One of the best things my brain has done for me is to stop expecting movie or TV adaptations to put my beloved books on screen as I read them, but rather, to take them as their own pieces. Different takes on (hopefully) the same story. Does this mean I love all movies based on books and don’t hold it against them when I don’t think they do a good job of translating story to screen? Of course not. Plenty of page-to-screen adaptations disappoint or even piss me off. PLENTY. BUT! There are a lot of great adaptations that do well and stand on their own, if viewed as what they are and not as lesser versions of a book.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my most beloved books in the world. I find it so beautiful, I don’t even have words. It’s astonishing in tone, themes, language and everything else, really. It warms my cold, gothic nerdy heart, but also pains it in the way only a gorgeous book can. Of course, there are a million film versions of it at this point, including the one directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1994, which is great and certainly the closest to the book, but it is slooooow. Honestly, Young Frankenstein is one of the better of the roughly 1 million film versions of this story. Mel Brooks managed to still capture the monster’s sadness and tortured soul, while making a very Mel Brooks movie. Anyway. I’m here to talk about the one everybody knows, with Boris Karloff as the monster, which is very different from the book, but still hits a lot of the same notes.
Slightly off-topic side note: I got the edition with her first draft of the manuscript and the version of it first published. I was a little bit wooed by the cover, I must admit. Look at that thing. It’s so pretty! As a writer, I was honestly hoping for a bit more of a mess of a draft, but nope! That witch had to go ahead and be brilliant from the get-go. FINE, Mary Shelley. FINE.
Anyway, the point of this being, I really love that book. I don’t have a large tattoo of the monster for nothing. BUT. The other side of my tattoo is the monster’s bride, because I, unlike some book purists out there, love the old Universal films, too. I can’t believe I’m about to spoiler alert for a 200-year-old book and an 85-year-old movie, but here we are: spoilers ahead, y’all.
I fully understand why people who love the book don’t care for James Whale’s movie (which is actually based more on a stage adaptation than the actual book). The book doesn’t seem to take sides; it’s more interested in the multitude of philosophical and moral questions opened up by the whole situation. The movie is clearly on the side of Frankenstein. In fact, Whale often and publicly lamented that Karloff’s performance stole his movie, which, to his mind, was about the doctor. The film take Shelley’s feeling, intelligent, passionate being and portrays him as a creature who doesn’t speak, doesn’t even communicate well, and doesn’t seem to have a high level of intelligence. What the movie version does have to make him sympathetic is an innocence and kindness that the philosophical book version lost almost instantly. With the movie monster, childlike naiveté replaces the book monster’s rage, but in both cases, the result is the death of innocent people (way more in the book, of course).
Like the book’s creature, Boris Karloff’s is met with nothing but scorn and abuse for simply existing and he doesn’t get it. He didn’t ask to be created and certainly doesn’t understand why he can’t just have a companion, especially in the monster who created him, then had the audacity to shun him. Undead abominations need love, too. Much attention is given to the monster’s desire for companionship in the book, but the film largely ignores it, other than in the short scene with the doomed little girl, who herself just wants someone to play with her. The second Universal film, The Bride of Frankenstein, picks up the book creature’s desire for companionship and realization that the only person who will possibly love him is one just like him. I’m focusing on the first one for now, because this is already going to be too long.
At its core, the film is telling the same story, poking at some of the same issues, in a lot less time. An alternate universe, if you like. Scientist becomes obsessed with creating life, goes way mad, loses a lot of people, finally succeeds, freaks the fuck right out at what he did and tries to run away from it, the creature is confused and angry, pursues his maker, kills some folks and then, well, the endings certainly diverge. Which, if I’m going to pick a thing not to like about the movie, it’s that. Dr. Frankenstein gets to live happily ever after with his bride, and the monster dies horribly in a fire, frightened, confused and alone. Yes, fine, future movies did conveniently resurrect him, but in this movie, he’s pretty dead.
Whale might’ve wanted his doctor (called Henry, not Victor) to be a hero, but there’s a fundamental problem with trying to make Frankenstein a hero, when he is in fact, a monster who doesn’t ever fully take responsibility for what he did. He may admit to making the creature and giving him life, sure, but that’s not where things went wrong. Not to downplay the philosophical dilemma of right and wrongs of reanimating the dead, but the true error Frankenstein makes in book and film is to simply abandon his creation and not offer it even the tiniest scrap of compassion or care. That’s where everything goes to hell and when people start dying. So to let this jackhole have a happy ending, well, nobody who’s paying attention is going to cheer for that.
It’s totally fair to hate on the movie. I get it. Maybe part of the disdain amongst the bookish is really for the fact that most people think of the movie when they think of Frankenstein, and most people think the bloody monster is called Frankenstein, but man, listen. Don’t hate the non-readers for not knowing any better, be sad for them, because they are missing one of the greatest pieces of English literature, the first science fiction novel, a thought-provoking work of art that is still relevant 200 years after it was written. Yes. It has it’s flaws, chief among them that Victor’s overwrought self-pity is unceasing and the fucker brought all this down on his own head, as well as his family’s, so it’s hard to really feel super sorry for him in all his moaning. You can understand and sometimes even sympathize though, because the story is that complex and that good.
I think Frankenstein has stuck around and remains relevant because it asks questions we’ll never really answer, but we’ll never stop wrestling with, either. As technology and medical capabilities continue to advance, questions of mortality, ethics and going too far will not go away. Neither will debates over what constitutes humanity, compassion, moral responsibility, and nature vs. nurture. Nor will any of the myriad of ideas and implications within the text. It’s only logical that creatives will want to play with its themes and put their own stamp on it. Add to that the imagery the book conjures—both gorgeous and grotesque—and it’s easy to understand the attraction. This, too, is perhaps why I’m all too willing to give new takes a chance, when oftentimes I am quite the opposite with things I love. Perhaps, though, it’s a story (like Dracula,of which I will also watch any version) that’s also something of my own folklore, in that the stories are so old and well-known that I was familiar with both, visually and plot-wise, before I actually read or saw them for myself. I knew them before I knew them, so why wouldn’t they keep breathing, twisting and adapting to whatever we need them to be today? Stories gotta do something to keep themselves alive. Adapt or die, baby.
(dear hollywood, don’t take that literally. give us new stories, plz. kthanxbai)