Games

Bestowing Animation Upon Lifeless Matter: 'Frankenstein: The Interactive Literary App'

Maybe hacking up a classic horror story is anathema to many readers, but there is a strange allure about stitching together a new creation from the body of the novel. What's the harm in a little experimentation?


Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus

Publisher: Profile
Price: $4.99
Author: Mary Shelley, adapted by Dave Morris
Developer: inkle
Format: Interactive literary App
Publication date: 2012-04
Amazon

Getting involved with this version of the novel is a mixed affair. It feels somewhat hybrid – and then you realise that the interactivity constitutes the construction of a Creature of one’s own. Not only do you engage in dialogue with Victor Frankenstein and experience events through the eyes of his monstrous creation, but you get to be the inventor of the narrative and stitch together your own work from the body of the novel.

Maybe hacking up and re-positioning a classic novel is anathema to most readers. Some commentators have greeted this App with horror. But it is one of a new breed.

We can now be the ‘Prometheus’ and creator. The ‘fire of the gods’ that can shape the future is undoubtedly interactivity and different types of interface with cultural artefacts on hand-held devices. What authors then want to do with the material, pre-existing or invented, is up to them and the technology at their disposal. Profile Books with inkle (a UK based creative tech company), in collaborating with and producing this adaptation by Dave Morris, have set out their agenda very clearly.

There's a desire on their part to enhance the text experience through fluid, changing illustrations and a re-configuration of plot and character to expose the reader to different choices as they regard motive and decisions. There's no alteration overall of actual outcomes as such; it's more a sense of involvement in the minutiae of the story’s detail.

Should you encourage or discourage Victor Frankenstein as you the reader inhabit the role of his un-named friend and confidant? Should one at least make an attempt to destroy the Creature at the outset, before it has a chance to wreak havoc? My decision on that score left me feeling guilty for the rest of the experience with the text. I only succeeded in exacerbating the problems. (Spoiler alert: I decided to see what would happen in an attempt to destroy it, with acid – oops!).

And that is what this is – an experience – as distinct from reading a book, or an e-book for that matter (Hi, I’m Gabrielle, and I’m addicted to my Kindle), as you can get. This is in keeping with the creators’ background in gaming and apps development. And Frankenstein is a good choice for a try-out for this kind of innovation.

It's a young novel – about the culture and technology and the anguished birth of a new century. Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote it; and with respect to her imagination and invention, it was probably a collaborative effort by herself and the famous poets, philosophers, and writers of her circle – with particular input from her husband and Lord Byron. It could certainly be argued that its conception came out of an interaction between them all as they recounted their ghost stories and nightmares during their communal living experience that summer on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary was a teenager, adrift in a new world and wrote in a flawed, excited fashion drawing on a multi-faceted culture of moral philosophy, scientific discoveries, and Gothic fearfulness.

Dave Morris’s adaptation does great justice to the 1818 original and operates to draw the reader in. Necessitating decision-making with and on behalf of characters brings into focus the moral questions at the heart of the book – and therefore there could be a great deal of application for this within the educational market. This will be a very engaging introduction to the novel and its study for students and young readers – there is much to consider with that. I for one would like to see what Profile and inkle might accomplish with, say, Shakespeare’s plays – or an interactive Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales -- oh yes!

There were some niggles – with navigating some of the interactivity and also with the sense that you might be missing something by not accepting certain choices available. But this will lead the reader back and back to exploring the App, I reckon.

It looks great (old parchment and anatomical drawings) and the scale sits extremely well on an iPad screen. I'm not sure if it would have the same feel on an iPhone. But as with the early days of the printed novel, from the 16th and 17th century onwards, this is part of a continuum and evolution of the form. There is no harm in experimentation. Some ideas will take, and others won’t.

For heaven’s sake, for years people didn’t think you could write a novel in the third person – they all had to be autobiographical or epistolary as it would seem dishonest to speak as other characters! Great books are developments – they don’t just spring into being overnight, despite Shelley’s claims about her nightmare. She was, after all, part of the Romantic Movement and that was their myth about the author. As important as any notion of where books come from, is where they are going in the future.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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