- Frankenstein’s Brain:“The Final Touch”
From the classic Frankenstein of 1931 to Matrix (1999), which offers a version of the philosophical fable of the brain in a vat (Chalmers) and on to Self/less (2015), in which the consciousness of a dying tycoon is transferred to a younger man’s body, cinema has variously explored the relationship between personhood and the body by means of fictions concerning the brain and its contents.1 From the crude disembodied brains of 1950s B-movies to the neuroimaging visuals of 21st-century cyberpunk, these films localize individuality essentially in the brain, and make personal identity transcend the body’s demise by transplanting the brain (or its contents) into other, typically younger or at least healthier bodies. Drawing credibility from both science and philosophy, they assume that, as Roland Puccetti nimbly put in 1969, “Where goes a brain, there goes a person” (70). Puccetti did not claim that we are our brains, but that since the brain operates as the physical basis of personhood, one cannot be separated from the other. For all intents and purposes, the brain is in such a perspective the somatic limit of the self. In film, as well as in literary works such as Hanif Kureishi’s 2002 short novel The Body, about a man in his mid-sixties whose brain is transplanted into the body of a thirtysomething, the brain, though material, behaves like the traditional immaterial and immortal soul—maturing but not aging, and insuring the personality’s survival after death. The non-cerebral physical body does not essentially partake in the definition of personal identity. However, its role as brain’s repository and as the recipient’s interface with the world shapes the hybrid subject’s predicament, and generates the motives and imbroglios that drive dramatic action (see Krüger-Fürhoff on transplantation fictions generally).
Frankenstein films deserve a special place in the history of such fictions. At a general level, this is because “Frankenstein” designates “an authentic modern cultural myth” (Marcus 190). Though most frequently associated with the potential dangers of transgressing limits in the life sciences, the story has resonated much more widely “through its extraordinary resistance to simple resolutions and its almost inexhaustible possibilities of significance” (Levine 18). Film has been a major medium for dramatizing the “myth” and its myriad facets and ramifications, and has retained its power even after the decline, noticeable since the 1990s, in the popularity of the “mad scientist” it often portrays (see Frayling [End Page 88] for the most recent synthesis on the cinematic mad scientist, and, for its relative weakening, Haynes’ “Whatever happened”). More specifically, however, the special place of Frankenstein movies among brain fictions arises from their internal evolution. It has been often observed that in the 1940s, protagonism shifted from the creature to his creator. Yet a different but intrinsically related crucial change has hardly been noticed and, to my knowledge, not explored: Frankenstein movies abandon the original theme of the creation of life and place a brain transplantation subplot at the core of their narrative. We shall here examine that transformation with a focus on the two “classic” Frankenstein series, released by Universal Studios and Hammer Film Productions between 1931 and 1973.2 But before going into the details, let us ponder how such a transformation (and filmic brains in general) might be best approached.
Cinematic Brains and the “Neurobiological Age”
As mentioned, numerous films since the 1930s situate individuality in the brain and feature brain transplantations that prolong, potentially forever and in healthy and younger bodies, the lives of fatally ill or aging characters. Filmic brains thus enact the somatic limit of the self and perform on screen the idea that “Person P is identical with person P* if and only if P and P* have one and the same functional brain” (Ferret 79). The formula epitomizes not only an opinion that was common in the Anglo-American philosophy of personal identity, but also the more ordinary intuition, which films convey, that to have the same brain is to be the same person, and that our own brain is the only part of the body we need...