Who'd be Frankenstein?
APP:A new app allows readers to be the doctor or his monster and make choices that will decide their fate. Could this be the future for classic books? Teenage writers and readers give HILARY FANNINtheir verdict
LAST WEEK saw the release of what its makers call “the first literary, interactive book app”, designed for iPad and iPhone. The book in question is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a classic story that has, over the centuries, inspired many interpretations, adaptations, films, plays, even a musical. Somehow, though, one cannot conceive of Shelley ever considering that one day her novel would come alive in the reader’s hand through the medium of tablet computer.
This latest incarnation of Frankenstein is the first of a generation of ebooks that will attempt to reinvigorate the classics for a modern audience. Adapted by the author David Morris and produced by the software and design company Inkle, this is a six-part tale that combines traditional storytelling with interactivity. Crudely put, chunks of text are broken up by choices the reader can make for Victor Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s monster, and these choices create a branching narrative that allows the reader a degree of control over the story – a hook for younger readers who may not have the stomach for the classics, and a factor that pushes them right into the world of the story.
Although this technique is not unique in the ebook world, this particular version, reimagined in revolutionary France, is a singularly seductive and sophisticated creation. In Morris’s and Inkle’s 21st-century hands the reader is a character, becoming Victor Frankenstein or his monstrous creation, the latter an isolated being trudging through the dangerous Parisian streets in search of human warmth.
Is it a book or is it a game? The app’s creators say that in a conventional game interaction is mainly with the environment, the goal being to solve specific problems, whereas with Frankenstein the reader interacts with the characters on a more personal level, the goal being to forge relationships or build trust (though Frankenstein and the monster are free agents who won’t always bend to your will).
Being of an age at which an app sounds like something you peel and eat, I thought I would ask some young writers – that is, people who can send texts without having to find their glasses first – to try out the app and tell me what they thought. At the Dublin creative-writing centre Fighting Words a bunch of teenage writers meet up each week to work on their novels. It’s a place and a group I know pretty well, having found that nothing focuses the mind like pulling up a chair next to a 17-year-old with an 80,000-word novel under her belt and a packet of Rolos next to her keyboard.
‘YOU’D ASSUME ITwas going to be boring, because it’s old, that it wouldn’t apply any more, but when you start it you can’t stop. I went to my school library this morning to look for the actual book. They didn’t have it – probably says a lot about its current status.”
Jemma Bayley is 17 and goes to school in Dublin’s north inner city. “It’s like reading the book, except you get to make choices,” she says. “It feels like a game, and since it’s in small parts it doesn’t look as intimidating as an entire book. If you’re sitting there on a bus with a book, people can say: ‘What are you doing? What are you reading? Frankenstein! Why are you reading that of all things? That’s an old people’s book.’
“What you read on a device, only you know. For all they know, you could be doing anything.
“I definitely want to read the original book now. I was completely drawn into the monster, what he was seeking, what his storyline will be. He’s lonely, everyone is afraid of him, he has been made a monster but with the emotions of a human. He wants someone to understand him. The choices you make for him – does he feel hurt and angry, does he want to run away or stay and take revenge? – those choices stop you getting overwhelmed by text. You have to stop to press a button; that refreshes you.”
Does she believe a stigma is attached to reading? “Not so much about reading but about what you’re reading. The Hunger Games , everyone’s reading that: that one wouldn’t really stand out so much. I would definitely recommend Frankenstein, especially for people who look at a conventional book and think they’ll never get through it.”
‘I LOVED IT!It’s really well written. Frankenstein is something I’ve thought about reading, but because it’s a classic I think I won’t get it. Like Shakespeare in school, I don’t get why it’s supposed to be so good.”
Conor Bulman is 17 and wants to be a games designer when he leaves school. “You’ve got choices: which way do you want to go? Are you going to be a vicious killing machine or a monster that wants to be human?” he says. “You’ve been thrown out of the house after 20 minutes of consciousness, you look horrific, you’re six foot five, you’ve got translucent skin, you can see the muscles underneath, you’ve got yellow eyes, your creator views you as a slab of meat – but you are human. You don’t know your own strength: you try to comfort a dog; you end up killing it.”
Conor played the app more than once, choosing different options for the monster character. He discovered that either option ultimately led to the same conclusion. As a lonely and feral monster feeling under threat, he attacked a child and killed him; as a sophisticated monster that has learned, by observation, to read and write, he kidnapped a child in an attempt to assuage his loneliness, and accidentally suffocated him.
“I sat there for 25 minutes thinking about the choices: some were obviously to develop backstory; other options would rush you towards the next section. Because I want to be a games designer, I like thinking about why I enjoy a game. The process they are using here is called gameification – it’s used in educational material to make challenging work entertaining.”
Conor’s only criticism of Frankenstein is that you need the latest iPad or iPhone. But he is definitely in the market for more of the same. “Dracula? I’d love that!”
‘I THINK THE APP, especially at the beginning, favours the monster over its creator. It presents the monster as humane, with a soul, and the doctor as cowardly and greedy. I particularly enjoyed playing the part of the monster: the game allowed you to grow up with him, to make choices between good and evil, love and hate.”
Susan Birmingham is 16, goes to school in Dublin and is writing a fantasy novel that is rooted in the real world. “I liked Frankenstein, maybe because I’m a reader,” she says. “I’ve always been a reader. We didn’t watch TV too much when I was small. My older sister was reading Harry Potter, and I really wanted to read a huge book too.
“I have friends who wouldn’t like it so much, especially the parts with a lot of reading, parts where there is a lot of description, of the streets of Paris, for example. Frankenstein is all about the characters. You get so involved; you want the monster to be happy, but deep down you know he’ll meet contempt.”
Susan has read other classics, including Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes stories, and The Hunger Games again comes up in conversation as the kind of book you can peacefully read on the bus. Given that Frankenstein’s creators are predicting that this app will mark a turning point in how we receive classic fiction, I ask Susan if the interactive form interests her as a writer. “Yes. When I was young I used to write bizarre versions of fairy tales,” she says. “I think there is a bigger social message in Frankenstein – that we shouldn’t judge people purely from the outside.”
Frankenstein, adapted by Dave Morris and Inkle and published by Profile Books, is available for iPad and iPhone on the Apple App Store