Emma Street examines the monster science, not folklore, created and ponders how the literary legend stands up, cinematically speaking.

Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)

Poor old Frankenstein. People so often misunderstand him, you see. Half the time they’re not even sure whether he is a man or a monster. Not in a metaphorical way, just in a not really being sure whether the name belongs to the scientist or the lumbering monster he created. It’s gotten a lot better lately.  Six year olds who have seen Tim Burton’s excellent Frankenweenie will roll their eyes at you if you refer to the monster as Frankenstein. Frankenstein was the scientist they’ll explain, not the big green guy with a bolt through his neck. And Frankenstein’s Monster wasn’t a big green guy with a bolt through his neck anyway. Then they’ll shake their heads and walk away in disgust because they’re cocky sods these hypothetical six year olds.

Just when you think cinema has sorted it out, you get growly-voiced Aaron Eckhart in this year’s confusingly named I, Frankenstein and the whole business gets muddled again. Although to be fair, the title is the least of I, Frankenstein’s problems. It’s a big explodey mess of a film, full of demons and gargoyles for some reason.  It’s a million miles away from the original story which set squarely in the rational world. You may as well start bunging demons in Bleak House or Heidi.

Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818 and can happily consider itself the first ever science fiction novel.  It was seized on for inspiration by filmmakers almost as soon as there were such things as filmmakers. The first film version, directed by J Searle Dawley came out in 1910. However, it was James Whale’s adaption in 1931, starring Boris Karloff as the monster, which created the legend of Frankenstein in popular culture.

All those appearances of Frankenstein’s Monster– from Alvin and Chipmunks meet Frankenstein to the Frankenberry mascot, or Asda’s Halloween party decorations comes from  this film. Makeup designer Jack P Pierce created an icon: slicked down hair, sunken eyes, the stretched suit jacket – its sleeves riding up the wearer’s overlong arms, the bolt-like electrode through the neck, and the head you could comfortably rest a coffee cup on without fear of it sliding off.

They didn’t mess with the name though. Frankenstein is definitely the scientist in this movie. The monster is just a nameless ‘it’. Although ‘Victor Frankenstein’ has been changed to ‘Henry Frankenstein’ for some reason. The name Victor is given to one of the other characters. It’s as though the scriptwriter thought Victor Frankenstein was just too much name and had to be safely shared between two people in order to reduce its potency.

The confusion over whether the name referred to the man or the monster seems to have started with 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein where the monster is referred to repeatedly as “Frankenstein” After that the name just sort of stuck, really. He looks like a Frankenstein. Like Igor looks like an Igor, even though he was called Fritz in the early films.

1939’s Son of Frankenstein and 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein might have listed the character as ‘The Monster’ in the credits but, by then, he was definitely Frankenstein to his friends. By the time Universal’s monster rally in 1948 included Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, it’s safe to say that audiences would have been pretty disappointed if the comic duo had been meeting up with the scientist rather than the iconic monster.

a+c frankenstein
The Trip to Transylvania coming in 2016.

The 1931 version of Frankenstein was based on a stageplay and includes much that isn’t in the original novel. Flaming torches, spooky castles, the gurning, hunchbacked lab assistant and most importantly, the use of lightning as a conduit for life.  The book is infuriatingly vague about the method by which the monster is brought to life. Frankenstein will not divulge his methods lest other people try to copy them. Well, that’s very convenient, isn’t it? Thanks a lot, Shelley.

Even Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which stayed close enough to the original book as to retain loads of the boring bits, used electricity as the source of Dr Frankenstein’s power.

Because just saying –  “And I created my monster by the means of mumble mumble mumble – look over there!” – might just about work in a book, but it’s a bit of a problem cinematically. We need the visuals. Lightning was such an elegant solution to the puzzle that it became the go-to method of bringing things to life for all filmmakers.  It even works on military robots.

The book certainly has its faults. I found it a bit long-winded and dull. For the most part you could only describe it as ‘action-packed’ if your idea of ‘action’ is a man hiding in a cupboard for months.

It’s set within a framing device whereby Captain Robert Morgan writes letters to his sister telling her of this strange ‘Frankenstein’ character he’s chanced across in the North Pole. He’s a patient man that Robert Morgan if I rescued a half-crazed man in wild and mysterious circumstances, I’d expect a bit of a better start to his story than “I am by birth a Genevese. My family had been for many years counsellors and syndics…” I’d be doing the ‘hurry it up’ gesture with my hand and saying “yeah, yeah that’s enough about your childhood holidays on the shores of Lake Como, get to the good bit.”

you talkin' to me?
you talkin’ to me?

Framed and epistolary narratives were all the rage back in the eighteenth century – Wilkie Collins and Samuel Johnson loved that shit – but it makes for a rather convoluted method of storytelling leading to, at one point,  a story within a story within a story within a story. Four times the story of Safie and Felix’s thwarted love affair must have been told. Once by Safie to the Laceys, then by the creature to Frankenstein, then Frankenstein tells it to Robert Morgan and finally Robert Morgan jots it all down in his letter to his sister. It wasn’t all that interesting to start off with.

The scene in which the creature is given life is rather muted in the book. No “It’s Alive!” excitement here, just the creature opening its dull yellow eyes in the glimmer of half-extinguished light.

Victor Frankenstein is a terrible scientist, it has to be said. There’s no point doing pioneering scientific work if you’re going to freak out and go into a hysterical faint as soon as you get your results in. Sure, your creation may look a bit soulless but that’s what you get when you build a person from first principles and bits of corpses. The book is, of course, vague in how exactly the body parts are used but the descriptions make it sound like that he was working with things at a much smaller level than his cinematic counterparts. Not so much sewing body parts together as building a whole structure of a person from the component parts of flesh and bone and sinew. He’s not just trying to bring the dead back to life, you see. He’s creating a superman – taller, stronger, more agile than a regular common-or-garden human. He succeeds admirably.  A fact which causes him to completely lose his shit, the idiot.

The lesson we can take away from this book is that if you just show your eight-foot monster a little bit of love and understanding then he might not end up murdering everyone you care about.

The film versions are generally a lot more fun than the book. The 1931 version especially. With a nippy little running time of 1 hour and 7 minutes, it doesn’t have time to hang about. No faffing about with unnecessary polar explorers or childhood back-story, it gets straight on with it –  bit of grave robbing , spooky castle, lightning storm, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”, monster goes nutso, everybody dies, the end. Actually everybody doesn’t die hence the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein in which Colin Clive and Boris Karloff reprised their roles as the scientist and his creation. Being too sparing of any of her characters’ lives isn’t something you could accuse Mary Shelley of. There’s barely a person introduced in Frankenstein who doesn’t get offed horribly by the end of the book.

Amongst the Halloween lineup of vampire, ghosts, witches and werewolves, Frankenstein’s Monster is pretty special. Rather than being rooted in ancient folklore, we know the exact point he entered our mythology. He doesn’t belong to the supernatural world; he exists squarely in our rational scientific one. A horror story based on what can happen when a man’s ambitions get out of control. The mad scientist trope started right here and then Colin Clive really nailed it in the 1931 movie. He gave us exactly what we wanted from a mad scientist: wild staring eyes, maniacal arrogance and an aptitude for self-congratulation. “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

If Mary Shelley were here now, would she recognise her creation in its various cinematic reincarnations? Would she be happy with the fact that her monster has taken on a life of its own, away from her original vision?  Would she be gratified by how much of a horror archetype, Frankenstein – both the man and the monster – has become?

It would be nice to think so. I’d keep a time-travelling Mary Shelley away from I Frankenstein, though. Partly because the inclusion of supernatural elements undermines everything she wrote about. But mostly because it’s really rubbish.

1 thought on “Frankenstein

  1. yeah, having demons in Bleak House would be absurd. It would be like having one of the characters spontaneously combust.

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