Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Movie and Book – Frankenstein (1931)

Both the 1931 Frankenstein film and the book on which it was based – Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus – were massively influential in their respective media and in pop culture.  The amazing thing is that the two bear little resemblance to each other.  In the film the monster is a creature of low intelligence whose physical appearance is markedly different from humans.  In the novel the creature becomes an intelligent, albeit hideously ugly, man whose main physical difference is his great size.  It’s interesting to note that the common mistake of referring to the creature himself as “Frankenstein” pre-dates 1931 and had already started from the popularity of the novel.  It was the film (and the follow-up 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein) that cemented that misconception in people’s minds.  Both the novel and the film are worth checking out.

How the story of Frankenstein and his creation came about has become almost as layered with myth and exaggeration as the stories themselves.  In 1816 – the “year without a summer” – five people gathered in a home near Lake Geneva.  They were Mary Godwin, her lover and future husband the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet Lord Byron, Lord Byron’s lover and Mary Godwin’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Dr. John Polidari.  The horrible weather kept them inside and fueled by tales of the supernatural (and not a little laudanum) they decided to craft horror stories of their own.  The results have been legendary.  Not only did the 19 year old Mary come up with the Frankenstein story which Shelley helped her polish and get published, but Dr. Polidari also ended up publishing the 1819 novel The Vampyre based on some thoughts from Byron and on the old vampire myths.  In its own way it is just as important as Mary Shelley’s novel.  Hers is widely regarded as the first modern science fiction story.  His is regarded as the first to coherently bring the vampire tale into modern form.  The 1986 film Gothic is a fictional (and strange) account of the creations of these stories.

Mary Shelley did not even place her name on the novel when it was first published.  It received mixed reviews.  She did place her name on a later printing and further criticism was then heaped on the novel because she was a woman trying to write a book and because she was seen as simply trying to ride on the coattails of her successful novelist father William Godwin.  And after a couple of decades she even altered the text of her novel to remove some of the more horrific elements in response to people’s complaints.

A similar fate occurred with the film.  When it was re-released in the late 1930s lines such as “Now I know what it feels like to be God” were removed due to the new Production Code that was in place.  And a major scene where the monster meets a little girl was changed to not show the fate of the girl.

The film shows how Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) successfully animates dead tissue he has sewn together.  It has an impressive sequence with scientific equipment and lightning strikes.  This has been hugely influential in the look and feel of hundreds of films since.  In the novel the way the creature is animated is not explicitly described because Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t want anyone repeating his work.  His creation, which has no name in either novel or film, is played by Boris Karloff.  He would become a legend in the horror movie genre all because of this first portrayal of the monster.

The makeup for Karloff is not based on the novel’s description at all.  The famous electrodes sticking out of the neck, the flat head, and the unnatural skin tone were all done for the visual impact of the film.  In the novel the creature is eight feet tall and proportionally large since Dr. Frankenstein could not duplicate the more delicate human organs without the larger scale.

In the film the creature is feared by his creator and Frankenstein locks him up, but the monster manages to escape.  He encounters a little girl and the monster uncomprehendingly harms her.  This makes the local villagers want to destroy the monster.  The climax takes place at an old mill near the village.

The novel is much different.  It is actually told in flashback.  Explorer Captain Robert Walton is attempting to sail as close to the North Pole as he can.  He and his men see an extraordinary sight: a giant man being pursued across the ice by a normal sized man.  The giant escapes, but the other man is rescued by the Captain.  This is Dr. Frankenstein and he tells his tale.

He created the giant while in college but horrified by what he had done and by the creature’s hideous appearance, he fled his work.  Saddened by the rejection the creature leaves.  Frankenstein has what we would now call a nervous breakdown.  When he recovers he learns that his brother was murdered.  A woman is accused of the crime and at her hanging Frankenstein spies his creature in the crowd.  Convinced that the creature must have been the true killer of his brother he feels horrible.  He can’t tell anyone, though, so he leaves.  The creature also saw him and tracks him down.  He convinces Frankenstein to hear his tale.

We now go to a story within a story.  The creature tells how he wandered in the woods until he came to a cottage.  By listening to the family talk to each other he learned speech.  By using some books he found he taught himself to read.  The creature is now both intelligent and quite articulate.  After educating himself he tried to visit with the family that he had bonded with but his appearance caused them fright and they fled.  Angry and frustrated the creature burned their cottage.

He has now sought out Frankenstein so that he can have the scientist create a woman for him.  He promises that if the doctor does this he and his new bride will disappear into the jungles of South America, never to be seen again.  Fearing for his life and that of his wife Elizabeth, Frankenstein agrees to do this.  He soon has second thoughts, though.  What if these two breed and create a whole horrific new race?  He destroys the woman he has created.  This is witnessed by the creature since he felt he might not be able to trust Frankenstein.  This leads to an all out personal war between the man and his creation that eventually leads to the very ends of the Earth – the North Pole.

After Frankenstein brings this tale up to the present for Captain Walton there are more events dealing with the fates of both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation.  I will not spoil them by describing them here.

You probably noted the part of the novel description where Frankenstein creates a bride for the creature.  This did influence the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein (the title further confusing the use of the name.)  There have been many films using the Frankenstein monster in them, but the only one I’ve seen that attempts to actually adapt the novel is 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, starring Robert De Niro as the creature.  It has an all-star cast with Kenneth Branagh directing and co-starring as Dr. Frankenstein and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth.  Aidan Quinn plays Captain Walton and Tom Hulce plays Frankenstein’s friend Henry Clerval. 

The thing is, what makes a good novel doesn’t necessarily make a good movie.  I found this film to be somewhat interesting, but not one I ever wanted to see again.  If you want to see a truer adaptation, then seek out the 1994 version.  Other than that, don’t bother with it.  If you want a more entertaining one, and the one that has influenced literally hundreds of films since, then watch the 1931 film.  And by all means, give the novel a read, too.  I recommend both the book and the film to you.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. I'm not a fan of the book. It feels so overblown to me--it's the most romantic of the Romantic novels in that everything is so extreme. No one is ever sad; he or she is suffering from the greatest melancholy ever known to man since the beginning. No one is happy, but is instead achieving flights of ecstasy and soaring in spirit with eagles. It's so over-emotional. It's like a handbook for emos. I like the story the novel tells; I just don't like the way it is told.

    Dracula, on the other hand, is a fantastic book.

    1. I get where you're coming from. I guess I compartmentalize books like I do movies. I compare an action film to other action films, a romantic comedy to other romantic comedies. When it comes to novels I compare an 1800s romantic novel to others of the period and in that way the style of the writing doesn't really stand out to an irritating degree, like how I generally block out the overacting in silent films. I don't consciously do this; it just happens in my head.

      I like the novel Dracula as well, but that has its share of exaggerated emotions, too. (although perhaps not to the extent of Frankenstein.)

      I'm always amused by how dangerous to women's health the rain was in England in the 1800s, at least according to the novels. Pick most any romantic novel from that time period and there's almost invariably a scene where a woman is caught in the rain because of high emotions and almost dies (or sometimes does die) because of it. Hell, in Pride and Prejudice the mother deliberately sends her oldest daughter out in the rain so she will get sick and have to stay at the house of the single rich neighbor.

  2. From your description the book should be very interesting. However based on Steve's comment I doubt if I would ever read it. You did a great summary though.
    What I like particularly about the 1931 film is the mad scientist as a gothic character. That is so well done.

    1. Don't let my opinion prevent you from reading it! I'm not a huge fan of Romantic or Victorian literature, so my opinion is certainly going to be biased against it.

    2. What I would suggest is read the opening few chapters - they are not many pages apiece - and see if you are interested in what happens next, or if the style of the writing bothers you.