Abigail Burnham Bloom. The Literary Monster on Film: Five Nineteenth Century British Novels and Their Cinematic Adaptations. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. vi+212 pp. $35.00 (c).
Rev. by Anita Rose
Bloom discusses the five novels referenced in her title in the order in which they were published: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or A Modern Prometheus (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Bloom examines these five novels, each featuring a (broadly defined) “monster” that threatens to disrupt the world of the novel and the nineteenth century world of the reader. For each novel, she then examines two or three cinematic adaptations.
For Bloom, one of the striking characteristics of modern horror films is the often random and inexplicable nature of the horror being portrayed on film. She contends that this is a markedly different world view from that of the gothic novels with which she is familiar. She observes that although parallels between monster and protagonist are often drawn in film adaptations through both plot and cinematic technique, the similarities are not as pronounced or sustained as they are in the nineteenth century texts. The explanation for this can be found in part in the media themselves. Novels allow a reader to approach the text at her leisure, to contemplate and meditate upon the text’s meaning and possible moral message. On the other hand, films must deliver a potent visceral and visual punch, along with whatever meaning they contain. However, Bloom suggests that this difference in the representation of the relationship between monster and protagonist is also indicative of even more profound cultural and societal differences. Whereas nineteenth century readers feared the monster within, contemporary viewers fear the monster from without, or, as Bloom puts it, “readers of horror novels feared they were like the monster, [while] the watchers of horror movies fear they will be the monster’s victim” (2).
Bloom’s argument is that in nineteenth century texts, the source of monstrousness, or the “monster,” was an integral part of the world of the reader, but that there is a fundamental shift in the characterization of monstrousness as these iconic stories are translated to film. That is, the monstrous quality that brings about the fall of the protagonist in these novels is also a quality that is present but controlled in nineteenth century British society. Readers would recognize their shared humanity with the deeply flawed characters in these novels; Frankenstein’s hubris, Henry Jekyll’s hypocrisy, Ayesha’s lust for power, Moreau’s cynical and cruel inhumanity, and Dracula’s dark sexuality were exaggerated and distilled representations of qualities that all civilized people had to rein in. The societal anxieties embodied by these texts further included man’s thirst for mastery over the natural world through science, the repressed and stoic nature of late Victorian society, the threat of the New Woman, and the fear of inverse colonization. The monstrosity was part of both the individual and society. However, film adaptations portray the monster as an external rather than internal, force.
Bloom’s introduction establishes her rationale for the inclusion of the five print texts and their cinematic adaptations. In cases where there are too many film versions of the novel to consider, she limits herself to films that are respected or admired as a text independent of their novelistic antecedent. She examines two films each for Frankenstein and She, and three film versions of Stevenson’s, Wells’s, and Stoker’s texts. Bloom establishes the format for her argument in the first chapter on Frankenstein. For each of the five novels and each of the thirteen films, Bloom provides an overview and summary of the text, followed by a discussion of “The World at the Start of …,” “The Monster Within and Without,” “The Threat of the Monster,” “The Nature of Evil,” “The Monster Destroyed,” and “Normality Restored.” These sub-headings remain constant throughout the book, imposing an order and a consistency on the eighteen texts she analyzes.
The strongest chapter is the chapter on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Since Stevenson’s text is almost entirely devoid of a female presence, it has always presented a fascinating look at late Victorian masculinity. Subsequent film adaptations of Stevenson’s novel consistently introduce a strong female character – usually in the person of a daughter of one of Henry Jekyll’s professional friends. Bloom’s discussion of the difference this makes in the effect of the story is well worth consideration. Conversely, the chapter on She, located at the center of the five chapters discussing film/novel, seems oddly out of place. Bloom’s rationale for including the novel is understandable – she defines the “monster” as an entity that upsets the order of the world at the beginning of the story and is a disruptive, negative force. Given this definition, Ayesha could certainly be considered a monster, as her obsession with eternal life and beauty certainly “infects” the other characters in both the novel and the films, yet the discussion seems strained, as if it were too much of an effort to fit Haggard’s novel into the paradigm set up at the beginning of Bloom’s study.
This book is a solid introduction to both intertextuality and cinematic studies. Serious undergraduate students and beginning graduate students will not be intimidated by Bloom’s accessible prose or her approach to both the films and the novels. Although her discussion of the novels and reiteration of her thesis seems repetitive to a reader familiar with all of the texts, such discussion provides essential context and background necessary for readers who have come to the stories only, or initially, through their film adaptations. Although Bloom provides extensive bibliographies at the end of her study, the book is not heavily theorized. There are bibliographic sections on each film and novel, as well as sections on film studies, horror, and nineteenth century culture.
This is a fascinating topic that can offer great insight into both Victorian culture and our own. Because horror and gothic fiction are often considered “low-brow,” they can sometimes more honestly examine the unsettling aspects of our culture. Bloom’s study provides a serious and scholarly discussion of film and print texts as they reflects our culture back to us. It is sometimes repetitive, and at times her thesis – that what was the monster within in the nineteenth century has become an external threat in contemporary culture – seems too thin to sustain the entire book. However, The Literary Monster on Film opens the door to further discussion, asking scholars to consider what our popular texts reveal about is and how a change of medium can fundamentally change the message.
Anita Rose is an Associate Professor and the chair of the English Department at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, where she teaches courses in Victorian literature, nineteenth century American literature, literary criticism, and composition. She is the editor of "Gender and Victorian Reform," a collection of essays growing out of the Victorians Institute 2006 conference, and has published essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and feminist utopian Elizabeth Corbett.