It lives! From Mary Shelley to Danny Boyle, why we’re still fascinated by Frankenstein

As a new production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, opens at the National Theatre, Paul Taylor looks back at almost two centuries of monsters inspired by Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece

The Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and playwright Nick Dear first hatched the notion of joining forces on a version of Frankenstein back in 1990 when they were working together in Stratford on their excellent Last Days of Don Juan. But a major setback occurred in 1994 in the shape of the Kenneth Branagh movie Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As one wag rightly remarked, that film should have been titled "Wretched Excess's Frankenstein", but it did approach, in its combination of risible high-mindedness and gothic schlock, a couple of the angles Boyle and Dear had evidently intended to tackle.

Boyle then went off on what he has jokily referred to as his "15-year distraction" in movie-land and the plan simmered in the chemical retorts of abeyance. Now, some two decades after it was originally conceived, the project has finally achieved consummation in a sold-out, talk-of-the-town production at the National which begins previewing tomorrow night. It brings Boyle back to his theatrical roots and it sees Jonny Lee Miller (who first worked with the director as Sick Boy in Trainspotting) and Benedict Cumberbatch (currently the teenyboppers' wet dream on account of Sherlock) alternating the roles of Scientist and Creature each night. This is a version that, true to Mary Shelley's insights, interprets the two characters as distorted alter egos: a scientifically engendered father-and-son locked in a strange, compulsive, mutual need – a need that is achingly human, on the part of the Creature, and on the part of his creator, the result of a masochistic deep denial of his paternal responsibilities.

Taut and compellingly telescoped, Dear's adaptation returns us to the fundamentals (emotional and intellectual) of Shelley's increasingly suggestive myth. The NT's electricity bill will not be swollen, you'll be glad to hear, by any histrionic animation scene (as in James Whale's hugely influential 1931 movie version). Frankenstein is not kitted out with a deformed assistant, nor is the Creature bequeathed the brain of a deviant, homicidal criminal – both of which details are the invention of Richard Brinsley Peake in Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1826), the first of the many theatrical distortions of the novel. These elements, of course, speedily passed into the myth's DNA, reaching their comic apotheosis in Mel Brooks's hilarious cinematic spoof Young Frankenstein in 1974. As Dear insists, the benefit of a stage version is that it can emphasise "the human scale" of the story. Though there are wraps over precisely how Frankenstein's handiwork will look, it – or, rather, he – is clearly not going to be a clone of the flat-topped, cliff-browed, bolt-in-the-neck weirdo, who, courtesy of Boris Karloff, indelibly loped into the popular imagination in Whale's unforgettable re-working.

Dear's account begins by pulling us into the subjective experience of the pristine, bewildered Creature as he struggles to acclimatise himself to his brave new world. It ends, as does the novel, in the Arctic, but not with the death of Frankenstein and not with the prospective suicide of his creation. Instead, the two of them are disturbingly stalemated in what feels like the kind of deathly symbiosis you find in Dante's Inferno.

So as the National's Frankenstein brilliantly gets back to basics, it's an opportune moment for considering the broad context in which all versions of Mary Shelley's myth are required to situate themselves. Putting herself in arresting alignment with her equivocal scientist, Shelley described the novel – in the preface to its popular, conservatively toned-down 1831 incarnation – as her "hideous progeny". Almost inevitably, it escaped her control – just as the Creature goes AWOL – after publication. Her myth has been interpreted as a parable about the ethics of governing (or failing to govern) experimental scientists; a cautionary tale, co-opted by both the left and the right, about what happens when the proletariat is allowed to run amok; a Freudian bodice-ripper about the id on the rampage; and as a coded homosexual saga about a man who usurps the female prerogative and tries to bypass womanhood in having a baby by himself.

There is an abiding fascination, too, with trying to concoct a spider's web of connections between the creation of the Creature and Mary Shelley's own tragic circumstances. Her feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died as a result of giving birth to her. All but one of her children died in babyhood. Her father, William Godwin, may have been the radical author of Political Justice and the dedicatee of Frankenstein, but he was not above stopping speaking to his daughter when she ran off, at the age of 16, with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It stands to reason that later artists – from Ken Russell (in the dreadful movie Gothic) to Liz Lochhead (in the thoughtful stage play Blood and Ice) have kept gravitating back to that wet summer in Italy in 1816 when Lord Byron initiated a ghost story competition amongst his fellow-expats which resulted (or so Mary Shelley later claimed) in the waking nightmare of Frankenstein.

And, naturally (if one can use that adverb in these circumstances), hers is a saga which updates itself relentlessly. The epigraph to Shelley's novel is the fallen Adam's complaint to God in Book X of Paradise Lost: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?" All adolescents who rile their parents with the taunt "I didn't ask to be born" can identify with that. But Adam and Frankenstein's Creature have a particular right to it as prototypes of an experiment that goes awry. Cut to 21st-century California. There are now Wrongful Life lawsuits that children with even minor disabilities are being encouraged, by fee-hungry lawyers, to bring against the reproductive technologists whose crucial decisions led to their existence. It's a tribute to the escalating relevance of Shelley's story that one finds oneself wondering: how would the Creature have reacted, given access to this dangerous form of litigation? Or to put it another way, how would the Scientist? He's the one who, in his obsessive emulation of the deity, is more in tune with our current culture of perfectibility. A contemporary Frankenstein would be inclined to hunt through the thickets of the law in the hope of manufacturing a way of suing the Creature on a kind of pre-conceptual breach-of-promise agenda.

Boyle and Dear interpret the myth as a story about fathers and sons "and by extension about the responsibility of the experimental scientist to his and her findings". Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch have talked of the way the alternating casting intensifies the manner in which the two characters "create" one another. There has been slightly looser comment about how the Creature represents Lord Byron, "the noble savage", and the scientist the "obsessive social misfit", Percy Bysshe Shelley, the author's eventual husband. Mmm. Undoubtedly true, though, is how the role-swapping underlines how the two characters ironically wind up in the same boat – in the wastes of loveless, friendless, mate-less isolation, the Scientist by mad, wilful choice; his Creature by imposition.

In their climactic encounter in the Arctic, it becomes clearer here than in Shelley's novel that the Creature understands their mutual predicament better than his creator. In flight from paternal responsibility, the Scientist becomes a grotesque parody of what he has created. The Creature is desperate for a female partner. The Scientist's demented, self-indulgent perturbations feel like a diabolical delaying tactic for his own wedding ceremony – an event where he, unthinkingly, puts his bride in the optimum position of risk. "If equal love there cannot be/Let the more loving one be me," wrote Auden.

Is there a homosexual subtext to this? Well, yes. The book has propagated myriad spin-offs – it can't be long before we have "Lesbian Second Cousin Twice-Removed of Frankenstein". The acutest and the most amusing of all these epigones, though, is Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale (of Frankenstein fame) in 1935. In its hilarious coded way, this movie is far gayer than, say, the Frankenstein-inflected Rocky Horror Show. James Whale was sort-of openly gay. So, with knobs on, was Ernest Thesiger who, in Bride of Frankenstein, plays Frankenstein's scientific coeval, Pretorius, with a Cocteau-haired mincing menace, as though he is blackmailing his former pupil, because of some youthful gay indiscretion, into a collaborative women-excluded concocting of the Bride.

That movie has a prologue, set in 1816, where, in Hollywood's idea of a Regency salon, Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley is found demurely embroidering. Lord Byron, in a ridiculous Scots burr, wonders aloud to Percy Shelley how "that bland and lovely brow conceived a Frankenstein". Lanchester simpers with incipient insubordination and, of course, resurfaces, in that immortal electrified Nefertiti coiffure, as the Bride. Interesting that no one thought of bringing Mary into the central story as a scientist, which would be the pertinent part for her.

In Liz Lochhead's play Blood and Ice (first seen in 1982 and much revived and revised since), Mary Shelley looks back at 1816 from a position of financially precarious widowhood. Her Creature comes back to haunt her, literally, as a spooky voice that describes her, aptly, as "Frankenstein's Frankenstein" and, borrowing the Miltonic accents that her learned self-taught creature himself borrowed, asks of her, "Frankenstein, why did you make me?"

It's a play full of interesting flashes in which Mary seems to regret a free-loving misspent youth rather as a Sixties hippy might. It homes in, for example, on the telling coincidence that the child that her Creature murders has the same name, "William", as one of Shelley's own dead babies. But it runs the risk of underestimating her intellectually. The Creature might, more suggestively, ask how she feels about having created a myth that is peculiarly susceptible to appropriation by both radical and conservative forces.

One of the finest uses of Frankenstein is Victor Erice's exquisite 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive, set in Spain in 1940 in the aftermath of the Franco-ite victory over the attempted republic. It exemplifies how Shelley's myth can be co-opted by diametrically opposed constituencies. In mobile cinemas sent out into the provinces, the new Fascist regime promulgates the 1931 James Whale movie as repressive propaganda, the "Monster" symbolising, for them, the horrors that happen when a godless experiment like socialism is given rein. For the little girl, who watches the film and can't understand the victimisation of the Creature, the story means something rather different when she wordlessly befriends a wounded, fugitive Republican soldier who, in her mind, is somehow identified with the hounded outcast.

In Shelley Jackson's 1995 hypertext novel, Patchwork Girl, Mary Shelley finally comes into her own. It alleges that the female companion that Frankenstein began making and then destroyed was secretly finished by Shelley herself and that the couple, so composed, had a love affair. It's an astonishing work, pitting techno-savvy against the kind of stitching that is the traditional lot of womanhood. And it emphasises that love is at the heart of this myth.

In its feverish way the Kenneth Branagh movie did identify one of the key forces at play here. But it overplayed its hand. Branagh's Frankenstein, like some manically melodramatised version of Mary Shelley, is in crazed Freudian reaction to the death of his mother in childbed. Instead of reluctantly agreeing to create a mate for the Creature, he cobbles together a hybrid stitch-up of his prospective wife (whose heart has been inconveniently ripped out by his handiwork) and the maid, Justine, framed for one of Frankenstein's proxy murders. Luridly, the film – with Robert De Niro as the prosthetically wrinkled Creature – dramatises the debate as a contest (who will she choose? Ooh, neither...) between its two antagonists.

The National Theatre adaptation manages to be both graphic and subtle. It understands that Mary Shelley was not opposed to experimental science – despite the plethora of contemporary cartoons in which the Karloff clone is a shorthand for shutting down the debate. For example, there's a cartoon in which two lab-coated scientists are wielding test tubes. The Karloff figure enters with a cry of "Mummy!" You only have to register the prefix "Franken-", as in, say, Franken-food, to appreciate the negative force of this.

But Mary Shelley was intensely interested by science and had close personal connections with figures such as the radical surgeon Sir William Lawrence, who were are at the core of the "Vitalist" debate over whether there was a superadded substance that one might call "soul" to the body's tributary function. In some sense, her scientist's relationship with his Creature subsumes that of Prospero with both Caliban and Ariel in The Tempest. There is a wonderful moment in Shakespeare's late play where the exiled magician is educated in the arts of forgiveness by his familiar spirit, Ariel. The latter tells him that his affections would become tender, if he could see his enemies now. "Dost thou think so, spirit?". To which Ariel, indelibly replies, "Mine would so, were I human." The point is that the Creature is human – but Frankenstein, unlike Prospero is, by the very nature of his paternity, unable to say "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine".

There's an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer bumps into Mel Brooks. "I love that movie," he says of Young Frankenstein, "It scared the hell out of me". Brooks looks understandably bemused. His film was a spoof of a spoof of a spoof and, not scary in the slightest, shows how far Mary Shelley's myth has become unmoored from its origins. Now the Boyle/Dear version looks set to haul this apparent melodrama of monstrosities back to its mutually human core.

'Frankenstein', National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000; www.national Previews from 5 February; opens on 22 February to 17 April