The Great Villain Blogathon: Frankenstein and His Monster

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 Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840

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.

frankenstein early edition
An Early Edition of Frankenstein

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.

PDVIctorandCaliban
Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Caliban (Rory Kinnear), the Creature, on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful

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

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein
Boris Karloff as 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?

**This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon 2015, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings.**

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20 Comments

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  1. Whether Frankenstein or the monster is the villain is a great question. Love the way you’ve analyzed this. Great note about what it must have been like hearing this in 1931. Excellent article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks—glad you stopped by!

      I often wonder what it must’ve been like to hear sound on a film for the first time, or even to see film for the first time. It must’ve been fascinating.

      Like

  2. Great post on one of my favourite characters (not one I’d want to go for a coffee, just one I find endlessly fascinating!) I didn’t realise there had been so many movie versions, but in my opinion Boris Karloff is the greatest Frankenstein, even if it those movies do differ from the book. The longevity and cultural significance of characters like this (think I’d put Dracula in the same bracket) are so fascinating as they speak to such much about what we need/want to understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      There have been a great many film versions—a quick search only nets me about half the results for Dracula, though I’d agree that he’s certainly in the same bracket as Frankenstein for ubiquitous monsters.

      Like

  3. A very interesting article, indeed. I remember reading an abridged version of the book once as a kid, and being surprised at just how much different it was from how Frankenstein is often envisioned. Even disregarding the fact that Frankenstein was the creator I remember just being surprised that the monster wasn’t even “evil” in the strictest sense, and at times was even somewhat sympathetic. I like those kinds of monsters, when you can fear them but also simultaneously sympathize with their condition. Carrie is another good example of that (she’s terrifying in that last act, but up until then you just want to give the poor girl a hug and tell her everything’s okay), and The Fly would also be a clear example of that sort of idea in place.

    Interestingly, one thing I think is worth bringing up about the famous 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is that both also serve as roundabout allegories for homosexuality. The director of both was a gay man living in a society that was very intolerant of homosexuals, and actually used both films to criticize those bigoted worldviews in ways that would not have been noticed by censors of the era. If it’s any interest I did a whole article of my own explaining those elements in greater detail: http://hitchcocksworld.blogspot.ca/2015/01/its-alive-and-its-gay.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think that’s certainly part of it—the film still has all sorts of modern applications, including the fight for LGBT rights, and that was definitely a deliberate decision.

      Like

  4. I’d totally forgotten about this. I am so glad I did not jump in. I will be at the Beach Party, though. Just over here checking my Lillith thread. Just getting started with the blog threads from today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed!

      I love the Penny Dreadful version, too. I blogged the first season, and will be blogging the second season as well on Sourcerer.

      Like

  5. One of my favourite books. It seems incredible that a woman so long ago should come up with such a story, but I think the thought of such monsters is with in us all. As a child i had a nightmare when I was 7 – my dad kept going away and i dreamed he came back and had been in an accident where all his toes were cut off. Then sewn back on again with big, ragged stitches. I screamed and screamed, my parents took me into bed with them, but I refused to look at my dad, and he kept putting his foot out to show me but I couldn’t look at it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think in some ways it is a very universal feeling, yes—that we, and those close to us, are secretly monsters. And in a lot of ways, I suppose we are. Shelley’s story is also so modern—it speaks to us about fears of technology and medicine.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. SEVENTY movies with Frankenstein?! No way! However, I shouldn’t be surprised, because this story has all the elements of a great movie.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this iconic character. You can’t have a villain blogathon without Frankenstein’s monster!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks!

      I’m fascinated by how many films feature the monster, too–there’s something quite timeless about the story, about the ways it makes us question modernity.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Enjoyed this post a lot 🙂

    I read the book years ago, mostly because I’m a fantasy fan and I thought I should read such a classic. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. It’s incredibly modern, very involving. I really liked it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks!

      I loved the book—I think I was in college when I first read it, and it was my first real introduction to the great horror classics of that era.

      Like

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