“It’s alive! It’s aliiiiive!”
Literary critics from all walks of life blanch whenever someone is careless enough to dub Frankenstein’s monster a ‘Frankenstein’. Honestly, it pains our little hearts whenever Mary Shelley’s complicated character is mistakenly called by its creator’s name. “What are you going as for Halloween, Timmy?” “I’m going to be a scary Frankenstein!”
NO. NO. NO. No, you are not, Timmy. Follow me, on a little journey to the early days of Hollywood, and I will show you why you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
Okay, so perhaps I was a little hard on little Timmy and his oh-so-adorable green face paint and thick-soled boots. So while he’s off crying in a corner and his mother’s throwing me dirty looks, I’ll carry on with my story.
Recently, I finally decided to watch a movie which was an absolute icon in its day; which set the tone for all the horror movies to come; which had literary critics scrabbling to find their nearest copy of Mary Shelley’s classic and pointing emphatically towards heavily-underlined passages.
Everyone is familiar with the sight of Boris Karloff’s angular face, with the pasty skin and bolts in his neck that have become the classic image of ‘Frankenstein’. But dubbing the film Frankenstein is perhaps being a little generous; there’s few elements of Mary Shelley’s novel that have survived intact. Indeed, as my sister pointed out, it’s little wonder that the story was warped, since the creators seem to have based their movie on the book by somebody called ‘Mrs Percy Shelley’. Whoever that was. And yes, this may have been 1931, but that’s the sort of thing that makes me cringe today.
The film begins with one of the actors warning audiences that this is a moralistic tale about a man who tried to ‘play god’ (which doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the subtlety and brilliance of the book, but please go on insulting my intelligence, good sir) and that anybody who’s too squeamish should hightail it through the door. Quite frankly, I wish some modern films would be so considerate of their audiences. Spelling out the moral of the story AND warning you about gory bits? It makes for quite a stress-less viewing experience, I can tell you.
So, appropriate warnings over and done with, we meet Doctor Frankenstein (misleadingly called Henry Frankenstein, while his friend is called Victor) and his hunchbacked servant, Fritz. They’re robbing corpses from a graveyard. We then see the infamous (and completely invented) scene where Fritz steals a brain from the school of medicine and, due to a mishap, steals an abnormal brain taken from the head of a criminal, which explains why the whole experiment goes pie-shaped later on. At this point Mary Shelley is not so much turning in her grave as rolling around with laughter.
But to continue. We next meet Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancée, his friend Victor, and Frankenstein Senior. They’re worried about old Henry, and so they agree to go and see what’s wrong with him. You can more or less guess the rest. Frankenstein makes the bad monster. The monster stomps around a bit. There’s some half-hearted shouting about how Frankenstein’s ‘playing god’ (something which I never understood, because for me the very fact that Frankenstein can create life calls the existence of a deity into question, or at the very least suggests that deity doesn’t have a monopoly on the creation of life, which leads one to wonder what the deity’s purpose is in the first place? But enough of this philosophical and theological quibbling). Elizabeth does some excellent high-pitch screaming. People pronounce the word ‘hands’ ‘hends’. Villagers carry pitchforks, the monster dies, everyone is happy. End film.
As you can see, there’s little of the complexity or psychological examination evident in the book. And although the monster does show moments of kindness (he plays with a little girl, throwing flowers into the river, before throwing her in as well, thinking that’s how the game goes) he has none of the redeeming qualities the original had. He never speaks, only grunts, and most of the film shows him stomping around terrorising various people. It simplifies the story somewhat, de-emphasising the human, psychological toll Frankenstein’s work has, instead simply showing how he created a monster.
As a horror film, I can imagine audiences finding this movie terrifying. Boris Karloff’s made-up face could be quite haunting, and there are moments when he does seem genuinely creepy. And although the movie looked a little goofy to me, this may have had more to do with my constant awareness of the book and how silly some of the reinventions were. Although, as Mel Brooks has shown, the film is an easy target for some hilarious parody. Purely as a horror film, then, this might well stand up to more rigorous testing. But as a literary adaptation, it’s just a little bit worse than terrible. As promised, the film may “thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you”. But chances are, if you’re a pedantic lit major, the only thing that will really “horrify you” is how much liberty the filmmakers took with Mary Shelley’s famous novel.
Rating: 3 Stars