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Frankenstein Through the Years: An Established Mythology

Spencer Blohm examines the history of screen adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

For nearly two hundred years the archetype of the ‘mad scientist‘ has been dominated by a single name: Dr. Victor Frankenstein. When Mary Shelley wrote and published her groundbreaking novel in 1818, there’s no way she could have known that her scientist and his creation would come to symbolize so much of the human condition and would be reimagined and reinvented countless times. Soon, what is sometimes referred to as the first science fiction novel, will once again be told on the big screen, this time in Victor Frankenstein.

This latest addition to the list of varying adaptations seems like a far more unique take on the tale than has ever been done before. Taking many of the bits and pieces that have been grafted to the surrounding mythology since the book’s publication and adding a more light-hearted and comedic approach to the subject, we see a story told from Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Igor’s perspective following the growth of his redemptive friendship with the Doctor. That being said, it’s still pretty easy to see many of the common through-lines permeate most adaptations.

While not particularly famous, the first adaptation of Shelley’s story to screen was done in 1910 by Thomas Edison. The film was about 15 minutes long and focuses on the story’s climax – Frankenstein creates his creature who haunts Frankenstein 1931 posterthe scientist until his wedding night (the film believed lost for years is now on Youtube). An unofficial sequel was made about five years later where another character falls asleep while reading Frankenstein and dreams of himself in the book. Yet another adaptation, this one Italian, was made in 1920, though there are no surviving copies of Il Mostro di Frankenstein.

Shelley’s text itself is only marginally recognizable when compared to most pop culture portrayals of it – among the many features present in the source material and removed in screen adaptations are a much larger Frankenstein family, and a creature that can speak and reason. On the other hand, the absence of a dwarf assistant in the original text present to enact the cruelties that the good doctor would otherwise have to do himself has come to be one of the most common elements present in modern day interpretations, as well as the most notable component added to the Frankenstein mythology through the years.

The 1931 Universal smash hit Frankenstein starring legendary actor Boris Karloff as the creature is where most people get their ideas of this classic tale. This was the film that introduced Fritz the dwarf assistant and told the story with a sympathetic monster. Four years later Bride of Frankenstein would become the first sequel to so perfectly expand the universe of the original while informing on its themes, a feat rarely accomplished since – however Igor (Ygor) wouldn’t enter the series until Son of Frankenstein (1939) where he would be played by Bela Lugosi.

While considered terrifying for its time, Frankenstein would remain popular and start to cross into other genres. 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has the comedy duo get mixed up in a plot by Dracula (again, played by Lugosi) to revive the monster. And of course it’s impossible to forget the master of skewering genre tropes, Mel Brooks, who produced the classic parody Young Frankenstein (streaming info here) in 1974. Focusing on the Universal adaptations of the 30s, the out-and-out spoof finished as one of the top grossing films of the year as did The Rocky Horror Picture Show, yet another obscure take on the classic tale, the year after.

With few exceptions, there are many motifs that remain constant through the adaptations. Dr. Frankenstein is often portrayed as an obsessive that overreaches his capabilities, a victim of his own hubris. Similarly, the creature is usually largely sympathetic, something that Shelley touches on but isn’t as direct about in the novel. While the story has been told from varying perspectives throughout the years it has yet to be told from the assistant, Victor Frankenstein is guaranteed to offer a unique view into the relationship between scientist and assistant yet to be fully examined on film.

Generally an adaptation of this story stands or falls on its ability to find the humanity in the characters. The legend of Frankenstein has been growing for hundreds of years beyond the original work, but much of it boils down to how frail and flawed our species is – gifted with the ability to work miracles and held back by our own prejudices and fears. So long as these themes remain, the story of Frankenstein should have no problem continuing to change so we might have a mirror that reflects who we are in the present moment.

Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, lifestyle and culture blogger. He lives and works in Chicago where he can often be found at one of the many festivals and street fairs around the city.

Image: Lobby card for the 1931 film Frankenstein, by Universal Pictures; Wikimedia Commons.

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A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on November 26, 2015, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Just read a collection of essays regarding Frankenstein, “Frankenstein: Creation and Monstrosity” If I recall correctly. Very intriguing. It is a novel that can be interpreted in a myriad ways, which is one reason why I consider it the most important novel of the 19th century and Mary Shelley as one of the most under-estimated authors in English Literature.

    The Whale directed film deviated from the plot and created a monster that is embedded into the collective psyche, he also took other motifs from stage productions of Frankenstein and other plays and used these in the film, the burning mill being the main example.

    It is one of those books that deserves to be read a number of times as it always reveals more with each reading. I am, particularly, interested in the autobiographical references that can be seen to apply to Shelley’s life and her relationship with her parents, etc.

  2. In that wonderful book that I assigned and taught for over 40 years, there is no Doctor Frankenstein. Victor was a student intrigued by electricity and was never a doctor. Somehow, throughout the years, people have decided to give him that title. The monster was called “the creature.” The real monster is, of course, Frankenstein himself, who cowardly abandons his creation and sets the scene for destruction. The real ending has been depicted once or twice, but usually Hollywood has to hoke it up. The conversation between the creature and Victor reveals the essence of the story. My students, both the college and high school ones,were on the creature’s side, despite his eventual murderous ways. Shelley made her point beautifully about the carelessness and cruelty of society.

  3. I would like to complement the book with a film adaptation, but can only use clips since no one has yet to faithfully follow Shelley’s story. Students would no doubt prefer Gene Wilder’s version–that would be a negatory.

  4. While Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is not completely faithful to the novel, it comes closest by far. I enjoyed it for that reason.

  5. I’m rereading Frankenstein again in university for a course. I absolutely loved the book in high school, although one scene in particular really got me rattled. I was furious with the monster.
    I’ve only seen two adaptations of the book…other than the Alvin and the Chipmunks one. Young Frankenstein has to be my favourite. I think I preferred it simply because it “wasn’t” Frankenstein. The story was one of it’s own, although still following the mad scientist plot, because it was a comedic spin off of the other films, I didn’t mind that it didn’t follow Shelley’s story.
    I think that it’s sad there isn’t a version that goes exactly by the book. One that I watched was fairly close, however I can’t recall the name of the director or actors. It had some pretty well known actors in it though…I wish I could think of one of their names. One of them is Tim Burton’s wife I believe. She played Elizabeth.
    I hadn’t watched the whole film because it was in high school, and some bits were changed, however from what I remember it was the closest to the book that my teacher could find.
    Still, it’s very unfortunate that no one has made a by the book film for such a classic story. Shelley’s original tale has been buried by all of these films about a mad-man reanimating a human-being for his own sick pleasure. It’s very unfortunate.
    I hope to see a by the book film sometime soon…since Hollywood has been doing so many remakes lately perhaps they could rerereremake Frankenstein and do it properly? I mean…for once it will be something we haven’t seen yet!

    • It depends on which version of the novel you read too! The 1818 text is longer and more sprawling and suggestive – I think critics regard it as less influenced by Percy Shelley. The 1831 version is the one that is usually read and studied today!

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