There are some characters who, despite how old they are, despite how long ago their story began, always seem current, characters who we are constantly finding new ways to re-imagine. We rewrite the story, remake the movie, re-illustrate and revise.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s titular character and the monster he creates have been made and remade, especially since the advent of film. And really, that’s one of the things that the creature can represent—and can do so well: a certain sort of reading of the text suggests that Frankenstein’s monster is emblematic of poetry and story-telling, of the way that novels and writings are often informed by various sources.
The basic premise of the story is simple enough. Dr. Victor Frankenstein wants renown; he wants to discover what separates life from death, and he does so by trying to create life. He falls in love with Elizabeth, who is also a bit like a sister to him, as she was adopted at a young age by Frankenstein’s family.
Victor makes the creature, but he is quickly horrified by what he’s done, and he runs from his new creation. The monster disappears, and Frankenstein is nursed to health by his friend Henry. His younger brother, William, is murdered. Frankenstein believes that the monster has done this, but he knows that no one will believe him. The child’s nurse is hung for the crime.
When the creature does visit Frankenstein, he is a wholly different monster than what Victor expects. The monster has learned language–he is articulate. He tells Frankenstein that everyone is afraid of him and begs that Frankenstein make him a mate. The monster says that they will then disappear from everyone’s lives.
Victor begins work on the new monster, but a crisis of conscience strikes him, and he destroys his work. This angers the monster, of course, and he vows to be with Elizabeth and Frankenstein on their wedding night before killing Henry Clerval and framing Dr. Frankenstein. When Frankenstein finally exonerates himself and goes to marry Elizabeth, he has miscalculated–it was Elizabeth who the creature threatened, and it was she who the creature killed. In his anger, Frankenstein pursues the monster to the North Pole, where they both eventually die of exposure.
As of now, IMDB lists more than 70 films in which Frankenstein and his monster appear. Here in early-2015, film adaptations of the novel have been in production for over 100 years, with the earliest film a 12-minute short adaptation from 1910. The short was made only a few years after the advent of film, when the line between stage acting and film acting was just being explored, and it reflects some interesting early film practices. Currently, Victor Frankenstein features as a character on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and he has been a character on ABC’s Once Upon a Time.
Perhaps the most recognizable film-face of Frankenstein’s monster, though, is the face of Boris Karloff. His appearances in the 1931 version of Frankenstein
and the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, both directed by James Whale and produced by Universal during the Universal Horror era, have become the most enduring and iconic representations of Frankenstein’s monster in film.
Whale’s visions of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are quite a bit different than Shelley’s original version; the films seem to maintain the spirit of the original story while dressing it up for a new technological possibility–not just recorded images, but recorded sound as well–by 1927 it was possible to record synchronized dialogue for a feature film, and by 1929 everyone was doing it.
The Karloff Frankenstein films are masterpieces of classic horror, working as mirrors for society, for human nature. Because that’s what monsters often tell us. The origin of the word “monster” is from the French monere, to warn. Our monsters tell us things—we create them to do so.
Part of what works so well about the Karloff and Whale Frankenstein films lies in the juxtaposition of the creature and those who create it, then want to hurt it. The core story is already a powerful one of magic and mystery, science and religion, creation and damnation. And then we can see it and hear it, quite literally.
And it looks like a horror. The creature that Frankenstein makes is gaunt, boorish, and ugly. But he’s also trembling and afraid. Henry Frankenstein is by turns tragic and guileless and hateful and arrogant. The townspeople are a veritable mob—and imagine what it must’ve been like to, for the first time, sit in a theater and hear the sound of a mob, listen to it come after a leering, frightened–and frightening–monster.
The Karloff films are said a major reason–the main reason–for the name mix-up between Frankenstein and the creature. The original poster featured the name of the film in large lettering next the monster, and it is supposed that this encouraged confusion. But I don’t think that the reality is quite as clear as that. On some level the confusion about the name is because, in not naming the creature, Mary Shelley encourages us to overlap the creature and Frankenstein. We’re supposed to think of them as a pair.
The trouble is, which one is the monster?