Frankenstein is alive as an app: “a brand-new creature assembled from vintage parts,” as Kirkus described it in a starred review (see the other apps for adults that were among our Best Apps of 2012). We tapped Creative Director Jon Ingold to tell us all how the "mad scientists" at inkle Studios managed to successfully breathe new life into Mary Shelley's timeless antihero. Spoiler alert: The monster still has a tough time dealing with his creator.
What were some of the concerns you had in trying to introduce such beloved material to new audiences?
Our biggest concern was the format—would people think we were doing something evil, taking a classic of literature and turning it, of all things, into something that you could maybe call a game? But that's a concern of bringing Frankenstein to audiences who already know it. For new audiences, we were fairly confident that this new format was fresh and engaging, and easy to come to terms with. And generally we found that people picked up the app and start[ed] reading...and quickly got into the story.
A lot of that was down to Dave Morris' skillful adaptation of the text. Frankenstein the novel starts slowly, and it's written in descriptive style: For the app version, Dave reframed everything as something closer to a conversation, between Frankenstein and [readers] themselves. He also got into the start of the story much quicker, scattering back story in along the way; conscious, I think, that for modern audiences used to fast-paced storytelling, Shelley's long prologue, while thematically rich and integral to the novel, might be off-putting.
Would you say that the biggest challenges were technical, artistic or something else?
There were two big design problems for us at inkle: the first, how to design a reading experience in which reader choices and responses were frequent, but didn't feel like an intrusion into the text? And secondly, how to make a way for Dave to just get on and write his story, leveraging all the power of flexible, adaptive text, but without having to think like a computer programmer?
The first took a lot of work. We went through several prototypes and ideas before we hit upon the idea of scraps of paper, scrolling up and joining together to make a seamless page. It's the right solution because it guides [readers’ eyes]—down to the choices as you read, then back up to the right place in the text to begin reading again, once the choice has been made. Once we tried it, we knew it was the one—but we threw away quite a few alternatives to get there!
For the second part, we worked hard to create a tool that could turn a normal text document with some simple markup into code that the app could understand. Dave got to grips with it quickly and by the end, he even said he wasn't finding he needed to plan the story out on paper but could compose directly as he would if he was using a pen, and I think that made a huge difference to the fluency of the text.
The app can be seen as a natural part of Frankenstein's evolution—can you talk about the story's ability to transcend time periods?
When we look at what science can do, and the incredible things we can achieve with technology, we always tend to race a little way ahead in our imaginations. Politicians and scientists talk regularly about the impact and dangers of genetically engineering human beings, for example, even though that's not really possible—and we discuss the realities of manned colonies on the Moon and Mars.
One thing Shelley did brilliantly with Frankenstein was create an idea [that] must have seemed in 1818 to be on the cusp of what was possible—but that today, while still seeming plausible, is also still out of our reach. So it makes for a great representation of our fears for the future, as well as hers—and of course, it wraps those fears up in the character of the monster, [whom] we can understand and empathize with in a way that, were it a story about an atom bomb, we couldn't do!
Everything else about the story is so simple that this key idea really lifts to the foreground: The way the scientist and the monster interact, and the spiral of events that destroy them, rely entirely on their dynamic, and not really on the context of the world they inhabit. Dave Morris shifted the tale to Revolutionary Paris—he could equally well have shifted it to ’70s Britain or modern-day L.A., and it would be just as powerful (and plenty of other adaptations have done exactly that, of course)!
What do you think the new technology brings to Mary Shelley's old tale—how do you think the author would respond to this new interpretation of her monster?
One of the problems with reading Frankenstein now is that, even if we haven't read the book, we all know the story—there's no surprise to be had in what Frankenstein's experiments are, and we except the monster to begin to wreak destruction on his creator. So what the interactive format allows us to do, as readers, is put some of those expectations back into the story, and create a version that speaks to them a little more directly.
The other thing I love is the "real-time" aspect: After you read every page, the next page quite literally does not exist until you give your response or make your decision. It's the closest you can get to live theatre on an iPad.
As for what Mary Shelley would have thought: I get the impression that Shelley and her peers were quite progressive, really, and interested in pushing boundaries with the kinds of concepts they explored. So I think she would have been intrigued by our take on Frankenstein...and I like to think, she'd have had no difficulty exploring it, despite having never even seen a computer!
Apps like these are relatively new, but do you foresee a time when people might look back on books as these nascent things that were just waiting to be transformed?
I don't think books are going anywhere. They're a very clever way of telling stories—portable and shareable, easy to search and flick through, durable, requiring no power and not much light, cheap to make and in plentiful supply....But at the same time, I think there are certain kinds of books—things like encyclopedias—for which we've been using the book format simply because a better alternative didn't exist yet. And I think there are now possibilities to do interesting things that are like books, but aren't books, and that's the category Frankenstein falls into for me.
So in fact, I think when people look back, they'll find it surprising that the book-app was developed from the book at all—much the same way that when we look at film, it's surprising to think that it came out of theatre, because the two forms are now so very different.