It’s highly doubtful that when Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus back in 1818, she had any idea how much of an impact it would have, how influential it would be, of how long it would endure as a work of literature and as a cultural icon. There’s a very good reason why it’s had such longevity: It’s a great story, told extremely well.
And yet, most people don’t really know much about it—or at least, they have misconceptions about it. So many people believe that the Monster’s name is Frankenstein. (It’s not—the Monster doesn’t have a name. Frankenstein is the name of the man who created him.) They believe that the Monster was created by the mad Dr. Henry Frankenstein. (Frankenstein’s first name was actually Victor—it was changed to Henry in the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff. He was not a full-fledged doctor—he was a young medical student who had actually dropped out of school. And he was not mad—he was obsessed, but hardly insane.) And they believe that the Monster is a mute, shambling abomination made with the brain of a vicious criminal. (Not so—the Monster was actually quite intelligent, having taught himself to read and to speak quite eloquently, and he was hardly vicious by nature.)
Many of these misconceptions were born once the story was brought to the movies. And that’s what is both fascinating and frustrating about Hollywood: It can recognize a great story, but in translating it to the big screen, it can twist and warp and transform that story into something so radically different, so far removed from its source material, that the filmmakers might as well have just gone the full distance and produced something wholly original.
First edition of the novel, 1818
In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s creation enters this world much as a newborn baby: completely innocent, a total blank slate.
Art by Berni Wrightson, from his 1983 illustrated version of the novel
But rejected by his creator, he goes out into the world in search of a place to fit in, and of people to connect to. As noted above, the Monster is remarkably intelligent and clever. He is capable of love and affection, but is denied both because of his hideous appearance. He is, in the truest sense of the word, a victim of circumstance, rejected by his own creator and feared and hated by society.
More gorgeous art by Wrightson
As his bitterness and resentment grow, he takes increasingly aggressive action, intending specifically to hurt the man who brought him into this world and then abandoned him. The Monster commits some truly heinous acts to hurt Victor Frankenstein, and these acts are calculated, done intentionally, plotted and carried out with cold efficiency. From the Monster’s viewpoint, he was driven to these acts, but that does not change the fact that it was his choice to commit them.
One last look at Wrightson's awesome work
In most of the movies, starting with the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff, there is a fundamental difference. The Monster is a threat right from the start, because he was fitted with the brain of a criminal—not intentionally, but that’s irrelevant. From the moment the Monster opens his eyes for the first time, he is a dangerous being, one driven to violent acts not by choice, but because it’s his nature. Karloff’s Monster is literally a born criminal, almost as monstrous on the inside as he is on the outside. But the film also portrays the Monster as childlike, incapable of speech, and not fully cognizant of his actions—such as when he throws little Maria into the lake, thinking she’ll float like the flowers they had just been tossing into the water. This is most definitely not Shelley’s creature.
Maria and the Monster
It’s almost as if Hollywood didn’t think that audiences of that time could accept a Monster who was more complex, who could actually be multi-dimensional, who could be held responsible for his actions—even though Mary Shelley’s novel was written more than 100 years earlier at that point!
Even when Hammer Films started its own series of Frankenstein movies with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein (starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature), the filmmakers leaned more towards Karloff than Shelley—in that film, the Creature’s brain is not from a dangerous criminal, but it is damaged accidentally before being implanted, which accounts for the Creature’s subsequent inability to speak or to reason, and his tendency for violent, even murderous behavior. Again, we have a being who cannot really be held responsible for the horrifying things that he does. It’s just his way.
Christopher Lee, 1957
It’s very interesting that the movies, for the most part, shy away from the concept of a Frankenstein Monster who is fully in control of himself and his actions.
I’ve never been able to fathom exactly WHY no filmmaker has ever been able to bring the story, as Shelley wrote it, to the screen—not even Kenneth Branagh with his 1994 film, ironically titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel is written in a fairly straightforward, conventional, mostly linear fashion, so it would be relatively easy to adapt into a screenplay. (Certainly easier to adapt than, say, Dracula by Bram Stoker, which has ALSO never been brought to the screen 100 percent faithfully—despite Francis Ford Coppola’s claim that he achieved just that with his 1992 film. Both Branagh and Coppola came closer than anyone else with their respective films, but they both made unfortunate and unnecessary deviations from and additions to the source material that torpedoed any chances of those films being the true, definitive movie adaptations that fans had long been hoping for.)
Shelley’s novel is gripping, disturbing, and exciting, with lots of drama, tension, and conflict, and populated by interesting characters. It doesn’t need a lot of tinkering and rethinking. And yet, for some reason, filmmakers can’t seem to resist.
Not to say that all of the movies are no good. Quite the contrary. The Karloff films— particularly the first two, which were directed by the great James Whale—are absolute classics, despite the fact that they barely resemble the novel. Some of the Hammer movies are fun (though Christopher Lee’s Creature only appears in the first one—that series of films focuses on Peter Cushing’s Victor rather than his creation). As for the 1994 version—well, if you get off on seeing a sweaty and shirtless Kenneth Branagh chomping on the scenery as if his life depended on it, and acting opposite Robert DeNiro as probably the most forgettable version of the Frankenstein Monster ever, then that movie should be right up your alley.
Branagh and DeNiro in a little man-on-monster action
The fact is, to get the full, pure, unaltered Frankenstein story as envisioned by the original author, you really do have to read the book. There are no cinematic shortcuts. The good news, for those of you who haven’t read it, is that it’s one hell of a good book! Just leave your preconceived notions at the door, put images of Boris Karloff out of your mind, and let Mary Shelley take you on a vivid, memorable, epic journey of terror and tragedy.