idea of the power of life. As Victor tells the reader, “the world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curious, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I remember” (Shelley 36). A true natural philosopher, his “thirst for knowledge” (36) is initially admirable, his scientific pursuits seemingly pure. Even as his goals become more grandiose—”It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn” (37); “What had been the study and desire of the western men since the creation of the world was now within my grasp”! (52)—his goals, though lofty and unquestionably ambitious, seem to come from good intentions[2]. Even when Shelley constructs language that dangerously approaches the godly—”Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (54)….“I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”(52)—his stated reasoning and motivation, if perhaps selfish, is not necessarily damming: To Victor “wealth was an inferior object” (40). He is more interested in the feat itself, and in the “glory [that] would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (40).

Likewise, the idea of a Jurassic Park is presumably a benevolent one—allowing humans to experience the wonder of dinosaurs roaming the earth and adding to the world’s knowledge of science and creation in transporting visitors to a by-gone age. Conversely, though, John Hammond’s intentions are much more, and immediately, suspect. As Hammond reminds his lawyer: “never forget the ultimate object of the project in Costa Rica—to make money” (Crichton 1990: 62); and as Hammond also tells Wu, in an explicitly clear articulation of Crichton’s critique of commercialized biotechnology, “remember, our original intent was to use the newly emerging technology of genetic engineering to make money. A lot of money.”  Indeed, as Hammond elaborates on his own intentions, contradicting on this point any recall of his predecessor in Frankenstein, “Would you make products that help mankind, to fight illness and disease? Dear me, no. That’s a terrible idea. A very poor use of technology”….“Personally, I would never help mankind.” To do so might be a “noble, noble purpose,” but it is not to be pursued on account of profit-margin (200).[3] Such is the explicit position of John Hammond. Indeed, readers are directed to be immediately suspicious of Hammond. Crichton puts his audience in a privileged position: we know he is lying when he speaks of “normal delays” and offers assurances about the safety of his park, that guiding question which kicks off the adventure, framed, just like Shelley’s novel, as a cautionary tale, a known disaster that will unfold before the reader’s eyes. Indeed, John Hammond never comes to terms with the error of his ways, while Victor is forced to acknowledge his failings. While Frankenstein is consumed with remorse (or at least claims to be), Hammond rejects it utterly, going to his death still irritated at his grandkids and still thinking about his planned expansions into future parks (Jurassic Park Japan and Jurassic Park Europe). 

Interestingly, this is transparently not the case in the filmic Jurassic Park. Attenborough’s Hammond seems to tremble when he realizes that his innocent grandchildren are left defenseless on an island where dinosaurs now roam free, while the Hammond of the novel lives in denial, stating his greatest fear as the eventuality that he will never live to “see the joy” on the faces of the children who will experience his fatally flawed park, a markedly lunatic, delusional sentiment expressed between contemporaneous scenes in which his own grandchildren repeatedly face mortal peril. In the novel, Hammond’s childlike ebullience and charisma, while initially appealing, work to represent the immaturity in his grasp of science’s necessary contextualization with power, discipline, control. In Crichton’s text, Hammond refuses to see failure, or hear, let alone act, on criticism. In the novel, the scene with the ice-cream that the film makes particularly famous, as Hammond sits, stubborn yet resigned, eating the gourmet ice-cream and dwarfed by his grand resort as it all melts around him, is crazy and chilling (201), very much the cementation of his greedy egomaniacal character rather than elegiac to a crumbling vision. In contrast, as the film sensitively reframes it, this scene is a turning point in Hammond’s emotional valence, creating a Hammond who can return to his once-lauded catch-phrase celebrating the lush park experience—“spared no expense”—with irony, and a Hammond with whom we can sympathize. Indeed, in the film, Hammond is generally presented as a jovial Frankenstein; overseeing the births of all of his creations, he comes off as a harmless, honorable, and cheerful grandfather to all.

Of course, there are endless points of comparison and contrast to be made that enrich the thematic concerns and particular choices made in rendering them of each novel. But, rather than trace them further beyond broad stroke (for all that such simplistic minimization gratingly risks both skating over fascinating and enlightening differences and overstating the anti-scientism of Shelley’s original in establishing a close textual relationship), what is especially interesting and worthy of pursuit in drawing this continuum is how such connections and variations allows us to consider why these stories matter and why these similar themes persist.

Promethean Promise: Scientific and Science Fiction Creation: Storytelling, Science, and the Centrality of Vision

Indeed, this compelling query well might best be exemplified by the notable difference between the Hammond of the novel and the Hammond of the film. Fundamentally, I would argue that that difference primarily has to do with the celebration of his vision. Support and identification and yet more sympathy with the Hammond of the novel, although we might wonder at and praise what he achieved, is made untenable. Yet, Richard Attenborough’s Hammond in the screen adaptation is importantly otherwise. (Indeed, Jurassic World (2015) gave audiences an immortalized Hammond in statuary bronze as a revered figure). Portrayed sympathetically, Hammond survives in the Speilberg film rather than the poetic justice he receives at Crichton’s hands, injuring himself because of a computer-simulated T-Rex roar and devoured by scavenging dinosaurs.

What is most defensible here, it seems, is vision. Indeed, what both Hammond and Victor have most in common is a powerful, shared desire to make their marks as scientists and visionaries. While Frankenstein is guided towards a “modern system of science,” one that exploded previous principles and conceptions, Victor proves that his contemporaries’ dismissal of his view of science—one notably marked by a sense of wonder and of the magical—is wrong. While he devoted himself to studying the works of men he felt “had penetrated deeper and knew more” (40), his teachers mocked him for “studying nonsense,” telling him he had “burdened [his] memory with exploded systems and useless names” (46). Yet, Victor is inexorably and inarguably drawn to those old grand visions of science still.  As he describes his path as a student, he “had retrod the steps of knowledge along the paths of time, and exchanged the discoveries of recent enquirers for the dreams of forgotten alcymists” (46). He has expressed “contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy.” “It was very different,” he reflects, “when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the enquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth” (46-47). Yet, despite popular opinion and prevailing understandings of the limits of possibility, Frankenstein refuses such a lesser exchange. He is unimpressed by dismissals and similarly refuses to limit himself in line with the practice of his peers. His work proudly follows in the footsteps of those grand visions, however impractical and fantastical they seem, and his successes prove them valid and his perspective powerful.

Victor Frankenstein’s work is formed at the tension between alchemy and modern science—indeed, he discovers the secret of life, of a literalized act of creation there. Unwilling to accept a science that “exchanges…grandeur for realities of little worth,” he finds—or even makes—a way of reconciling grandeur with reality.

Frankenstein defends the language of alchemy, deemed worthless because it only has reference to dreams, but also embraces the language of science. It is his unique vision that makes his work effective, and it is the combination, his creative, unconventional combination that becomes truly miraculous.

Under the influence of a speech by a second professor, a speech Shelley delivers as a stunning poetic tribute to chemistry, Frankenstein is inspired. As the stirring words inform his own potent vision, we, as audience, are also told of how

The ancient teachers of this science . . . promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They . . . have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows (47-48).

As Frankenstein remarks upon the effect of this figuration of science, “chord after chord was sounded…So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve, treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (48).

What Frankenstein, or Shelley, collapses in this formulation of Frankenstein’s vision, is the binary between science and the search for magic substances, between natural processes and artificial imitation, between, in other words, science and imagination. His creation, just like Shelley’s science fiction novel as a work both creative and critical, is also both. The science is nothing without the vision, the creative magic, and vice versa. This, too, as much as the cautionary tale against the protagonist’s scientific practice, must also be part of a somewhat paradoxical message.

Similarly, there can be no question that vision is also a fundamental part of Hammond’s character. In Crichton’s novel, his business partners introduce him as a “potentially dangerous dreamer” (50). Indeed, the filmic treatment of his character only further highlights his identity as a dreamer—indeed, his is a dream in which the film works to enfold us all, often meditating on the wonder his park creates. We are directed to share awed reactions alongside the characters; their gazes mirror ours as audience, as we, too, are mesmerized (and later terrified) by the dinosaurs roaming Jurassic Park[4].

Indeed, an emphasis on vision and the creation of wonder is very much a Spielberg staple. Critic Andrew Gordon has even suggested that the Jurassic Park film chooses to soften Hammond because Spielberg, naturally and necessarily as creative visionary, so strongly identified with him. In the film, remember, Hammond is changed from a greedy villain who has little regard for anyone, even his own grandchildren, to a jolly, kindly, eccentric: “a showman who started with a flea circus and whose main concern is not money but pleasing the public” (Gordon 2007: 210). As Gordon argues in Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Stephen Spielberg (2007), Spielberg often includes a character who “serves as a surrogate self,” and Hammond is just such an alter ego. Both visionaries are entrepreneurs and showmen, both supremely adept at manipulating audience expectation, at pleasing an audience and delivering entertainment, at speaking of their projects with a contagious energy and childlike glee and sense of wonder. Indeed, Spielberg himself has admitted that “he could not help identifying with Hammond’s blinkered obsession with showmanship” (McBride 1997: 421-22). As Gordon further argues for the equation,

Hammond creates a spectacular theme park, sparing no expense, trying to give the world real dinosaurs, and Spielberg creates the spectacular film Jurassic Park, sparing no expense, trying to give the world the illusion of real dinosaurs. Hammond says, “I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion, something that was real, something they could see and touch,” and Spielberg says that the reaction he wanted from the audience was, “Gee, this is the first time I’ve really seen a dinosaur….this is really a movie I think is really happening as I’m watching it. (Making of Jurassic Park DVD; Gordon, 211)

Yet, the similarities are even more interestingly meta: Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was a blockbuster which “delivered the most realistic movie dinosaurs yet by taking the next step in digital imagery, seamlessly integrating mechanical and electronic effects with live action” (Gordon 216). In pioneering such special effects, Speilberg, too, pushes his art and the science necessary to produce it forward, innovating and creating new technologies, opening the world to new possibilities as a necessary path to achieving his creative, innovative vision. Indeed, in commenting that “I initially wanted to make all the dinosaurs full size,” (“Making of Jurassic Park”), Spielberg echoes not only John Hammond, but also the dreams of Victor Frankenstein. He, too, is a creator. He, too, achieves a fantastic and ambitions vision through the union of technology and a creative, as well as entrepreneurial, impassioned, even obsessive, vision.


In a sense, all creators and artists are in some way kin to Hammond and Frankenstein. Like these vilified mad scientists, they, too, must create against pure convention and prescription, must take risks, must follow their own calling and vision to give us the fruits of their imagination and hard work. It is through this same process that new stories are told, in this shared madness that wonder is created in sf readers.

In a sense, Crichton and Spielberg can themselves be seen as Promethean figures, taking up both Shelley and Victor’s mantle in their storytelling, the invocation of Prometheus a resonant and recurrent myth that yet underlies many cautionary, contemporary ‘mad scientist’ tales, but also speaks compellingly to the fire of their creators, from Shelley’s groundbreaking work and Crichton’s juggernaut to Spielberg’s cinematic mastery.

While Frankenstein and Jurassic Park are treatments of similar themes as ‘mad scientist’ stories, they are also and importantly centrally about products of the human imagination, both in the monsters they create and the reigning scientific paradigms they tap into and as texts themselves. Thus, while we might more typically discuss the question of why there are so many mad scientists in our contemporary literature and films, and why the scientist is so often ‘the bad guy’ negatively, while we might think of or blame a creeping anti-intellectualism in our society, or a Christian conservatism that views science as a godless challenge, or a conversant laziness in allowing science to be a magical filler of plot holes, we might also think of the positive, generative, and wildly imaginative element, one more subtle, yet integral nonetheless: That of vision. And the hutzpah, the sheer force of creative will, and the skills or talent to translate it into reality.

Understanding these collective fictions as common routes through the Greek myth of Prometheus, we must also remember that the Prometheus myth is centrally about creation—and this element is a fundamental touchstone that works for the creative arts as well as the scientific.

Whether a genetically engineered dinosaur or a corpse-stitched re-animated being, whether a film or a movie, all are products of the human imagination. This fundamental commonality is why we keep spinning stories about science that are about more than just the hard science employed. This is why these stories are also, necessarily and fundamentally, about vision, and centrally about the challenges of the representation and cementation of that vision.

After all, in both stories, the monsters are created by artificial means—as, too, is the fictional account which details them. The connection between vision and science, between creation and artificial representation, between fiction and contemporary realities, between wonder and terror, is at the core of these stories. This is part of what compels us to read on after the end of the cautionary tale is revealed by the novel’s frame. It is more than morbid curiosity; and it is also more than ethical manifesto. This is why we like the mad scientist story, and why we return to it again and again: it is not only a social critique, these works are not really about vilifying science, even when it goes horribly awry. The approach is not that conservative, and it can’t be, in a way, since as artists and writers we must also identify with the Promethean figure; and, as an audience, we must also be intrigued by and impressed by their vision—and not necessarily the less so when the implementation fails.  

If Frankenstein, as a scientist, is ‘the modern Prometheus,’ and his heirs post-modern Prometheii, then science, too, is inherently creative. The idea that the world of art is ideal and speculative and that that of science is real and inescapable is particularly revealed as a false binary in this mode of storytelling, for science fiction revels in their union. It allows us to explore the consequences, to critique the mindsets and methodologies, but it also continues to obsess over the vision, and, subtly and at times conflictedly, reminds us to be in awe of that vision, too, even as we might shrink from its fall-out. Always imagining new scenarios and continuing to explore the ramifications, sf writers, unlike the mad scientists whose falls they depict, combine the urge to understand their critical morality plays with the impetus to never stop the creative experiment. The sf writer, unlike the written, fallen scientist, wants never—and need never—put down the crucible in which they mix story, the vials from which they explore recombinant themes and patterns anew and again.

We love our writers, our filmmakers and creative visionaries, at least partly because they conjure magic from the mundane, because they bestow meaning on minutiae that we may not even pause to consider, because they expand what we can imagine possible. We marvel at their insight, their creativity, their alchemical prose. We love our contemporary Promethean figures because their imaginations transform the world. They inspire, and they light our way forward, even in cautionary morality tales.

As we celebrate the bicentenary of science fiction’s first and one of its finest, what seems clear is the power and potency of this narrative combination, in science and in fiction, the real and the imagined, complexly combinatory, just like the moniker for its genre. Cautionary and celebratory, Frankenstein’s legacy is also importantly combinatorial, testament to both unique, impassioned vision and an endless potential for re-envisionings. The way forward, into the next 200 years, is lit, our charge to keep stitching the materials around us into new shapes, keep animating old corpses and believing in the power of creative ambition and imagination to give them—the old and the new—life. Such is the way to keep Frankenstein, and indeed all myths and stories, in their individuation and their wider cultural and transmediated mythos, alive through the ages.


Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth Century Writing. Oxford: Calrendon, 1987. Print.

Bradbury, Ray. “A Sound of Thunder,” 1952. Collier’s Magazine. June 28, 1952. Print.

Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. New York: Bantam, 1990. Print.

Frayling, Christopher. Frankenstein: The First 200 Years. Reel Art Press, 2017. Print.

Gordon, Andrew M. Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Stephen Spielberg. Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. Print.

“Here Come the DNAsaurs.” Newsweek. Newsweek Staff. July 13, 1993.

Jurassic Park. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck.  Paramount, 1993. Film.

Jurassic World. Dir. Colin Trevorrow. Perf. Chris Pratt, Judy Greer, Bryce Dallas Howard. Paramount, 2015. Film.

McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Signet Classics. 2006 (1818). Print.

“The Postmodern Prometheus.” The X Files. Writ. Chris Carter. Dir. Chris Carter.

Fox. 30 Nov. 1997. Television.

Tiehen, Jeanne. Frankenstein Performed: The Monster Who Will Not Die.” The Popular Culture Studies Journal. Ed. Bob Batchelor. Vol 2, No 1 and 2. (2014): 65-87. Print.

Trendacosta, Katharine. “This year will bring not one, but two Frankenstein based TV Shows.” Io9. January 22, 2015. <https://io9.gizmodo.com/this-year-will-bring-not-one-but-two-frankenstein-base-1681066230>.

Troost, Linda and Sayre Greenfield. “Strange Mutations’: Shakespeare, Austen, and Cultural Success.” Shakespeare, 6 (2010): 431-45. Print.

“Why are Scientists Always the Bad Guys in Movies?” io9. <http://io9.com/why-are-scientists-always-the-bad-guys-in-movies-1643054457> October 6, 2014.



[1] This is not, of course, to suggest all contemporary adaptations are unfaithful or uninterested in presenting a version of the story that reflects the original text; Danny Boyle’s stage adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller in alternating roles is a notable and powerful exception, to name but one.

[2] Of course, we see his story through his own perspective and follow his own recounting, which complicates such judgments considerably, but, for our purposes and the broad strokes, this simplification can suffice.

[3] Indeed, in Jurassic Park, the wonder of scientific achievement often gives way to the monetary. The lawyer Gennaro’s reaction to first seeing the dinosaurs roam the park is notably contrasted with those of our heroes, Grant and Ellie’s, awe (a moment the film particularly iconically delivers and wholly participates in—can you hear John Williams’ score swell?). While Drs. Sattler and Grant demonstrate a ‘real scientists’ perspective, as they are staggered at the prospect of answering long-standing questions in the field, Gennaro’s reaction is particularly base: “We are going to make a fortune on this place. A fortune!” (79). The Nedry plotline with the stolen embryos, the competition and corporate espionage angle, the merchandising, etc all serve to underscore this concern, highlighting the intersection of science and commerce as a significant danger.

[4] Indeed, film critics suggest that Jurassic Park privileged its animal stars, even at the expense of the character development of its human leads. As screenwriter David Koepp notes, “In writing Jurassic Park, I threw out a lot of detail about the characters, because whenever they started talking about their personal lives, you couldn’t care less. You wanted them to shut up and go stand on a hill where you could see the dinosaurs” (Biskind 199). Many reviewers found the human characters formulaic and flat; as Peter Biskind has argued, “the characters, and the actors who played them, were overwhelmed by the dinos” (199).

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