Frankenstein’s creature has many differences from other popular monsters associated with Halloween. Rather than being based off an ancient legend, religious concept, or historical figure, his origin is solely literary in nature, being confined to one book. Despite this, public perception of the creature has changed greatly since the publication of the original novel, leading to wildly divergent styles and plotlines in its various film adaptations.
People’s perceptions of the creature have become so warped by time and decades of misleading film posters and article titles that most use the name “Frankenstein” to refer to the creature itself, rather than the scientist who created him! An understanding of literary history is necessary to understand the truth of the creature’s tragic history and how decades of film adaptations changed him into the lumbering brute most know him as today.
Genesis of the Creature
In May 1816, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, their young son, and close friend Claire Clairmont traveled to Lake Geneva. They planned to spend the summer with the scandalous and ecentric poet, Lord Byron. They spent their time writing, boating, and talking late into the dark and stormy summer nights.
In the evenings, the Shelleys and Lord Byron would share old German ghost stories to entertain one another. One night, Byron proposed writing their own ghost stories. A discussion upon the principle of life lit a spark in Mary Shelley in particular. She encountered a "waking dream," or night terror, in which a corpse was reanimated.
She quotes in her 1831 edition of Frankenstein
: "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." Thus, she began writing what she thought would be a short story.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus
was published anonymously in London in 1818. Shelley’s name first appeared on the novel when it was reprinted in 1831. Heavily influenced by the Gothic and Romantic literary movements of the 19th
century, the original Frankenstein
novel is very different thematically from later versions of the story. The characterization of the creature himself constitutes one of the main differences. Rather than a nonspeaking simpleton, the original creature's characterization is that of a sensitive, intelligent being who becomes bitter, vindictive, and ultimately murderous because he was spurned by human society and his father-figure, Dr. Frankenstein.
Instead of killing simply because he was evil, Shelley’s version of the Creature performs his most horrifying acts as a vengeance against Dr. Frankenstein for not creating a bride for him. Also interestingly, the iconic creation sequence, which takes place typically in an elaborate lab filled with chemicals, machines and Tesla coils in most film adaptations, does not take place in the novel. The creation sequence merely takes place in a darkened room and is given far less space in the novel than the mental attitudes of both the doctor and the Creature to the act of creation. Frankenstein
is considered one of the first true science fiction novels and one of the earliest critiques of both the doctrine of scientific progress and 19th-
century attitudes to parenthood.
Changes to the original Frankenstein
narrative date back to the very dawn of cinema. The creation sequence began to become more elaborate as early as 1910 when the Edison Company created the first film version of Frankenstein
. Like most motion pictures of the time, the film was very short—the total length is under 15 minutes—so the filmmakers chose to emphasize the spectacle of the creature’s reanimation over the novel’s elaborate characterizations. The production was one of the first successful horror films and was remade
by Universal in 1931.
Karloff and the Universal Classics, Frankenstein & Bride of Frankenstein
film, which starred Boris Karloff as the creature and Colin Clive as Doctor Frankenstein, was a huge theatrical success and
established many of the clichés now associated with the Frankenstein story: hunchbacked assistants, elaborate laboratories in castles, a creature who is an unthinking killing machine, and the “defective brain” plot point. The film inspired a rare achievement, a sequel called Bride of Frankenstein
which not only equaled but surpassed the first film in quality. Bride
is actually much closer to the original novel than the earlier Frankenstein
film. The previously savage Creature becomes capable of forming friendships, speech, and sexual desire, which transforms him from a simple killing machine into a brilliantly realized character. Considered by many to be the best of all the Universal horror films, Bride of Frankenstein
is perhaps best remembered today for the creature’s somber final line, “We belong dead.”
Sadly, the portrayal of the creature does not maintain this level of quality in later Universal releases. In Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, the creature regresses to a nonspeaking murderer and is played by Glenn Strange rather than Karloff. This would be less disconcerting if both films did not have flashbacks to the creation footage from the earlier Karloff film so that viewers can easily identify the different actor! The series finally descended into parody with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein before Hammer Studios began its own, very different Frankenstein series.
“Not Recommended for People of Nervous Disposition”
Hammer’s Frankenstein series began in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein
, one of the earliest films in its series of horror releases, and established many of the characteristics that would distinguish Hammer’s filmmaking style: excellent set design to conceal a low budget, solid performances by Peter Cushing
and Christopher Lee (as Frankenstein and his Creature, respectively), color cinematography, and an extreme level of violence for late 1950s cinema.
The film was a huge financial success for Hammer studios and resulted in the creation of six sequels: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974). Unlike Hammer’s Dracula films, its Frankenstein series was centered around Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein rather than the Creature itself, who was reassembled and played by actors other than Lee in the sequel films. This distinct focus means these films are better remembered for Cushing’s progressively more insane Doctor (the final film is set entirely in an asylum) than the various Creatures he creates.
After Hammer: The Creature’s Fate in Modern Cinema
Truly memorable versions of the Frankenstein narrative after the end of Hammer’s series are few and far between. Attempts at modern versions of the story such as The Bride
(1985) and accurate translations of the novel such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
(1994) have fallen flat with critics and audiences
alike. Perhaps the most popular modern version of the Frankenstein story is Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein,
a comedic parody considered by many to be Brooks’ best film. It stars an excellent cast highlighted by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s
Gene Wilder as the Doctor’s descendant and Everybody Loves Raymond’s
Peter Boyle as the Creature. The film also authentically replicates the feel of the Universal Frankenstein
series down to the black & white cinematography and set design, which used many of the props from the Universal films.
In the last few years, a number of attempts at creating different visionary movies involving the story of Frankenstein and his Creature have emerged: Van Helsing
with Hugh Jackman in 2004; I, Frankenstein
(2014) with Aaron Eckhart; Victor Frankenstein
(2015) with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe; and even Showtime's popular television series Penny Dreadful.
1935 "Bride of Frankenstein" by James Vaughen [CC by 2.0], via Flickr
Rothwell Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Peter Cushing in Dracula 1958 from the "Internet Archive" of the movie Dracula (1958) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Best. Movie. Ever. by Insomnia Cured Here [CC by 2.0], via Flickr