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Chasing the fiend made of misery: film adaptations of Frankenstein

06 July 2018

Two hundred years after the publication of Frankenstein, Stephen Brown considers what film adaptations tell us about humanity’s capacity to create


A screenshot of Frankenstein (1931): Frankenstein (Colin Clive) encounters his Creature (Boris Karloff)

A screenshot of Frankenstein (1931): Frankenstein (Colin Clive) encounters his Creature (Boris Karloff)

THIS year marks the bicentenary of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, published anonymously in 1818 when its author was just 20. The work falls within the framework of other Gothic novels of the period, but exceeds them in terms of the interesting philosophical, religious, and psychological questions it raises.

A new film, Mary Shelley, released today, deals with her teenage years leading up to the writing of the book, and her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom she eloped and whom, eventually, she married.

Mary was born of radical parents. Her father, William Godwin, was a Nonconformist minister who advocated the overthrow of many institutions, including the Church. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an early advocate of feminism. It is clear that her daughter, a well-read young woman, while open to the ideas of others, had acquired an outlook of her own.

ARTIFICIAL EYEElle Fanning as Mary Shelley, in Mary Shelley (2018)

The origins of Frankenstein are well-known: the idea came to her in a “waking dream” while holidaying by Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron had proposed that each guest attempt to write a ghost story.

The novel begins with Captain Robert Walton’s encounter with Victor Frankenstein, who tells him of his scientific experiments to create a living organism. Horrified by the appearance of what he has made, he retreats. Meanwhile, the Creature has escaped into the wilds.

In a separate narrative, we read that this creature gradually acquires speech, and can read. Seeing his own reflection in a pool frightens him, as it does a family who befriend him. As a result, he goes on a rampage of arson and murder, threatening to kill Victor and his relatives and friends if he doesn’t provide a mate.

Reluctantly, this is agreed to, amid fears that the female of the species will be even deadlier than the male, and lead to the breeding of an abominable race of fiends. Frankenstein aborts his experiment, which enrages the Creature, who then murders Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth. Victor pursues the killer, but the effort destroys him. On learning that his maker is dead, the Creature pledges to end his own life, and disappears.

ALAMYThe Edison Kinetogram Catalogue, featuring a still from Frankenstein (1910)

It is a moral tale and one that has evoked numerous interpretations and reactions. In recent years, these have included Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, an absurdist tale of an Iraqi junk-dealer who collects the body parts of those blown up by explosives. He makes a creature out of them, who escapes and sets about killing those who have had a hand in making Baghdad a slaughterhouse.

Jeanette Winterson has been commissioned to write a contemporary take on Shelley’s story, grappling, the blurb says, with issues of identity, sexuality, and technology.


THE Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, told at least 5000 years ago, is probably the first in a long line of monster stories that people have told to reassure themselves that danger can be warded off given the right kind of hero. Frankenstein inverts many elements of these tales. Here, the monster is heroic, representing goodness and light: Frankenstein is the dubious character.

Shelley’s alternative title, The Modern Prometheus, provides an ambiguous clue. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was cruelly punished for it. Frankenstein, in similar fashion, arrogates to himself powers belonging only to God.

In her 1831 introduction to the novel, Shelley describes “the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” as “frightful”. Unlike God, who bestows an idyllic Eden on humanity, Frankenstein as Creator is unkindly disposed towards his Creature. Three times he rejects the one for whom he had high hopes, the consequence of which is the Creature’s destructive behaviour.

One of the acknowledged influences on Shelley was Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Creature in her novel even reads the epic poem. Frankenstein can be regarded as a riposte to it. Milton’s Adam is punished for disobedience; Mary’s Creature falls from grace only through his creator’s lack of love. In a key speech in Mary Shelley, he cries: “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

PUBLIC DOMAINA screenshot of Il Mostro di Frankenstein (1920)

Some have given the Creature a feminist interpretation, reading him not as Adam, but as Eve. Like her, he is sidelined and alone, physically patched together from a male body, blamed for the advent of sin, and consequently cursed. The patriarchy of Mary’s day left little space for women who, like the Creature, dared to ask questions, pursue literacy, exult in learning, and enjoy sexual desires. In the new film, Percy Shelley tells a literary gathering of William Godwin’s that it was “the desperate loneliness” he caused in Mary which the Creature echoes.

It is an interesting argument, but the novel is also about yearnings. Frankenstein’s experiments may be “frightful”, but the novel is not a simplistic condemnation of them. Quoting Ulysses from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Frankenstein hopes for a time when someone else’s experiments will succeed where his have failed.

To artists such as Beethoven, Goethe, and Mary’s husband, Prometheus was that lone hero who defied conventional boundaries in pursuit of truth. Mary Shelley would have been aware that, in some versions of the myth, Prometheus (whose name can mean foresight, or providence) is given the task of allocating to gods and people their respective roles, which may have revised what had hitherto been judged as beyond human capacity.

Simone Weil, the French mystic, for instance, considered Prometheus’s actions as born of divine love, introducing humanity to their full God-given creative potential. That would make Frankenstein’s Creature one who strives to attain the full stature of being made in the image of God, only to be punished for doing so.


FASCINATING though these suppositions may be, the book did not really capture the public’s imagination until Richard Brinsley Peake turned it into a play in 1825 under the title Presumption; Or the fate of Frankenstein.

ALAMYA poster for Frankenstein (1931)

This first dramatisation led quickly to many other stage productions, and, with them, over-simplification of the plot. Captain Walton disappeared. More seriously, the Creature was transformed into Frankenstein’s doppelganger, a paranormal evil double of his master, more in keeping with Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The Creature was demonised, and Frankenstein’s scientific endeavour reduced to alchemy.

No longer do we have Shelley’s more nuanced approach to investigations of the natural world. Frankenstein’s repentance in the many plays that followed Peake’s brought a change of emphasis, probably induced by pressure from certain Christian bodies that had accused them of heaping sin and sorrow on theatregoers.

This popularisation of Frankenstein led to fresh developments. Cartoons and articles featuring Shelley’s Creator/Creature started appearing, often allocating Frankenstein’s name to the Creature. Among other issues, the 1832 Reform Bill, the Irish Question, and Crimean War were all depicted as monsters unleashed by unthinking politicians.

Certain progressive movements within Anglicanism were seen as heralding a self-destructing Church of England, equated with Frankenstein’s hideously deformed Creature.

Reprints of the book and numerous stage plays continued to keep the image of Frankenstein before the general public. By the final quarter of the 19th century, however, theatrical performances were being superseded by photographic exhibitions, magic-lantern shows, and, eventually, the moving images of film.


THE first known cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein was released by the Edison Studio in 1910. This short film turned Frankenstein into a mad alchemist; his bride, Elizabeth, was the victimised heroine. Worst of all, the Creature was portrayed as unmitigated evil. The parallels that Shelley drew between Elizabeth and the Creature were lost; in the novel, both offer love, which they also crave in response.

The film’s finale does pick up on the notion that the monstrous is part of who we are: the unrestrained id that, through socialisation, needs to be repressed. When Frankenstein gazes into a full-length mirror, what is reflected back is his hideous creation. In a variant of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, he stares him out until the image morphs into the young man that he is, now rid of his inner horror.

In Life Without Soul (1915), remade as Il Mostro di Frankenstein five years later, a Dr William Frawley falls asleep while reading Frankenstein. He dreams of creating, out of clay, a statue, which then wreaks havoc. It prompts the question: Did the Pygmalion story have a bearing on the construction of Shelley’s novel? Her protagonist is a failure as a creator, although successors may not be. The American film, now lost, seems to be suggesting that creation is best left to the One who knows what he is doing. The 1920 Italian film, cut down under pressure from censors sensing blasphemy to only 39 minutes, reinforces this notion.

ALAMYA screenshot of Frankenstein (1931): Frankenstein (Colin Clive) with his creature (Boris Karloff)  

These early Frankenstein films could serve as a case study of how, in the process of translating Shelley’s literature for the screen, cinema developed its own grammar. In James Whale’s 1931 film, adapted from the play by Peggy Webling, the story is prefaced by a burial in a churchyard. The cinematic influences are obvious: odd-angled shots of tilted headstones reveal its debt to German Expressionism, which presents distorted visuals to depict humanity’s twisted interiorities.

Whale, himself a survivor of horrors of the Great War, positions his narrative in the place of a skull, having fleetingly revealed one adorning a grave. As on the battlefields, so in a cemetery: death is all around us. And, when we try to cheat it, by stealing a body as some robbers then do, there are enormous consequences.

Horror films, with their ability to shock, allow filmmakers to query what passes for normality. On the face of it, Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) is simply keen to explore how far we can go as human beings. Haunted by memories of war, and now the Great Depression, Whale perhaps retained the belief that we could do better as a race. Yet in this film, creativity brings disappointment, not joy and laughter, and it proves impossible to get the genie back into the bottle.

BORIS KARLOFF remains, for many, the definitive Creature (billed here as “the Monster”). The make-up, by Jack Pierce, owes less to Shelley’s description of her eight-foot high Creature than to monsters seen in films such as The Golem (1920), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Karloff’s bolted-on cranium poses a counter-argument to the then fashionable interest in eugenics. It was thought that much criminality could be explained in terms of genetic deformities, especially obvious disfigurements to the head. One can see where this is going, especially with Nazi Germany looming in the background: eliminate the “subhuman” elements in society and we have a better world.

PUBLIC DOMAINA poster for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Whale seems to have taken to heart Nietzsche’s dictum that “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Such tendencies are all too evident in Clive’s portrayal, and in many subsequent Frankenstein movies. Whale’s main concern is how prone we are to create our self-destruction. Dr Walton, in a bigger part than he has in the book, is given the task of balancing science with religion; for he is both a priest and a professor of anatomy. “In the name of religion, I forbid your experimenting,” he orders Henry, who is aware of the battle for good and evil within himself.

But the movie also has great sympathy for the Creature. Karloff’s facial expressions and body language communicate a longing to discover who or what he is. He displays attributes — tenderness, delight, and awe — that are normally associated with having consciousness, the very quality frequently cited as distinguishing us as human.

Another definition of humanity relates to our faculty to think about what is not there. If so, the Creature meets this criterion by wishing he had a mate. Only accidentally does he kill the little girl whom he is playing with. Because this scene has often been cut from screenings, audiences were left with the impression that rape and murder were involved. Without it, the film seems to be justifying mob rule as they hunt the Creature down.

Another scene among many which caused censors to reach for their scissors was Henry’s exclamation on re-animating dead tissue: “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” So great were the fears of blasphemy that Universal Studios decided to insert a prologue in which Edward Van Sloan, who plays Waldman, steps out from behind theatre curtains and warns us that the film is about “a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image, without reckoning upon God”. It is difficult to imagine such an introduction in contemporary films, although the dangers remain and are addressed in a range of different ways.

None of the subsequent Frankenstein films (with the possible exception of Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) has emulated the first full-length, talking adaptation for depth of reflection and dramatic tension. The stream of Hollywood sequels — Hammer’s House of Horrors, and even comedy versions (Abbot and Costello, Mel Brooks, Rocky Horror, etc.) — chiefly rely on shock tactics to retain our interest.

Audiences (and Shelley’s legacy) may be better served by films that approach the subject matter through another story about a Creator and Creation. Edward Scissorhands, Blade Runner, and A.I, for example, all question our ability to do a superior job to God’s.

Invention is one thing, loving care of what we create — through the environment, nuclear fission, genetic engineering, political power, social arrangements, or relationships — is another. Mary Shelley demonstrated this all too clearly.

The question that she raised continues to resonate across the centuries: How do we prevent our creatures’ becoming monsters?

Read Stephen Brown’s review of Mary Shelley, here

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