A Lit Major At The Movies: Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein1931Creature1“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.

frankensteinitsalive

“It’s aliiive!” etc.

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.

Frankenstein1931MrsPercyShelley

Urgh. There’s literally nothing left of the poor woman’s name. You may as well have said ‘From the novel by that chick that Shelley used to sleep with’.

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.

frankenstein1

“Don’t say we didn’t warn 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.

Frankenstein1931VictorandElizabeth

The confusingly-named Victor, Elizabeth, and Frankenstein’s picture on the piano. Am I the only one who feels like there’s something going on between these two?

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.

Frankenstein1931ElizabethWedding

“Hmm, should I turn around and investigate that suspicious stomping coming from behind me? No. No, I think not.”

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

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6 thoughts on “A Lit Major At The Movies: Frankenstein (1931)

  1. I read Frankenstein for school a few years ago and was shocked that the monster wasn’t actually named Frankenstein. Ugh. Now I know better.

    Which is worse, I wonder? This movie or the 1994 version?

    • Haha, I think we all remember that moment when we began studying the book and realised that the movies had lied to us. :D

      I’m really tempted to say the 1994 version is worse, to be honest. This movie strays so much from the book, and it’s so ridiculous that it’s almost enjoyable. The 1994 version is so over-done, so determined to be sensationalist, that it’s just boring. Having said that, it has been a while since I watched it, so maybe I’d think differently if I were to watch it again.

  2. I agree, it’s more like a faked book report written by someone who hasn’t read Frankenstein, but is trying to guess the story from bits a pieces they’ve picked up. Ironically, my favourite adaptation of a classic gothic novel is the wonderful 1922 ‘Nosferatu’ which was basically an unauthorised version of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ but with names *subtly* changed to avoid the fact that they didn’t have rights to the story!

  3. The backstory to ‘Nosferatu’ & ‘Dracula’ is a long legal nightmare, with Florence Stoker (Bram’s widow) claiming copyright infringement by Prana Film & all but (supposedly) one film print being destroyed. Many of the ‘classic’ horror films from the 1920s & 30s, you must remember, owe much of their effect to the ‘legitimate theater’ of the time… commonly used acting methods of those times tend to come off stiff today. Universal took many ‘liberties’ (ahem) with classic literature and ‘adapted’ the hell out of them. As they did with ‘Frankenstein’, their filmed version borrowing heavily from the stage play by Peggy Webling. Often the screenplay only retained the major characters (or breaking them into more, or combining them)… as with ‘Herr Victor Moritz’… who was obviously one of Elizabeth’s old flames. As evidenced in the scene where he comes to see her because she is troubled about Henry. There is the allusion that he was a rival to Henry for her hand in marriage. Part of Universal’s ‘marketing strategy’ with their films was the inclusion of a romantic subplot… The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, all had this element.

    The film version of Dracula with Lugosi, is based on the successful stage play by Hamilton Deane & John Balderston in which Lugosi had starred. It likewise has little to do with the book, other than names & the premise of the ‘evil outsider’. Still, happy memories for me, as I watched them on a tiny b&w tv in my room on rainy Saturdays. :)

    • The background to these early Hollywood movies is really fascinating! It’s interesting to see what filmmakers thought would appeal to audiences of the time. I’m very curious to watch Dracula, as that’s another classic film which had a huge impact on the way we think about the story today.

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