Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

After having a book published while still in high school, Kenneth Oppel earned a degree in cinema studies and English at Trinity College at the University of Toronto before becoming an editor at Quill and Quire, the trade magazine for the Canadian publishing industry. (Thanks, Wikipedia, for compiling all that for me.) 

In other words, he understands books, films, and the publishing industry in general. His experience and training have served him well. His writing has received both popular and critical acclaim, and at least one book - This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein - is on its way to the big screen.

As might be inferred from the title, Mr. Oppel is writing a prequel to the classic Frankenstein that was grounded both historically and stylistically in the life and writing of Mary Shelley, the author of the original story. He notes in the discussion guide:
“Victor’s parents I actually based on Mary Shelley’s real parents, the radical writers William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, so my Frankenstein household is very liberal for its time. Mrs. Frankenstein writes pamphlets on the rights and education of women; Mr. Frankenstein is a fair magistrate who insists on his own family making the servants their Sunday dinner as a gesture of egalitarianism (a concept that was sweeping through Europe in the late 1700s).”
I was prepared to be disappointed. I am a fan of Shelley's classic, and I was concerned This Dark Endeavor would be a cheesy intro heavy on shock value and silly romance. How delighted I was to be wrong.

When Victor, his brother Konrad, and their cousin Elizabeth find a carefully hidden Dark Library in the Frankenstein castle, Konrad and Elizabeth want to leave. Victor, on the other hand, is drawn to the “dark luster” and “strange contents” of books like Occulta Philosophia. Victor’s father finds them and kicks him out of the library in spite of Victor's protests that he is just pursing knowledge. His father’s response is wise:
 “This is a corruption of knowledge… I keep [the books], dear, arrogant Victor, because they are artifacts of an ignorant, wicked past – and it is a good thing not to forget our past mistakes. To keep us humble.”
Humility is not one of Victor’s strengths. He wants to travel to the stars, because “If we could do so, would we not be gods?”  Victor sees himself as a very compelling mixture of wild, passionate and cunning. Elizabeth, who won't return his amorous advances, describes him as rash, headstrong, arrogant, and lacking discipline.

It was not what he wants to hear, but it’s clearly true. Konrad and Elizabeth love each other, but Victor has no problem trying to undermine their relationship so he can get her. When he awkwardly steals a kiss, he thinks he and Elizabeth now share a thrilling secret. She disagrees: “You took what was not yours, Victor.” He doesn't care.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Victor embraces atheism. Christianity is “an outmoded system of belief that has controlled and abused people, and that will wizen away under the glare of science.” Though Elizabeth provides a spirited defense for Christianity, she presents a faith that doesn’t want or need facts. She’s passionate and endearing, to be sure, but that's hardly enough to convince a young man who believes science and logic hold the keys to all truth.

There are moments when Victor thinks “how reassuring it would be to believe a kindly God was looking over us, that he would take pity on our toil and suffering and grant us what we asked.” But an unfounded hope is not enough; he needs more than wishful thinking. Elizabeth’s well-intentioned but misguided explanations of Christian faith have created a chasm Victor cannot cross: “I knew it was not true…the only source of power on this earth was our own.” With no recourse but his own power, Victor makes his fateful commitment: 
“I would see my brother again - even if it meant unlocking every secret law of this earth.”

Oppel has done a great job crafting a young Victor Frankenstein whose trajectory will take him to where Mary Shelley’s classic begins.  One does not piece together body parts and make a monster in a day; that kind of character is built over a lifetime. In The Dark Endeavor we see how small compromises and habits become monstrous ones. 

Oppel noted in an interview with the National Post, “It’s a cautionary tale about science and religion and early technologies — our relationship to the things we create on the planet and the other creatures on the planet. So it’s a very moral and ethical book.” 

Indeed. His portrayal of religious faith heavy on emotions and light on facts (Elizabeth) offers an important reminder that genuine faith and hope must be grounded in truth. But Victor's irrational idolization of science as savior offers no better answer to life's toughest questions. I've not read Mr. Oppel's sequel (which serves as a bridge between this book and Mary Shelley's). If his themes remain the same, it will be interesting to see where the conversation goes.

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein has been picked up by Summit Entertainment, with the producer and studio who made the Twilight movies at the helm. If the film stays true to the book, it should provide an excellent opportunity for delving more deeply into questions of God, faith, science, morality, and life.

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