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 the 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.