Monstrous Adaptations in Contemporary Gothic Culture

Megen de Bruin-Molé
Megen de Bruin-Molé

It has been nearly two hundred years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein’, and since the birth of her infamous monster (described by Victor Frankenstein in the epigraph above).

Though he may not be as mutable as the vampire or the zombie, Frankenstein’s creature remains one of the most immediately recognisable figures in horror fiction, and he finds a spiritual successor in the cyborgs, androids, and other artificial life-forms that populate contemporary science fiction.

In the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries, the name “Frankenstein” has also become a euphemism for a wide variety of different practices and products, from genetically modified plants, proteins, or animals, to unnatural-but-powerful combinations of objects and ideas, or simply “a thing that becomes terrifying or destructive to its maker”.

Frankenstein’s monster is an adaptation of the human form — an appropriation or re-compilation of its basic components into something new and uncertain.

From the late-twentieth-century, the “Franken-” prefix has been applied similarly to hybrid food, storms, animals, Stratocaster guitars, and now to the amalgam of classic and contemporary narrative that is described in this article: Frankenfiction.

The genre was first defined rather narrowly, with Quirk Books’ 2009 novel ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’. This novel reproduced roughly 85% of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1813), using the remaining 15% to turn the Regency romance into the story of a zombie uprising.

Because Austen’s novel was in the public domain, both the act of appropriation and the millions in revenue the mash-up produced were entirely legal. However, its popularity provoked concerned responses from many critics.

In a market already flooded with increasingly loose adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, zombies were a step too far. Could this even be counted as an adaptation? Was it acceptable to disfigure Jane Austen’s work in this way, and did the mash-up’s success among readers of diverging classes and tastes somehow signal the aesthetic decline of Western culture?

To these questions, proponents of the mash-up responded by gesturing towards texts like Helen Fielding’s novel ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ (1996) and the Bollywood musical ‘Bride and Prejudice’ (2004). Were such texts more acceptable as reimaginings of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ than a cut-and-paste horror novel?

Where do popular culture and contemporary criticism draw the line between adaptation and appropriation, and why? This article sets out to address such questions in critical and conceptual detail.

The critical debate about the semantics, ethics, and aesthetics of what I define as Frankenfiction mirrors discussions currently taking place in two distinct academic disciplines: remix studies and adaptation studies.

Ostensibly, these two disciplines have much in common. Both consider how existing objects and ideas are recycled and revised. In practice, there are numerous, if subtle, distinctions between them.

Where adaptation is an older, well-established critical concept, remix seems newer and more popular. In the past two decades, scholarly interest in remix practices and cultures has intensified noticeably.

In 2005, William Gibson — a pioneering author of science fiction, steampunk, and cyberpunk — argued that “the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries”.

In 2006, Henry Jenkins likewise described a fundamental “change in the way media is produced, and a change in the way media is consumed” that he termed convergence culture: “the flow of media across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment they want”.

Audiences select and reassemble the media they consume in their own individual ways, irrespective of source, and producers expand their texts across multiple platforms in the hope that they will be even more accessible to new and diverse sets of consumers.

These remixed media are the “monsters” of contemporary culture, both in terms of their massive size and scope, and in terms of the challenge, they issue to foundational concepts like authorship and international copyright.

Frankenfiction may sidestep questions of copyright by working with the material in the public domain, but it raises many of the same questions about the ethics and aesthetics of artistic appropriation. Is this what stops some critics from identifying it as an adaptation?

This thesis takes the questions raised by ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ as a point of departure, applying them to a broad range of derivative monster narratives.

Some of these narratives can be read as adaptations of classic monsters, while others are more appropriately conceptualised as monstrous mash-ups of classic texts.

Read together, as this article aims to do, they represent an intersection between the way adaptation studies and remix studies approach the concept of appropriation.

For both academic disciplines, Frankenfiction offers a useful illustration of the politics of appropriation — and, by association, the politics behind the conceptions of originality and authenticity on which both adaptation studies and remix studies are based.

I also conceptualise this genre as “historical monster mash-up”, though as the following section will make clear, the terminology of remix studies is often inadequate in describing the practice of Frankenfiction.

In this article, I occasionally privilege remix terminology over adaptation terminology because of the deliberately derivative way these professionally-produced Frankennarratives insert fantastical monsters — vampires, zombies, werewolves, etc. — into historical texts and contexts in the public domain.

Frankenfictions are rarely secretive about their appropriations, though the type and range of texts they appropriate is incredibly diverse. ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ was followed by a brief “literary mash-up” craze, and though this particular mode of fiction soon lost its marketing appeal, the range of texts that perform a similar recontextualisation of past fictions and figures continues to grow, and to raise similar questions about the ethics and aesthetics of mash-up.

Frankenfiction includes direct appropriations of classic literature, like the bestselling ‘Quirk Classics’ novels, but also literary-historical dramas like the Sky/Showtime TV series ‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014–2016), and the depiction of monsters through a historical aesthetic in Travis Louie’s paintings.

In every instance, Frankenfictions lead us to revisit scholarly definitions of adaptation, historical writing, irony, and “literary fiction”. Too traditionally literary to be of interest to remix studies, and not literary enough for adaptation studies, Frankenfiction tends be used as a peripheral example in both fields.

No other study has yet attempted to collect these texts into a new (if still liminal) category. Considering this gap in current scholarship, my article seeks to provide a rationale for why Frankenfiction should be considered a hybrid but distinctive genre, at the intersection between mash-up, remix, adaptation, and appropriation.

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