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On Aug. 30, my heart broke a tiny bit.
That day, the Guardian published a remarkable interview with Frank Oz, Jim Henson’s longtime collaborator and the puppeteer behind Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and other classic Muppets. Oz hasn’t been involved with the Muppets since 2007, three years after Disney purchased the franchise. He tells the Guardian: “I’d love to do the Muppets again but Disney doesn’t want me, and Sesame Street hasn’t asked me for 10 years. They don’t want me because I won’t follow orders and I won’t do the kind of Muppets they believe in. He added of the post-Disney Muppet movies and TV shows: “The soul’s not there. The soul is what makes things grow and be funny. But I miss them and love them.” As a lifelong Muppets fan, I have to agree: There were delightful moments in the Muppet reboots of recent years, but they were a little too pale, the chaos and the order a little too calculated.
But I think that there’s a way to bring the Muppets back, one that could also—and here comes the Future Tense agenda—help spark smart discussions about scientific ethics, especially around what it means to be human and how to approach innovation responsibly. We need Frank Oz to helm a Muppet Frankenstein.
In the ’90s, the Muppets starred in two truly great adaptations of classic works: Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Both remained quite true to the original texts, particularly the latter: The Independent quite rightly called A Muppet Christmas Carol “the definitive adaptation of the Dickens classic—and perhaps the greatest Christmas movie of its decade.” My middle-school teacher begged us to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol if we were going to insist on watching one of the film versions instead of reading the novella.
The Muppets have flirted with Frankenstein before, but the world could really use a new definitive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic. Two hundred and three years after it was published (205 since the dare on a gloomy Swiss summer night inspired the teenage Shelley to write it), the novel has been eclipsed by the movies, TV shows, plays, graphic novels, and other derivative works it inspired. The Wikipedia page for “Frankenstein in Popular Culture” is exhausting. The original has been around for so long that any new version needs a twist, spinning it ever further away from the original text. (I’ve found that lots of people have completely forgotten, or never knew, that a big chunk of the tale takes place in the Arctic.) It’s considered pedantic to point out that Frankenstein was the human—Victor Frankenstein, mad scientist/hubristic first-year college student—and not the monster. But that is meaningful! It matters that the villain in the movie was the person who did not consider the ramifications of his experiment, who toiled alone with no thought to ethics. It matters that the monster was failed by his creator, leading to all of that destruction. This is a great time to remind people about those important elements of a novel that is too often boiled down to “Science is bad and scary,” as demonstrated by the tedious, ubiquitous “Franken-” prefix.
Five years ago, I was lucky enough to take part in Arizona State University’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, which produced, among other things, an annotated version of Frankenstein that included several essays highlighting the novel’s commentary on ethics and innovation. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Shelley, writing at a time of experiments that applied electricity to corpses, offered us a wonderfully rich text to help us think through the promise-filled peril, or perilous promise, of CRISPR genetic editing, geoengineering to combat climate change, general artificial intelligence, and more far-out-seeming technologies that are slowly becoming part of our daily lives.
Unfortunately, lots of people won’t take the time to read Frankenstein, even though it’s a page-turner, let alone thoughtful essays accompanying it.
But the Muppets! Anyone can invest 90 minutes in a Muppet adaptation that mixes the ethical and moral lessons of the original with a postmodern zaniness. Gonzo, leaning into the mad scientist bit, could be Victor Frankenstein assembling the monster, played by Sweetums with some bolts in his neck. Janice could be Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s suffering fiancée. Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew could together play Henry Clerval, Victor’s friend who tries to steer him right. Fozzie could be a goofy version of Arctic explorer Robert Walton. Sam the Eagle could be a concerned professor, and Kermit might play Victor’s father—appropriate, given that the Spark Notes for Frankenstein reminds me that Alphonse Frankenstein liked to remind his son about that most Kermit of values: the importance of family. Miss Piggy (why are there so few female Muppets? It’s a travesty) could be cast as Mary Shelley, just as Gonzo played Charles Dickens in A Muppet Christmas Carol, giving us commentary and some background information on the author’s remarkable life. (For more on that, I highly recommend reading Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, a dual biography of Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ll just say that Shelley’s life could also make a wonderful CW show. Gordon, incidentally, wrote a wonderful Future Tense piece in 2017 about three lessons Frankenstein offers artificial intelligence experts.)
Muppet Frankenstein could be an opportunity to return the Muppets to their original splendor and also offer an accessible, not-scoldy framework for thinking through knotty topics. It would be a remarkable opportunity to inject hopefulness into the discourse around emerging science.
Instead, Disney just this week released the poster for the upcoming Disney+ special Muppets Haunted Mansion, in which, Collider says, “the great Gonzo will be dared to stay one night in the iconic, spooky Haunted Mansion located in Disney’s theme park.” The synergy there may be great for Disney—but I would rather be watching Frank Oz bring his magic to a classic sorely in need of a faithful but madcap reboot.
Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.
Wish We’d Published This
“The Plan to Stop Every Respiratory Virus at Once,” by Sarah Zhang, the Atlantic
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Darknet Diaries has long been one of my favorite podcasts for the way it brings true-crime drama to cybercrime. But its most recent two episodes, “The Spy” and “NSO Group,” are particularly remarkable. The first tells the story of a private investigator hired by the Israeli surveillance company Black Cube to spy on journalists reporting on Harvey Weinstein. He also found himself surveilling John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, as part of a particularly bumbling operation. In “NSO Group,” Darknet Diaries—with help from Railton—looks into the NSO Group, the infamous company behind the spyware Pegasus that has been used to track dissidents.
What Next: TBD
On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary and ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten discuss the troubling present and future of the Colorado River. Last week, Lizzie spoke with Brandy Zadrozny, senior reporter for NBC News, about how misinformation about ivermectin took over the COVID-skeptic internet.
• Book Event: Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
Monday, Sept. 20, noon-1 p.m. Eastern
The Extended Mind shows how humanity has achieved its most impressive feats only by thinking outside the brain: by “extending” the brain’s power with resources borrowed from the body, other people, and the material world.
Join New America’s Fellows Program, the Learning Sciences Exchange fellows program, and Future Tense for a conversation with Annie Murphy Paul and Nick Thompson, CEO of the Atlantic, about how and why to rethink the art of thinking. RSVP.
• Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club: The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Wednesday, Oct. 13, 6-7 p.m. Eastern
In The Ministry for the Future, selected by Barack Obama as one of his favorite books of 2020, humanity attempts to mitigate the disastrous impacts of global warming in the not-too-distant future. It combines economic and monetary policy, drones, engineering, human struggle, and more.
Join Future Tense and Issues in Science and Technology at for our second installment of our Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club. RSVP.