I read somewhere recently that a Frankenstein movie came out a few months ago, this time from the point of view of Igor (it was called Victor Frankenstein, and if you missed it, you are apparently not alone ). Who’s Igor? you ask. You know, Igor—the Hunchback of Notre Chez Frankenstein. Or Eye-gore, I suppose you can call him, if you’re a fan of Mel Brooks’s 1974 Young Frankenstein , and really, who isn’t? It’s still one of the funniest damn spoofs of any movie ever made, so accurate in its loving homage to James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece that it actually used some of the same sets.
What I didn’t realize, and yet somehow don’t find shocking, is that the not-too-successful Victor Frankenstein, which chooses as its narrator a character who doesn’t even appear in the book, wasn’t even the only Frankenstein movie to come out last year. There was also a low-budget thriller with Carrie-Anne Moss simply called Frankenstein, despite having, as far as I can tell from the trailer, a modern setting and a storyline that bears only the faintest resemblance to the novel by Mary Shelley.
In fact, in the past five years alone, IMDb has listed over 40 movies, shorts, TV episodes, a recorded stage show and a bunch of cartoons all derived, in one way or another, from Frankenstein, including a video with the awesomely terrible title Bikini Frankenstein which, in fairness, I haven’t seen, but I think we can all safely assume probably sucks. (The tag line: She’ll Love You to Pieces!)
Since the dawn of filmmaking, Hollywood has given us literally hundreds of incarnations of this story, including, but not limited to, Frankenstein MD, Baby Frankenstein, Frankenhooker (which, I have to admit, is my personal favorite of the so-horrible-it’s-fantastic Frankenstein spoofs) and two years ago, we got I, Frankenstein, in which Aaron “I’m not Thomas Jane” Eckhart gave us the hottest Creature ever. See, below.
So the question, my friends, is why. Why this story? Why so many times? And has anyone ever actually gotten it right?
The gold standard, of course, is the black-and-white James Whale film which, while differing in significant ways from Mary Shelley’s book, perhaps best captures the spirit of what the book is trying to say. Victor himself, at times comically overwrought—“It’s alive!”—nonetheless captures the mad zeal for conquering nature with science that Miss Shelley was trying to warn us about. And the monster, Boris Karloff, gives us one of the only depictions of the Creature in a Hollywood film to understand that Frankenstein’s aborted creation is a metaphor; neither good nor evil, but rather drawn by primal urges that are uncontrollable. A child in a horrific body, tormented by the knowledge of his own monstrosity. He is our own worst selves, our insatiable animal instincts.
In 1994, Kenneth Branagh released what was supposed to be the definitive version in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which, despite the proclamations of the title, didn’t quite adhere to the original script by Frank Darabont which was apparently extraordinary, and instead gave us a lot of shirtless Branagh, wavy hair perfectly set in a way that would have given Adam Driver envy, sewing together body parts in the rain.
Roger Ebert gave it only two and a half out of four stars, saying that, outside of Robert DeNiro’s Monster, the film is “so frantic, so manic, it doesn’t pause to be sure its effects are registered.”
To understand why this interpretation, the most literal of the bunch, didn’t quite work, we need to take a look at the book, and the woman who wrote it.
Mary Shelley was only 19 years old in 1816, and newly married to the older poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, when she wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus while on holiday in Switzerland with her husband and his friends, including Lord Byron. (Side note: when I was 19, I appeared as an extra in Boogie Nights and spent a lot of time trying to find my car keys.) (Side note #2: I am an abject failure. *Discuss with therapist.)
Where was I?
Mary Shelley’s mother died when she was a month old, and she ran away with Percy when she was only 17. They had a child who was stillborn, conceived out of wedlock as Percy was still married to his first wife. They finally married after the wife committed suicide, and Mary bore two more children who did not survive. (They had only one child who did—a son.) Their marriage was very short (six years), as Percy drowned when Mary was only 25.
It was after the first stillborn daughter that Mary conceived of Frankenstein, a tale of a scientist driven mad by his efforts to reanimate the dead. Frankenstein, like Mary, also has a dead mother, and he is haunted by a dream right after he creates the Monster:
I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.
The book is at its most gripping when detailing the unbearable effects of loss on the human psyche. For—spoiler alert—Victor’s mother isn’t the only one who dies in this thing. Victor immediately rejects his creation upon seeing how deformed and gruesome it is, and the Monster, left abandoned and spurned, roams the European countryside for months seeking a shred of human warmth, something in the neighborhood of compassion, and finds none at all.
Thus dejected, the Creature sets out to destroy Victor emotionally, by killing everyone he holds dear. First his young brother, then his best friend, and finally, horribly, his wife.
Victor is annihilated by these losses, physically and emotionally gutted. “Where does he now exist?” he asks, remembering his best friend. “Is this gentle and lovely being lost forever? Has this mind, so replete with ideas, imaginations fanciful and magnificent… has this mind perished?”
And so the book, which never details how the Monster is made (all that Igor in the laboratory stuff is pure Hollywood), instead chooses to torture its readers on two levels: the sheer horror of disgust is there, of course, in the physical description of the Monster’s deformity. But where Miss Shelley really twists the knife is in the gut-wrenching horror of cruelty and loss.
Says the Monster (who slowly but surely learns to speak by spying on a provincial family over the course of months, a family who then also rejects him):
“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.”
Pretty harrowing stuff. So the obvious question follows: why don’t filmmakers all just shoot the book as written?
Because the book, of course, was never intended to be a film, as film didn’t exist then. As such, it is filled with sequences that a modern-day editor probably would have cut because they would have made the film rights too expensive. The book opens and closes with an arctic sea voyage by a young man and his crew seeking some sort of unspecified greatness at the North Pole when they discover Frankenstein’s Creature, and later, Frankenstein himself, traversing the ice on separate dog-driven sleighs. (Right away, the producer in me is going: “Cut it! Can’t afford the ice!”)
Frankenstein is taken aboard and begins to tell the captain his tale of woe: he quite literally created a monster and now he can’t kill him. The story he tells is gripping and often terrifying—lots of cowering in bed while the heavy footsteps of the Creature approach and, slowly, the bed curtains are pulled aside to reveal the dead eyes of the “daemon.”
But it’s also written in a certain gothic style that involves lots of conversation and the occasional segue to story-stopping activities such as “hanging out in England” for a few months. The action picks up when the Creature demands that Victor make him a mate to keep him company (thus planting the seed for a million “Bride of Frankenstein” rip-offs). Victor begins to do so, but then changes his mind and abandons his work, leaving us terribly unsatisfied in a way that would never work in a movie. We never see Mrs. Monster in the book.
Victor himself is also a very problematic protagonist as he spends a LOT of time in the story, well, sleeping and lying in bed feeling too overwhelmed to get up. Seriously. He creates the Monster, turns in horror and… goes to bed. His reaction to his little brother being killed? Bed. On the Arctic sea ship regaling the captain with his story? Bed. He sleeps more in this novel than a teenage girl on Midol.
There’s also the gnawing itch that is never scratched in this novel (and which is finally addressed in Branagh’s version), and that is simply: Dude, you know how to reanimate the dead. When your loved ones are killed, why don’t you just, you know, “It’s alive” them back to life?
Miss Shelley never addresses this concept, so I was actually very excited to see that the Branagh version does just that; when Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s wife, is killed by the Creature, he attempts to bring her back to life by sewing together her surviving bits with the body of a recently deceased servant (thus also neatly tying together, if you’ll pardon the pun, a part of the novel that never really pays off).
In Branagh’s version, Elizabeth is so appalled by the monstrosity that she’s become, she quickly immolates herself into oblivion. It’s a pretty cool, and pretty friggin’ sad, scene, actually.
But it doesn’t happen in the book. Because Miss Shelley isn’t really interested in paying off every narrative device, nor is she really writing a traditional horror story. She is much more invested in detailing the psychological deterioration of her subjects, which she does beautifully.
The book plays a chess game, trading hurts back and forth between Victor and his creation, the former torturing the latter with his obstinate refusal to offer even a shred of decency, an ounce of love to the being that he himself made; and the Monster retaliating in the only way he knows how: brute strength.
Because Mary Shelley understood something as a teenager which still baffles people today, something which fills our 24-hour news cycle with an endless parade of talking heads trying to wrap their minds around a concept that a 19-year-old girl could have explained to them 200 years ago: man’s inhumanity to man makes monsters of us all.
Victor tries in vain to escape his Creation throughout the novel, but everywhere he goes, the Monster follows. It is easy to read, for this reason, that the Monster may be a figment of Victor’s imagination. Or, rather, that he is instead a piece of his imagination, an alter ego he cannot deny nor evade.
In fact, it occurs to me that there may be one person who did perfectly capture Frankenstein in story form during the 20th Century. But it wasn’t Kenneth Branagh, and, despite all the genius of the 1931 film, it wasn’t James Whale either.
It was Stan Lee.
Stan Lee created the Hulk (along with Jack Kirby) in 1962. The story of the intelligent and thoughtful scientist Bruce Banner, who cannot escape the alter ego of the large green brute that he becomes when enraged, does something to the Frankenstein mythos that the more literal interpretations often miss.
Namely, it understands that the creator and his creation are one and the same. By taking this Jekyll-and-Hyde approach, the Hulk calls us out on how it is our own cruelty, our own short-sightedness, our own inability to find compassion for the wretched, empathy for the lost, kindness for each other, that damns us in the end.
There’s a lovely moment in a film that is deeply flawed, but remains one of my favorite Frankensteins none-the-less, that has stayed with me since seeing it as a child. It’s from The Bride (yes, the one where Sting plays Victor—sorry, “Charles” Frankenstein, for reasons that I’m sure exist but I’m not going to look them up now).
So Clancy Brown is playing the Monster, and he’s roaming the countryside with a rag-tag band of misfit midget circus performers while Sting puts the moves on his girlfriend (the impossibly beautiful Jennifer Beales). And yes, if you’ve never seen it, this really is the plot. And the lead circus performer, Rinaldo, is played by the absolutely wonderful actor David Rappaport.
So Rinaldo sees the scars on Clancy’s back for the first time and this horrible resigned sadness comes over his eyes. And he just nods slightly. “Oh my,” he says. “Here’s a man who’s been mistreated in his life.”
And you get the feeling that Rinaldo has seen scars before. Rinaldo is not shocked. But he’s not disgusted either. He is simply sad. And in that moment, feeling compassion for the Creature, he accepts him completely. (“One of us, one of us! We accept you, one of us!”)
If only the same could happen to all the Monsters, we might solve more problems than how to adapt Frankenstein.
And don’t forget to follow this blog for more on your favorite book adaptations. Coming up next week: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, based on the book The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker.