#87 Frankenstein (1931)
In my grade school library there was this book of Hollywood monsters. In fourth grade or fifth grade, I don’t remember which, I’d be drawn to the thick, dusty pages with black and white photographs of scenes from the greatest classic horror movies. Wolf Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Dracula peered out at me, simultaneously hypnotizing me and scaring me stupid in the sunlit library, surrounded by classmates. I was very easy to scare as a boy, but I liked it that way. I was always drawn to those stories that would keep me awake at night. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds, Jaws. I’d want to watch these movies, but would always wimp out when the priest gets blasted by the aliens or when the blood starts to come out of Quint’s mouth. But even if I was only brave enough to watch through my fingers or with my hands over my ears, I was still fascinated with and addicted to that blast of terror and adventure that those films provided me.
In that dusty book there was a picture from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Boris Karloff was kneeling down at the bank of a river with a little girl, flowers in her hand and a trusting smile on her mouth. I don’t remember if the caption on the page hinted at the impending tragedy of the scene or not, but this image bewildered me. All the other monster movie villains were depicted quite clearly as threatening killers. They were swathed in darkness, all teeth and scales and sneers. But in the Frankenstein still there was a lovely lakeside scene with what could have been a child playing with her father or uncle, if it weren’t a hideous creature with bolts in his neck. I was perplexed by the contrast, and even though I never actually watched the film it somehow stuck with me, haunting me, installing itself in my eleven-year old imagination alongside a bloodthirsty great-white and the prospect of alien invasion.
Sitting down to watch Frankenstein for the first time, I was obviously aware that it had absolute no chance of frightening me. Which is a shame, because Mary Shelley’s book is frightening, perhaps one of the most existentially frightening stories ever told. But what comes out in the film is campy, overwrought nonsense, abandoning the complexity and thematic depth of the novel while embracing crude caricatures and easy horror scares.
Allow me to clarify: Frankenstein is a landmark film and compared to other films of its time there is plenty to be said in its favor. Frankenstein’s creature captured popular imagination and has become a piece of modern myth and folklore, one of those few stories that is retold and reinterpreted by every new generation. But compared to the book it’s an empty, pathetic shell of itself, limp and weak and unsatisfying.
Let me be clear about something else. I’m not one to complain when movies deviate from their source material in their adaptations. But I make an exception in the case of Frankenstein because the changes made in the film transform an interesting story into a boring, lame-ass creature feature.
I knew something was up when the opening credits claim the film is “From the novel by MRS. PERCY B. SHELLEY.” Although some scholars believe that her husband did assist her in the editing of the novel and seems to have provided her with suggestions many of which she utilized, it just seems wrong to not put her name in the credits. Maybe that’s nitpicking but it put me off right away. (Although, now that I think about it, maybe it’s better that her name isn’t on this, since it bears only a passing semblance to her masterpiece.)
I’m annoyed by the film suggestion that Frankenstein, through his assistant’s blunder, is forced to build his creature with the “abnormal brain” of a criminal instead of the “normal brain” he intended to use. Of course the creature is going to be dangerous. It has a predisposition to violence and evil. This isn’t science, obviously, though anyone can see why it makes for scary movie stuff. We’re afraid of the creature now because we know he’s basically a revitalized murderer. But this destroys Shelley’s creature, rendering him incapable of earning the audiences support and sympathy. He cannot be the tragic hero that Shelley intended him to be because he is a diseased criminal brought back from the dead by some kind of modern day voodoo. The cards are stacked against him. “Science” decrees that he has no other course but violence, on account of his abnormal brain.
So he shambles around mumbling and growling incoherently, getting into poorly choreographed fights with just about everyone in the film, chucking children into lakes, and strangling screaming women while off camera. He never speaks, and that’s the biggest problem with the movie. Shelley’s creature learns, becomes educated, speaks, thinks clearly, understands, ponders his existence, chooses his course of action rationally. He is a killer, no doubt about it, but his motives are fascinating. He is a brutal symbol of humanity. We may not like it, but this creature is meant to be our hero.
I actually enjoy the film’s sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) much more, simply because it just goes ahead and makes the “monster” the hero, as it always should have been. It includes the tender scene where the creature is befriended by a blind man and learns to communicate. It’s a nod to the scene in the novel in which the creature learns language and history and literature from books borrowed from a reclusive family living in a cottage in the woods. The creature educates himself and contemplates his existence. We don’t get that much in the picture. We’re meant to be impressed that the shambling, grunting oaf even managed to string together a few words coherently.
And that’s the biggest gripe I have with the portrayal of our favorite “monster”; he’s drawn as a simple-minded murderer that the audience can simultaneously hate and be terrified of, all while harboring their misguided sense of intellectual superiority. But Shelley’s creature is well-read, better-read than the audience, and could articulate the finer points of Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives with great detail if Hollywood would only let him. There shouldn’t be as much grunting and groaning in a screening of Frankenstein, unless it’s coming from the audience, the “monster’s” intellectual inferiors, fluent only in celebrity gossip.
The film gets it wrong. Like Dr. Frankenstein, it builds its character with the wrong brain. By stripping the monster of his intelligence they created a beast-like creature that scares us on a more basic level. Sure, we can be scared by a stupid, powerful monster, but we can be truly haunted and horrified by an intelligent, powerful monster, more man than beast, more human than human.