The Monster at the Movies: Film Adaptations of Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is 200 years old this year. First published in 1818, the story tells of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who becomes obsessed with reanimating the dead. Victor creates a monster who is never named. In the book, the Monster is also called “the creature,” “the devil,” and “the daemon.” In most movies, the creation is called “the Monster,” so that’s the term being used throughout this essay.
In the novel, once Victor brings the Monster to life, the doctor is shocked by his appearance and abandons him. The Monster learns to speak, read, and write by spying on a family in the woods. Rejected by everyone he encounters, the Monster begs Victor to make him a bride. When Victor refuses, the Monster vows vengeance. Many murders later, the Monster and Victor chase each other to the Arctic where they meet a tragic end. The book tackles issues that remain all too relevant today, including themes of obsession, grief, women’s rights, the fate of refugees, injustice and class differences, and scientific ethics.
The book has been kept alive in part because of the movie adaptations it inspired—most of which venture far from the book’s plot but retain at least one of the book’s themes. It was the movies that created the lines (“It’s alive!”) and the images (the outreached arms, the square head) that people think of today when they think of Victor Frankenstein and the Monster. The Monster in the book is intelligent and eloquent—very different from the stumbling and speechless character that kids dress up as for Halloween. The novel has given us the enduring concept of Frankenstein’s story while the movies have given us the enduring images and sounds that we associate with the story, even if those images are far from the book.
Frankenstein hit movie screens for the first time in 1910. This short, silent movie from The Edison Company was pretty faithful to the novel up until the last moments of the film, when the Monster confronts Victor and Victor’s bride. As explained by an article in the Edison Kinetogram:
When Frankenstein’s love for his bride shall have attained full strength and freedom from impurity it will have such an effect upon his mind that the Monster cannot exist . . . The Monster, broken down by his unsuccessful attempts to be with his creator, enters the room, stands before a large mirror and holds out his arms entreatingly. Gradually, the real Monster fades away, leaving only the image in the mirror. A moment later Frankenstein himself enters. As he stands directly before the mirror we are amazed to see the image of the Monster reflected instead of Frankenstein’s own. Gradually, however, under the effect of love and his better nature, the Monster’s image fades and Frankenstein sees himself in his young manhood in the mirror.
Although the theme of a corrupting obsession is common to depictions of Victor Frankenstein, the 1910 movie had a take on it that is completely unique—the idea that not only can the Monster not be created without this obsession; the Monster cannot be sustained without it either. The macabre creation sequence, in which the Monster slowly transforms in a vat of flames, the flickering screen, the use of mirror imagery, and the resolution contribute to the feeling of witnessing a cautionary nightmare with an unexpected happy ending for Victor (alas, the hapless Monster does not fare so well).
The next American adaptation came in 1931. Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the Monster, remains an incredibly influential film for filmmakers and an integral part of popular culture. It was this movie that gave us the castle, the torch-carrying mob, and the laboratory with the thunderstorm overhead. In this movie the cry “It’s alive!” was uttered for the first time. The Monster of the film has the famous square head, neck bolts, distinctive gait with outspread arms, and inability to speak that has inspired Halloween costumes ever since. The movie is black and white, but the makeup artist (Jack P. Pierce) covered the Monster’s skin with gray-green makeup so that the skin would look dead without fading into the gray background, thus creating a tradition of a green(ish) Monster. When most people think of Frankenstein they see images from this movie. Even though the plot and characterization has almost nothing in common with the book, the book’s themes are brought to life in a visceral, emotional, unforgettable way.
Fear of the Other
To this day, the most poignant exploration of fear of “the other” comes to us from James Whale’s Frankenstein. The theme is driven home both by the sequence of events and by Boris Karloff’s incredible performance. This is one of many films in which the Monster cannot speak, and his clumsiness, naïveté, and wordlessness make him seem like an awkward, large toddler. He breaks both objects and people, but he does so out of ignorance or out of fear, not malice. His greatest desire is for friendship, and his secondary desires are for food, music, and the beauty of nature. The frightening image from the movie is not the terrified and furious Monster but the angry mob that hunts him down, not knowing or understanding his origins, motives, or potential.
Young Frankenstein (1974) plays with this theme, mingling humor and pathos. Frederick Frankenstein, craves respect and tries to win this by renouncing his grandfather, Victor. The childlike Monster, who fears fire and loves music, craves friendship and affection. After several failed attempts at making friends, sometimes with violent results, the Monster and Frederick bond over their loneliness. Frederick flatters the Monster, hugs him, and proudly claims the name “Frankenstein” as his own. When a mob comes for Frederick and for the Monster, Frederick saves the Monster with an act of scientific sacrifice and the Monster saves Fredrick with a speech about Frederick’s kindness. The crowd, previously terrified of both scientist and Monster, accepts them as odd but benevolent members of the community. It’s a rare but delightful happy ending that can only come about from all of the characters accepting each other as the oddballs they are.
Refusal to Accept Death
The Victor Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s novel is a narcissistic, irresponsible, weak-willed character, who fails to show compassion, who thinks primarily about himself, who consistently fails to think through the potential consequences of his actions, and who also fails to take responsibility for his actions. Every Dr. Frankenstein character demonstrates at least some of these unsavory traits, as well as an unwillingness to accept death as the inevitable and inescapable fate of human beings. However, when this unwillingness is tied to a personal loss, the character immediately becomes at least slightly more relatable and sympathetic.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Victor is motivated by the loss of his mother and later by the loss of his fiancée. In Victor Frankenstein (2015), Victor wants to atone for the death of his brother, a death he feels directly responsible for. In Frankenweenie (2012), young Victor is desperate to reanimate his dog. While this results in massive chaos, it’s impossible not to side with Victor. His failure to see the potential consequences of his experiment is justified by his age, and his motives are completely relatable. The scientists in these movies have all the faults of the scientist in the original novel (with the exception of the fairly innocent young Victor); however, their characters are given an extra layer by making their motives so personal.
Blackenstein (1973)—one of the early Blaxploitation films in the 1970s—involves the regeneration of limbs rather than the reanimation of a dead person. However, the results are basically the same as in most other stories—the subject of the experiments becomes a killer with a flat head, outstretched arms, and diminished intelligence. The experiments that transform the main character, Eddie, into a monster happen because his fiancée begs a helpful scientist to restore the limbs that Eddie lost to a landmine in Vietnam. The tragedy of the story is magnified by the fact that starts it with good, and indeed deeply compassionate, intentions.
In the original novel, both Victor and the Monster experience sexual and/or romantic frustration. As a child, Victor’s parents brought home an orphan (Elizabeth) and raised her as Victor’s adopted sister with the expectation that someday the two will marry. They become engaged as adults. Victor cannot consummate this relationship until he overcomes his fear of and obsession with the Monster. Meanwhile, the Monster is desperate for Victor to build him “a mate,” convinced that only someone who was created like him will be able to love him. When Victor destroys the Monster’s bride, the Monster destroys Victor’s by killing Elizabeth on Victor’s wedding night.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) has virtually nothing in common with the novel save for the Monster’s loneliness and desire to have a sexual partner. While the Monster is frustrated by the lengthy process of finding and reanimating a suitable companion, Victor and Elizabeth are frustrated because Victor distances himself from her physically and emotionally during his work. During the climax of the movie, there are literal barriers between Elizabeth and Victor and the Monster and The Bride. In the ensuing explosion, the Monster and The Bride are joined in death while Victor and Elizabeth break through the literal and metaphorical barriers that separate them and are joined in life.
In Young Frankenstein, the theme of sexual frustration is played even more broadly for laughs. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, is engaged to Elizabeth, who does not like to be touched. When he visits his grandfather’s castle, he finds a beautiful assistant (Inga) who seems quite eager to be touched—but he can’t act on his attraction to her because of his engagement to Elizabeth. It takes the presence of the Monster and some “brain transference” to transform a castle full of sexually frustrated characters into two happy couples.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) both explore the Frankenstein story in terms of breaking taboos, and both have plots that defy description. The mad scientist of Rocky Horror wants to find sexual bliss by creating the perfect partner. The mad scientist of Flesh For Frankenstein (also known as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein) becomes so obsessed with his (female) Monster that he can only obtain sexual pleasure using her corpse. Meanwhile his sister who is also his wife (a fact which is brought up many times to heighten the illicit nature of their relationship) uses a male Monster for sexual gratification. Both stories involve murder, rape, incest, adultery, and other taboos as the scientist and those around them pursue hedonistic pleasure at any cost.
The Victor Frankenstein of the novel plans to create a superior form of a human being using the technology of his era. He is unprepared for any of the consequences of this act. Having failed to see beyond the moment when his creation becomes alive, he is horrified by the Monster’s appearance and refuses to care for or educate the Monster. He seems to have thought that his creation would be beautiful and docile, and instead is presented with a creation who looks just as awful as a person built from corpses would be expected to look, and who is determined and rebellious.
While Victor’s technology worked, he could not control the result of this technology. His creation is neither attractive nor obedient. It demands to be respected as a person, as a fellow being with thoughts and feelings. Denied this, the Monster takes terrible revenge on Victor. “If I cannot inspire love,” the Monster says, “I will cause fear.”
A vast number of movies about artificial intelligence and genetic engineering are essentially Frankenstein adaptations or tributes. In these stories, scientists create something or someone that they expect to be able to control, only to discover that their creation insists on being recognized as human (or otherwise sentient) and/or given freedom. In The Terminator franchise, a computer network created by humans gains sentience and attempts to destroy all of humanity when its creators try to shut it down. Ex Machina (2014) and Morgan (2016) involve artificially created beings who are willing to kill to achieve their freedom. The Jurassic Park franchise features scientists bringing dinosaurs back to life in the belief that through a combination of science and technology they can keep the dinosaurs under control. A famous quote from Jurassic Park (1993) neatly sums up the hubris behind Victor Frankenstein’s experiments as well as that of thematically related characters:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Mary Shelley was a prolific author, yet only Frankenstein remains famous. Why are we still telling this story, over and over again? What draws us to insert people, robots, and dinosaurs into a two hundred year old story?
The themes explored in Frankenstein in 1818 are the same themes we’ve grappled with in 1910, in 1934, in 1973, and in 2018. We all experience loneliness, confusion, sexual frustration, and grief. We are fascinated and repelled by the inevitability of death. Our society is shaped by “fear of the other” which is centered on racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism. Technology always seems to be moving a little bit more quickly than ethics, and it often comes with both beneficial and harmful unforeseen consequences.
The novel Frankenstein gives us a specific and detailed story, but its core plot is so simple and its themes so universal, that it can become a template for whatever story we want to tell. Maybe it’s a sweet children’s movie about a boy and his dog, and a neighborhood that comes to accept them. Maybe it’s a nearly pornographic story about the violation of taboos, with a grisly and cautionary ending. Maybe it’s a story about androids, or human cloning, or the complexity of computer networks. However the story is told, it makes us revisit the questions of what it means to be human. Presumably, in another two hundred years, this question will remain, and will be told in a new medium. It will, as they say, still be alive.