The Iron Giant Poster

Poster for the 1999 film The Iron Giant. Miller identifies the giant robot as a Frankenstein creature without a creator. Image source:

T.S. Miller states that “the Frankenstein tradition has matured and mutated” and explains in his article how a 100-foot metal robot from outer space is a Frankenstein creature (386). The article discusses the education and parenting of the Iron Giant in relation to the parenting, or lack thereof, of the Creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus; identifies extra-textual allusions within the film to reinforce his thesis; and examines the agency of the machine to act on its own despite its nature as a weapon of war. Throughout his article, Miller draws on film adaptations of Shelley’s famous science fiction novel and examines the 1999 film, The Iron Giant, directed and written by Brad Bird- based on a children’s novel of the same name by Ted Hughes - to frame the mechanical alien as a creature created by a Frankenstein. The article stands out and clearly makes a case for The Iron Giant to be added to the greater narrative surrounding Frankenstein and his creation. Miller’s argument is that the Iron Giant is a Frankenstein Creature with the film’s multiple allusions and an example of what positive parenting can do for the creature has it acts selflessly to save the day.

Similarities to Whale's 1931 Frankenstein Edit

Miller identifies many of the parallels the film has to other works, most notably James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein and the source novel by Shelley. Bird’s film has all the appropriate hallmarks to make it a Frankenstein adaptation: a created automaton abandoned by its creator, a near unstoppable drive permeating the creature, incomplete family lives, the fear of the public as a careful backdrop, and the attention of a humanistic outcast. “In short,” Miller states, “only Frankenstein himself is missing from The Iron Giant” (388). Miller illustrates the Iron Giant’s stature as a copy of Boris Karloff, “complete with broad shoulders and prominent bolts on each side of the head” (385), standing large and menacingly strong, but without voice. As well as copying the actor’s massive frame, the military of Bird’s film mimics Whale’s mob as they chase the Creature to the windmill. Gaining the trust of Hogarth Hughes, a young, fatherless boy in The Iron Giant, the metal man is educated by the child and the Hughes family acts as a stand-in for the DeLacey family with the peaceful invader hiding in Hughes’ barn similar to how Shelley’s Creature hid in a hovel next to the DeLacey cabin.

Education Edit

Education is central to Miller's thesis, and he parallels the educational journey of the creations starting with early dangers both creatures face. The Iron Giant, who subsists on metal, encounters a live transformer station that shocks him, painfully torturing him as he attempts to move away. Learning lessons in such a harsh manner is similar to Shelley’s Creature as he first experiences the brilliant light of fire before succumbing to its painful burn. Both creatures eventually learn how to successfully navigate the dangers of their world before moving onto less physical needs.

The Iron Giant’s literary education aligns with Shelley’s Creature in clever, artistic ways. Hiding in the hovel connected to the Delacey cabin, the creature spends time going over a trove of literature and self-educates in addition to watching Felix instruct Safie. The Iron Giant, on the other hand, is exposed to 1950’s comic books, but the lessons are just as profound. In a clever allusion, Bird has Hogarth placing a Superman comic over Atomo, ‘the Metal Menace.’ The apt pupil initially reaches for the familiar robot and Hogarth, the child educator, urges him toward Superman, a hero. This play at self-identity parallels Shelley’s Creature and his interpretation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, trying to self-identify with Adam or Satan.

The Iron Giant's Re-Creation and Lack of Creator Edit

Bird’s adaptation of the Frankenstein story has the giant, metal-eating amnesiac lacking a proper creation scene, but is given several ‘re-creation’ scenes instead. Miller discusses these scenes, noting the lack of a creator, but the inclusion of a loving educator - the exact opposite of what Frankenstein’s creature had. These scenes of ‘re-creation’ - science fiction meets the phoenix - demonstrate the unstoppable nature of the metal man while dipping the film’s toes into the debate surrounding the artificial creation of life. The final scene of the film alludes to the creation scene in Shelley’s novel with the giant’s head laying in an Icelandic snowbank, body parts slowly move toward it in a zombie fashion, as the yellow eyes open before the credits roll.

Miller actively acknowledges that Bird’s The Iron Giant isn’t a perfect adaptation of the Frankenstein story. He discusses John Rieder’s interpretation of Shelley’s novel and the novel’s contributions to modern science fiction themes such as the “‘mirroring effect’ and the ‘polarity’ between creator and daemon” (389). As the Iron Giant lacks a creator, instead of being abandoned by one, the creature still struggles with its own identity, both as a person and as a powerful weapon. Miller further illuminates these differences between the two creations, with the Iron Giants “perpetually absent creator, but [has] an attentive education” and Frankenstein, who “pervades the text of the novel as well as the monster's thoughts, but also remains conspicuously absent from his education” (393). This divergence ultimately impacts the conclusion of the plot of the film and reinforces Miller’s thesis.

Miller then counters Rieder by stating that Hogarth acts as the giant’s teacher and m loco parentis—in place of the parent. Examining the missing parents of The Iron Giant and Frankenstein, Miller points to lack of a mother in Frankenstein’s later life and Hogarth’s presumed-dead father, but devoted working mother. The film “[addresses] the subject of parental deficiency, even if it discards certain gender related concerns” (394), and the use of surrogate parents - Dean to Hogarth and Hogarth to the Iron Giant - in parental love, affection, and education. Frankenstein’s creature lacks all of this, self-educates in an intellectual vacuum over two years, and focuses on a quest for revenge fraught with violence his powerful frame happily accommodates. The Iron Giant, caringly parented for less than a week, saves the town of 1957 Rockwell, Maine from a nuclear missile, the same way he learned about Superman saving the day.

Critical Conclusions Edit

Students studying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are the most likely to be interested in Miller’s article as well as those interested in multiple adaptations of the same source. Miller’s article contributes a different way of examining Frankenstein adaptations, with a focus less on the mad scientist and more on the neglected creation. The article touches on extra-textual allusions, parental education, and the agency of the creature. Miller shows a strong understanding of the Frankenstein mythos and how Bird’s The Iron Giant “tells the tale of an artificial being that...receives the proper nutrition and moral education from a warm-hearted...parent” (385) and ends on a happy note- a strange turn for the Frankenstein myth.

Works Cited Edit

Miller, T.S. "Frankenstein Without Frankenstein: The Iron Giant and the Absent Creator." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 20.3 (2009): 385-405. Web.

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