The History of Frankenstein in Film

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Updated: Jun 04, 2019
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The History of Frankenstein in Film essay

From the dawn of the cinematic age, both horror and science fiction films have been shown throughout every cinema available. More common, however, were films based upon previously written works such as books or plays as they were easy to adapt from one medium to another. In 1910, Edison studios released what would inevitably lead to a cultural shift around the plot of one of the most famous, if not the most famous gothic novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The first of at least fifty films to feature Shelley’s characters, the 16-minute silent film set the stage for what would become one of the most iconic film series in cinema history. Following the Silent Era of film, we would see the James Whale series of films which were iconic in establishing the look of the creature with the stitched forehead and bolted neck. This look would inevitably become the most common image associated with the character, being cemented on everything from covers of certain editions of the novel to being inked on die-hard fans’ skin as tattoos.

Mary Shelley herself had even enjoyed the remakes and renditions of her novel as shown by her quote to respond to the 1823 play Presumption: or The Fate of The Frankenstein in which she had said But lo and behold!, I found Myself Famous (Marshall 93-94). This further cements the impact Frankenstein had on the entertainment industry of the 19th century, which is even more evident today with new remakes and renditions every year. Hollywood’s use of the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in media such as film, television, and video have effectively driven the novel and its plot into cemented figures within pop culture, as well as establishing most of the character archetypes we associate with general science fiction and horror stories today. In this paper Frankenstein’s various adaptations across decades will be explored in detail as well as the plot changes from the source material and finally the lasting effect the novel and its renditions have had on horror and science fiction film culture.

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Both the 1910 Edison Productions silent film and James Whale’s famous motion picture were the first widely formatted renditions of the Frankenstein novel to hit cinemas. The silent film had merely begun to pave the path for James Whale’s film series to trailblaze. With silent films ushering audiences into multifaceted genres like horror and science fiction and popularizing them, The Edison Productions version of Frankenstein helped guarantee future success for a fully functional film series. This series started from James Whale’s cinematic reimagining of a play written by Peggy Webling in 1927. Webling’s play had set forth one of the most egregious errors in literary to cinematic adaptation in the form of referring to the creature itself as Frankenstein as opposed to the creature as he is dubbed in the book. This plot flaw has carried over into popular opinion despite the fact that it is completely false.

Also, an erroneous naming flaw carried over into cinema is the creature’s iconic look popularized by Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the character. This look while aesthetically interesting and incredibly memorable does not capture the yellow skin, dead eyes and long hair mentioned in the novel. This stubborn visuality of cinema — or, rather, our habit of considering it predominantly visual — may help to explain why film versions of Frankenstein have drawn so little attention from academic critics of the novel (Heffernan 135). The directorial decision to design the creature in the fashion within the film was a benefit to the series in multiple ways, initially, it helps separate the creature within the film and the film as a whole from the novel and play by distinguishing them as practically separate properties on the grounds of design and aesthetics. Supporting this now seemingly cemented design to the creature is the fact that following the 1931 film, Universal Studios had placed a copyright onto the makeup and design of their version of the creature. Even though the story of Frankenstein is within the public domain, the now iconic design of Boris Karloff’s rendition cannot be used by anyone else which establishes it as iconic considering it can only be used by those at universal Thus cementing this image into popular culture.

Regardless of the quality of source material, Hollywood and the film industry change stories and plots in order to better suit a commercial audience or in order to make a point. Frankenstein has some of the most evident of these changes. In the Universal Studios continuation of James Whale’s films, the name of Victor is changed to Henry, most likely to seem more American in regards to names of the main character. This possible reasoning however could be seemingly debunked with the fact that in the same film the role of Henry Clerval is changed to a man by the name of Victor Moritz which does not line up with any character trait-wise in the novel, however his name is an amalgamation of the novel’s Justine Moritz and the original Victor Frankenstein. More Importantly though is the addition to the infamous character of Fritz, who is Henry/Victor’s lab assistant portrayed as a hunchbacked evildoer. While many might think the Fritz character who later became Igor is a purely cinematic facet of the film, it in fact, originates from the previously mentioned 1823 play Presumption; or the fate of The Frankenstein which Mary Shelley had seen and enjoyed. This makes Fritz practically as much a part of the story of Frankenstein as any of the other characters so to deny him from a Frankenstein Film would essentially be going against the rubric created by James Whale in regards to characters and basic plot devices. The name Igor (as a hunchback/deformed/weird lab assistant, anyway, not the Lugosi Ygor) seems to have originated with Zaherle’s 1950s top 40 hit DINNER WITH DRAC (Glut,157). The aforementioned Igor is an interesting figure in the history of Frankenstein Films due to the fact that his origin is somewhat multifaceted at least in relation to the modern expectations of a Frankenstein movie.

The first iteration of a bumbling hunchbacked lab assistant other than Fritz came from Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Igor (spelled Ygor in the film) in both Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Although it wasn’t until Jonathan Zaherle’s Dinner with Drac and later the famous Monster Mash written by Bobby Pickett that the name of Igor was more used for a stereotypical lab assistant in monster movies which help cemented him into what popular culture typically references in regards to the tale of Frankenstein. James Whale, director of the 1931 Frankenstein, devoted the movie’s long and striking opening scenes to this inversion of Shelley’s intent–so the filmmakers obviously viewed this alteration as crucial (Gould). This directorial change to the film helps further establish a separation from the novel as well as introduce the subject matter to the audience in a more digestible fashion as within the films opening scenes it portrays Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz as evildoers by stalking a funeral in order to scavenge for body parts to assemble the creature with. Following the corpse collection scene, the Hollywood aspect of the production takes over as Fritz seems to have a Freudian slip after he drops the initial good brain that was to be used in creation of the monster and brings back a sealed container containing a corrupt/evil/criminal brain serving as a deus ex machina to make the adaptation into a complete monster movie as it is the brain in the film that turns the creature into a monster whereas, in the novel, Victor’s immediate hatred of his own creation helps further his descent into being a truly evil being. While changing the plot presented by the novel itself, the majority of these changes helped keep the intellectual property of Frankenstein into history as they brought millions of people to flock to the cinema.

The effects of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) will be everlasting as it’s themes, characters, and tropes have changed all of science fiction and horror movies since films. Frankenstein demonstrates the larger process by which texts develop narratives through a collective understanding of the work, which differs from the original information contained in the initial text (Milner 2). This quote from Sarah Milner’s infographic helps demonstrate how the collaborative efforts of various authors reinforce the effigy within film culture which is Frankenstein. The effect of gothic literature as a whole on film is profound considering the success of Edison Pictures’ Frankenstein released in 1910 had sparked the genre of film as well as paving roads for the influential James Whale/ Universal Studios rendition of Frankenstein which along with other gothic era centered films like Dracula (1931) which helped spawn horror films altogether and you can see Frankenstein’s influence all throughout science fiction movies with most mad scientist characters brandishing the same lab coat type as Henry Frankenstein does in the film. Characters created only in plays and movies following the book’s release have also inspired their own movies as seen in 2008’s Igor, which brings the typically evil nature of Fritz/Igor into softer kindhearted character meant for children. What do all of these films have in common with Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel? At the end of the day, not muchcertainly not a particular set of narrative events; at most, there is a shared focus on acts of creation and the consequences of such acts, along with a very general thematic exploration of human-technology relations and attendant socio-cultural conflicts (Denson, 30).

Denson’s comments on the nature of films relating to Frankenstein or at the least films mentioning the name of Frankenstein help prove the fact that due to public approval of the original Universal Studios’ films an entire sub-genre of the movie focusing on the specific nuances created for the 1931 Frankenstein. The fact that within the novel the creature primarily targets people close to Victor supports this comment and my thesis as it couldn’t have subjected audiences to as much of an awareness to socio-cultural conflicts as a film could have. One such conflict that is still being explored today in the film is the public reaction to the war in relation to veterans’ health. Clearly, connections abound, but none resonates more than the notion that the monster visually alludes to mutilation, wartime surgery, and the myth of the returning dead (Gerblinger 82). James Whale who directed the first few editions of Universal Studios’ Frankenstein film series was a veteran of the Great War had incorporated these visual callbacks to the horror of war in his design for the monster itself. The very look that I’ve previously mentioned that is still widely popularized in popular culture.

The influence of the war on the film/genre is not only limited to designing monsters as many can view Dr. Frankenstein’s actions as metaphorical of those of governments stitching together both reasons to war and their respective armed forces. These films impact on culture has also made critics and fans of the series and novel alike look back on the source material and wonder about explored themes that Shelley may have perhaps overlooked or hadn’t been able to fully flesh out. An example of which can be shown in The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Interestingly, Whale’s film–like the aforementioned adaptations by Jackson and Kelleher–incorporates a depiction of Mary Shelley herself. Shelley played here by Elsa Lanchester (the same actress who plays the Bride), is depicted at the beginning of Whale’s film discussing her novel Frankenstein with husband Percy Shelley and friend Lord Byron (Hawley, 218). This introductory scene helps further establish the impact on culture that the original novel displayed as well as showing the exploratory nature that film can have by exploring a What If? scenario. Shelley herself could not bring this plot point to fruition fully within her novel as shown by Victor Frankenstein dumping the remains of a potential female creature into the sea towards the ending of the novel. The exploratory directorial nuances displayed primarily in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein film series show the origin of a variety of tropes and character elements still being used or explored in film today.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its subsequent adaptations within film have shaped future films for the better. The plot of the various films over the past century have cemented Shelley’s works into popular culture; As a result, the continuous creation of Frankenstein films will help shape horror films for the rest of time. The stitching together of the film being akin to Dr. Frankenstein’s stitching together of body parts shows that in an allegorical sense that filmmaking is a Frankensteinian art and will continue to be as long as these films exist.

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The History of Frankenstein in Film. (2019, Jun 04). Retrieved from