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Igor, A History(30 Mar 2015)
By Miss Arden Hegele
Last fall, as I was preparing to teach my seminar on Frankenstein, I came across a news article that promoted a new film adaptation, Victor Frankenstein, by Paul McGuigan, set for release in October 2015. This film stars James McAvoy as Dr. Victor Von Frankenstein, and Daniel Radcliffe as Igor. The film promises to “tease Igor’s origins” and to explain the lab assistant’s unquestioning dedication to his “Master.”
There are a few things to notice immediately about how this film differs from Mary Shelley’s novel. First, Victor is overqualified. In the original book, Frankenstein is no doctor; though his advisors claim he has long "outstripped" them in his chemical discoveries, in fact, he graduates neither MD nor PhD from the University of Ingolstadt. Nor is he “Von Frankenstein”—Shelley’s Victor is noticeably bourgeois, in spite of this and other filmographic attempts to promote him to the nobility. Second, in this new production, where is the Creature, and why doesn’t he deserve top billing? Finally, who is this Igor? We know him, of course, as the obsequious and devoted hunchbacked assistant, but—since he makes no appearance in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—how and why has he entered the canon to the point of replacing the Creature as Frankenstein’s foil and the story’s major supporting character?
Igor seems to be a character restricted to film; Victor Frankenstein does not have a lab assistant in the nineteenth-century stage adaptations of the novel. A brief study of the filmography of Frankenstein reveals the character’s first appearance in James Whale’s 1931 film (where Boris Karloff also pioneered the Creature’s neck bolts). In this film, the hunchbacked lab assistant is called not Igor, but Fritz; in the 1944 film House of Frankenstein, which seems to foreshadow present casting, he reappears as “Daniel.” The sequels to Whale’s Frankenstein, released in 1939 and 1942, do feature a character named “Ygor,” who is likewise marked by deformity; however, Ygor is not a lab assistant (though he does reanimate the Creature, and eventually provides him with his own brain). Over time, the separate tropological strands of “hunchbacked assistant” and “Igor” would become conflated into a single figure. At first, this conflation happened in parody: The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (1971) introduced an Igor who said the trademark phrase “Yes, Master,” while in Young Frankenstein (1974) Igor claims to be descended from Dr. Frankenstein’s grandfather’s assistant, hearkening to a (nonexistent) canonical tradition of Frankenstein-Igor partnerships. In recent films, however, the tide seems to be turning in order to make Igor a more serious (or even, as in 2004's Van Helsing, a duplicitous) character, and we expect a complex portrayal of Igor and his origins from Radcliffe.
Though Igor is a relatively new addition to the Frankenstein cultural mythos, the origins of his character type are considerably older. To me, in his characteristics of physical deformity, devotion to Frankenstein, and comic relief, Igor seems an unlikely blend of characters from early modern drama and nineteenth-century bel canto opera. As a hunchback, his most direct physical precedent is Shakespeare’s villainous and scheming Richard III, though he may also owe something to Verdi’s ill-fated court jester, Rigoletto, who is a hunchbacked servant. Igor’s status as a servant and his name also owe something, I think, to servitude’s arch-villain, Iago: Shakespeare's character's “motiveless malignity” (in Coleridge’s terms) might help to explain Igor’s willingness to take on all sorts of unpleasant and occasionally criminal tasks—unlike Victor, he’s not plagued with scientific idealism. Finally, through his connection with Rigoletto, Igor is linked back to a dramatic tradition of jesters and fools, who regularly occupy the role of truth-tellers or touchstones. Certainly, in some of his incarnations (particularly in Young Frankenstein), Igor is present not only as comic relief in himself, but acts as a foil for the idealistic scientist: by grounding viewers in the mundane and practical concerns of bodily reanimation, like the difficulty of stealing the correct brain, he allows us to laugh at Frankenstein’s follies. Rather than the central tension of the text being Victor and the Creature’s mutual antagonism, new versions of Frankenstein establish the plot’s central character doubling in Victor and Igor’s high-contrast relationship.
But why should Igor have arisen in the interval between the 1818 publication of Frankenstein, and its first cinematographic treatment in the 1930s? One answer lies in the emergence of another touchstone text of the mad scientist, H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), a loose reworking of Frankenstein that offers an imaginatively dystopian reading about historical advances in vivisection. In that novel, the mad scientist’s laboratory assistant, Dr. Montgomery, is served by another assistant, the human-animal hybrid, M’ling, whose body is made up of tissue from a bear, a dog, and an ox. Unlike the other hybrid Beast Folk of the island, M’ling is motivated by unconditional love for Montgomery: he protects him from other creatures on two occasions, and his eventual death is the result of defending his master. M’ling’s function as the unwaveringly devoted helper to Dr. Montgomery, coupled with the hybrid, constructed nature of his bodily composition, turns this Creature into its maker’s devoted subordinate. (Some adaptations of Igor have introduced Wells’s element of animalism into the character of the assistant: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1994), for instance, features an Igor who serves the “Evil Scientist,” Dr. Finkelstein, in exchange for dog biscuits.)
What this Creator-Creature relationship from The Island of Dr. Moreau adds to the Frankenstein narrative is an alternative history of what could have been in Mary Shelley’s novel: the Creature, motivated by his initial feelings of love towards his maker, becomes his servant, and assists him in the making of other creatures (thereby having his wish for a companion fulfilled). Through this textual history of Frankenstein, filtered through Wells to modern films, we can see that Igor, the deformed and devoted servant, is just another version of the Creature—but a Creature who has been so fortunate as to be accepted by his parent.
And yet, in his acceptance, Igor is also the Creature declawed. The original Frankenstein gains its tension, motivation, and interest through the profound and unequivocal rejection of the Creature by his parent Victor. This rejection creates a rivalry between the characters that ultimately results in their equality and even their interchangeability (as we see when the Creature replaces Victor in Elizabeth's chamber on the wedding-night). This unsettling likeness between Maker and Creature is lost in the Victor-Igor relationship, which is one that reinforces a difference of power between the able-bodied genius and his disabled subordinate. By redirecting narrative interest from the Creature to Igor, modern adaptations of Frankenstein neglect the central theme of parental rejection, one of the most powerful of Mary Shelley’s innovations.