One of the most sympathetic monsters in cinematic history came from a rainy Swiss vacation. While stuck inside due to the rain, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelly, and George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, decided to have a writing contest. Percy and Lord Byron were already known as poets. Mary would write the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein was a Gothic horror, invoking a feel as the novel told of Victor Frankenstein’s life, including his endeavor to create life and the fallout from his success.
The novel is told through letters from a ship captain to his sister after he is trapped in the ice of the north Atlantic Ocean. Captain Walton rescues a forlorn man who is also trapped and learns of his tale. Victor Frankenstein, the rescued man, tells a story of warning, of trying to reach too far beyond. Frankenstein wanted to learn the secret of life. He studied under Professor Waldman, learning chemistry, biology, anatomy, and physiology, then applied his lessons in creating new life, a new species. Frankenstein’s creation wasn’t what he wished for. Instead of appearing healthy and whole, the creation looked like an animated corpse.
Frankenstein abandoned his creation in disgust. The creature followed. Everywhere the creation went, people recoiled in fear. Frankenstein’s creature had one desire, to be happy, and the only way he thought he could achieve that was through his creator. As Frankenstein travelled to escape his creation, the creature followed and saw that for every man was a woman, for every beast was a mate, except for him. He demanded of Frankenstein a bride, and when Victor refused, vowed killed his creator’s own bride, Elizabeth. After the murder, Victor chased his creation, getting trapped in the ice field and leaving Captain Walton’s ship when Walton turned south for home once free.
Frankenstein was almost immediately adapted for the stage, with numerous plays being written within years of publication. The first film adaptation was made in 1910 by Thomas Edison, a short silent film. The best known film, though, came from Universal Studios in 1931. Like several other popular works of the 1930s, Frankenstein was an adaptation of an adaptation, based on the 1927 play by Peggy Webling. Several new elements were introduced, elements that still appear even in today’s works.
Universal was having money problems, thanks to the Great Depression. Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, was released earlier 1931 and helped, but the studio was still on the brink. Frankenstein, thanks to the performance of Boris Karloff as the Monster, became the top film for 1931. The Monster was a sympathetic character, the victim instead of the villain.
The movie veers off from the novel at the start, with Henry Frankenstein and his henchman, Fritz, spying on a funeral. Once the body is buried and the gravedigger gone, Frankenstein and Fritz dig the coffin back out, stealing it plus the fresh remains of hanged man before they return to Frankenstein’s lab in a windmill. The novel never went into detail about how Frankenstein brought his creation to life. The movie shows the final step, skipping over most of the sewing of the Monster’s body together. Frankenstein uses the power of lightning and electricity to bring his creation to life, uttering the now famous line, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” when the Monster moves.
The Monster is portrayed as child-like. There is joy when he first sees the sun. There is fear when he sees fire. The Monster cannot speak and moves awkwardly*. Fritz torments the Monster with a torch and a whip, and pays the price. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman come to the conclusion that the Monster is too dangerous and must be destroyed. Waldman fills a hypodermic needle with enough sedative to kill a man and plunges it into the Monster. The Monster falls. Wanting to see how the Monster was brought to life, Waldman decides to dissect him. The Monster wakes up during the first incision and kills the doctor, then escapes the mill. While out, he meets a little girl, Marilyn, who plays with him. She shows him how she can make daisies float. The Monster tosses a few daisies into the pond, then tosses Marilyn in. When she doesn’t float or even come back up, the Monster runs away.
At the Frankenstein manor, Baron Frankenstein hosts the wedding of his son, Henry, to Elizabeth. Henry feels that something isn’t right. Waldman is seldom late for anything, yet he hasn’t arrived at the manor. Killing the Monster didn’t sit well with him; the Monster was tormented by Fritz and reacted. Out in the courtyard, the festivities die as Marilyn’s father carries her body to the Burgomeister and the Baron. The villagers are organized into a search party, complete with torches. Henry Frankenstein takes one group up the mountains, where the mill sits. He spots the Monster, but his villagers continue past him. Henry and the Monster fight, and the Monster hauls Frankenstein to the mill.
The villagers hear Henry’s calls for help and reach the mill. Inside, Henry tries to escape his Monster. The fight ends up outside on a balcony, with the villagers’ torches lit below. The Monster picks up Henry and throws him off the balcony. Henry hits one of the mill’s wind blades before landing on the ground. The blade slowed his fall; Henry lives and is carried away by several villagers. The rest leave, setting torch to the mill. The Monster is trapped inside and is caught under a collapsed beam as the mill burns.
As mentioned above, the movie heads in its own direction, taking names and some ideas from the novel. Yet, it is this movie, the 1931 Frankenstein, that most people are familiar with. All the trappings of the mad scientist, from the secret lab to the Jacob’s ladders to the thunderstorm to the minion. Fritz was never in the novel; Victor Frankenstein worked alone. In the novel, Frankenstein’s creation moved at “superhuman speed” and spoke with eloquence. The Monster in the movie lumbered around with awkward movements and could only growl. The sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, gave the Monster a voice and picked up on an element in the novel, the creature wanting a mate of his own. The novel gives no name to the creature; Frankenstein calls it “monster” and “creature” and the creature compares itself to Adam. In the movie, Henry, in a shout of encouragement, says, “Take care, there, Frankenstein,” implying that he sees it as his own child. The big difference between the novel’s creature and the Monster is maturity; the creation in the novel behaves as a grown man while Karloff imbued a child-like quality to the Monster, making it sympathetic to audiences.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus and the movie, Frankenstein, share a few names and the sense of hubris on the part of Frankenstein, but go off in different directions. As an adaptation, the movie bears little resemblance to the original. As a cultural touchstone, Frankenstein and Boris Karloff have had more impact than the original novel.
Next week, a look at adaptations have had a bigger impact than their originals.
* Helped in part by the heavy costume that included a pair of asphalt-layer boots, where each boot weight 13 pounds.