One of my top two favorite books of all time is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (the other slot goes to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee).
My senior year of high school I received a paperback copy for Christmas. Coincidentally, our English teacher started us on a unit after winter break reading the condensed version — I got permission to read the full story.
Most Americans can give you the gist of the story: Dr. Frankenstein uses corpses to assemble a monster that he uses electricity to bring to life. The monster then rampages and has to be destroyed.
Close, but no cigar. Victor Frankenstein begins to study medicine and developes an obsession with returning life to dead flesh. Mary Shelley was very smart and wrote Victor’s diary in such a way that he never tells how he did it. (Critics can’t argue with something left unsaid.) Victor is never truly happy with what he has created. In his fervor of discovery he has broken the natural laws, and he has no desire to see it repeated. Lightning and electricity are a flashy visual added by the classic movies many of us love.
Boris Karloff’s classic portrayal of the monster has rooted itself into the American psyche. I see nothing wrong with how those first movies were made, but I think anatomically the monster sewn together from corpses would look more like this:
What Dr. Frankenstein feels after creating the monster is excitement that quickly becomes shame and regret. He has toyed with the laws of nature. His creation is an abomination. It becomes a murderer, tormenting Victor to the end.
In the final scenes of the story we see the monster weep over the body of Frankenstein and we are left with a lingering doubt of whether the monster was really a monster.
Another iconic figure in The a Frankenstein myth is is the Bride, most iconically portrayed by Elsa Lanchester. (Side note: we almost always see the Bride with black hair and the white stripes, but Elsa was a redhead, you just can’t tell because of the black and white film.) The monster does want a mate so he won’t be alone, but Victor refuses complete the process, leading to more blood on the monster’s hands.
In senior English, we read the book and then watched the 1994 version starring Robert DeNiro as the monster, Kenneth Branagh as Victor and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth. I loved DeNiro’s monster!
We were then assigned an essay reviewing either the book or the movie. I chose to compare and contrast the two. After 20 years I’m still proud enough of it to share here.
Frankenstein: Then and Now
Though made centuries after the original, Kenneth Branagh’s modern film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may provide the final pieces to the puzzles of Shelley’s thought provoking characters. It seems that where Shelley’s characters confuse readers, Branagh’s movie picks up the slack with audiences. It is also true that Shelley’s novel fills some of the gaps in the movie. The two together form an unbeatable team in captivating audiences.
Shelley casts her novel with characters ruled by passions that stir a huge array of opinions in today’s readers. Victor can come across as cowardly or as a genius, depending on who is reading, whereas the creature may seem the innocent victim or as the embodiment of evil.
Under Branagh’s direction the movie tries to compensate for the character flaws. We see Victor as a man confused by his loyalties to mankind and his passions, and the creature begins to look more and more wronged and confused by man. Branagh also ventures to add dimension to Elizabeth, Victor’s lover. Branagh produces a strong woman lost in her love and concern for Victor, where Shelley wrote only of her concerns from long distance, never as an active role in Victor’s plight.
Shelley’s writing overpowers the movie in Victor’s insistence to hide the secret of life. Branagh endeavors to use electricity–a relic of earlier films–to bring the creature to life. Shelly’s novel closely guards this secret, providing no details, lest horrid consequences be lived again, this her lesson for the entire story.
Combined, the novel and the movie provide what could be the entire spectrum of Shelley’s first horrifying vision. The mix that they make is a potent lesson for readers and movie-goers alike–God’s domain is not our own.