This Dark Endeavor

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I read This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein a few weeks ago and enjoyed it immensely. The Romantic era is the period I know best in literature — I studied it in college, and my novel draws heavily from gothic fiction like Frankenstein and the Romantics. So I was delighted when the brilliant Kenneth Oppel took on one of my favorite novels.

Sarah’s review for Barnes & Noble in particular made me want to read this prequel. A few days after finishing the book, I read Arthur Slade’s interview with Ken Oppel on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog and had an odd realization…

Oppel gets the characters and the period (except for one anachronistic moment with Elizabeth, which actually works for contemporary audiences) and weaves in these wonderful references for those who know the original novel and the writers in Mary Shelley’s circle. He obviously knows and loves Frankenstein. In his prequel, the young Frankenstein dabbles in alchemy, which foreshadows his later attempts at creating life, or rather, in defeating death. But Oppel’s novel feels masculine, more akin to the myth of Icarus, and it doesn’t share the original novel’s preoccupations with childbirth and motherhood.

This fascinates me — Frankenstein’s motivations and the thematic elements in This Dark Endeavor are Oppel’s. Despite having the same characters, the symbols and themes were entirely different.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after giving birth to her, and Mary Shelley felt she had killed her mother. She worried throughout her first pregnancy that she would also die in childbirth. She gave birth prematurely, and her baby died 12 days later (a sad parallel to the 11 days the infant Mary shared with her mother), sending her into a deep depression. When writing Frankenstein, Mary was a new mother. Her son William was a few months old, and she was only 19. She called her book her “hideous progeny,” and complex ideas of motherhood and childbirth permeate her novel. Frankenstein’s monster is a motherless creature, of course, created by a man, and the monster lacks a partner in the world and any sort of love or affection.

In Oppel’s book, Victor is an alienated anti-hero, part sympathetic, part jealous and scheming. He constantly tries to prove himself and competes with his twin brother (a brilliant addition to the prequel). This competitiveness and constant striving, although consistent with the adult Frankenstein of Shelley’s novel, springs from another source. The novel also doesn’t have the same excessive wildness of the Swiss Alps, for all that it’s set in the Villa Belle Rive, whereas Shelley’s story is steeped in Romantic ideals of nature.

Villa Belle Rive / Villa Diodati

This Dark Endeavor reveals Oppel’s interests and preoccupations, with contemporary sensibilities and pacing. I’m glad I talked my book group into reading it because there’s so much to discuss about what it means to write an adaptation. How much of your work is an homage, and to what extent can you make it your own without losing the feeling and flavor of the original? I also wonder how teens who may not have read Frankenstein respond to This Dark Endeavor, and what they think of Frankenstein if they go on to read it next.

I’m curious to know your impressions of this book (if you’ve read it) and about your thoughts on adaptation…

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