Of all the novels in the world, and of all the ones I’ve had the pleasure of reading in my academic career from high school to grad school, no book moved me the way Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did. I was but a wide-eyed fifteen year old when I read the Gothic novel for the first time and decided that no other book in the world would ever compare to the story it told: that of a depressed, troubled young man running from the physical embodiment of his very worst shame — a Creature he made and gave life to before abandoning him. I have never not loved this novel and the tragic tale of hubris and guilt at the heart of Frankenstein.
I often wonder what it says about me that my favorite novel is Frankenstein. There’s a reason I always ask people’s favorite Shakespeare play is, per my bio — it’s because our favorite stories say everything about the things we hold dear and innately fear. The stories we flock to are a microcosm of our outlook on the world. I’m still trying to figure out why Frankenstein means so much to me, but I’ll start with what I love about it.
Frankenstein is twisted to its very core. Being the world’s first science fiction novel will lend it that kind of notoriety, not to mention the fact that it was written by one of English literature’s youngest and most accomplished authors. From the start, Frankenstein concerns itself with the ethics of science through its penultimate Gothic hero Victor Frankenstein. At his core, Frankenstein is an unstable and obsessive young man fascinated by the power of the natural world, intent on creating a new race of man; of course, he doesn’t realize that playing God will destroy him (and everyone he loves) until it’s far too late. When Frankenstein gets face-to-face with his creation, he confronts his worst insecurities, fears, and shames made flesh. What makes the novel (and the titular character) even more tantalizing is what it leaves out, too — the audience isn’t told the details of how this Creature was made because it’s so abhorrent that Frankenstein can’t even vocalize it.
What some may not expect is that the novel is deeply erotic. I knew this from my first reading; despite Hollywood leading me to believe that the Creature is some ugly, mindless monster, Frankenstein once thought of him as “beautiful” — until the moment of his birth. The novel’s most violent scene — when the Creature appears on Frankenstein’s wedding night to Elizabeth — combines destruction and sexual frustration in a way that still makes my head spin. Despite the Creature’s hatred for his creator, he still calls Frankenstein “Master”; he kills Frankenstein’s bride before the consummation because Frankenstein vowed to never make the Creature a mate of his own. (This is where the whole “Bride of Frankenstein” imagination stems from.) There’s something deeply homoerotic, and pointedly not paternal, about the twisted nature of their dynamic.
But perhaps more importantly, Frankenstein is scared. Fear is the main undercurrent of the novel, from Frankenstein fleeing from his vengeful Creation, to the overall anxiety of science’s potential for unethical, God-like power. The sublime — a feature of the Gothic that touches on the unknowable horrors of the (super)natural world — is ever-present in Frankenstein because of how the novel interrogates the Creature’s murderous intent and the ethics of Frankenstein’s experiments. Shelley, and for certain the characters of her iconic novel, are terrified of this upset of the “possible,” the “known” — and as someone who’s also scared of AI’s threat upon my career and general society? I’m fairly certain that Frankenstein tapped into those initial hesitations and emboldened my anxieties even further.
In my eyes, everything about Frankenstein makes it the perfect story. I guess all of this is why I’m so disappointed in the fact that the medium of film — something I’ve come to love and care about deeply the older I get — can’t seem to understand what Frankenstein is doing. Frankenstein is such a sticking point for me when it comes to the intersection of film and literature, because the more I look at the film adaptations of my favorite novel, the more I find that they all go back to that James Whale-directed, Boris Karloff-starring 1931 film. And that would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the movie blatantly misunderstands — and misrepresents — what the story of Frankenstein is truly about.
I’ve vowed never to watch 1931’s Frankenstein, based on all my assumptions about what it “gets wrong” when it comes to one of the greatest stories ever told. I’ve decided, though, to swallow my pride and finally give it a chance. And from one Frankensnob to another, let’s just say most of my assumptions were correct.
We can start with the petty: it’s very clearly set in the late 1920s instead of the 1780s, Victor’s name is Henry even though there’s a totally separate character in the novel named Henry Clerval, and the movie decides to create a totally extratextual henchman in the form of Fritz. Sure, adaptation is always going to do things differently based on genre and period and medium demands, and fudging little things is mostly fine so long as the heart of the story is there, but this is not the case in the 1931 Frankenstein. If you change the time period, then make it a solid commentary on the perpetuation of anxieties about science and human experimentation in the present day.
And why totally change the main character’s name? Why give him a sneering ableist henchman to do his bidding when Victor’s tragic turn is caused by his isolation? Victor Frankenstein (2015) grabbed this particular concept and ran with it to the finish line to… [grimaces] dismal places that gave Victor a half-baked redemption arc and made the entire story about a character the novel never even has, much like the satirical (but better) Young Frankenstein (1974). This is what I mean when I say that the current perception of Frankenstein is inspired by Whale’s 1931 film. Even though these are relatively small matters, they confuse me greatly about the intent of Frankenstein’s goals.
If I asked you to describe Frankenstein from memory, you’d probably give me a cackling mad scientist happily proclaiming “it’s alive!” while his Creature’s body rises from the table in a jolt of electricity. This is purely an invention of Whale’s, and one that films like Victor Frankenstein and the hilariously queer and campy Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) take inspiration from. While the mad scientist is a trope that certainly isn’t going away because of how rich its possibilities in exploring mania, obsession, and ethics are, the novel Victor Frankenstein was never like this. As a former grad student, I feel kinship with him; the process is rigorous, the work thankless, and the research demanding. While building a boyfriend out of dead bodies you harvested from the cemetery is a bit of an extreme reaction to those things that most people in academia go through, he gets the idea because he’s lonely. When Victor describes his time at university to Captain Walton, he mentions that he hadn’t traveled home to Geneva in two years; he stopped replying to his father’s letters because he “became nervous to a most painful degree” over his actions; he very explicitly says that he shunned his classmates and family “as if [he] had been guilty of a crime.”
These are not the actions of a mad scientist — they are the struggles of a lonely, hurting man ashamed of what he’s done. Yes, he plays God; yes, he’s unstable; yes, he’s definitely not right in the head. But to represent Victor Frankenstein as a man uniformly obsessed with power and high on his own fumes totally negates the fact that he feels intense shame and regret after making his Creature. In the novel, once the Creature is animated, Victor can’t bear to look it in the eyes; he screams and runs away at the sight of him. Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 film feels too much pride as he shows off his Creature to his professor Dr Waldman and fiancee Elizabeth; he considers the Creature’s animation an immediate success and tries to run experiments with him! This, to me, is a fundamental misunderstanding of Victor as a character and what he represents, as I succinctly noted in my grisly Letterboxd review.
And then there’s the matter of the Creature. Here is Mary Shelley’s description of him, given to us by his creator: “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.”
Lots different than the unintelligent, imposing, and — let’s face it — ugly version Boris Karloff plays.
Iconic as he is, Whale and Karloff’s Creature just doesn’t look much like the book version. There’s a supernatural, eerie beauty to Shelley’s given to us through the description of his hair and muscular body; Karloff’s is much more solid, broad, and blank-faced, making him better suited to the horror genre as a village-killing “monster” — though I unilaterally refuse to refer to the character as such. Virtually all Frankenstein adaptations opt for the Whale/Karloff depiction of a monstrous, gargantuan creature, like Young Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein, and the universally-hated I, Frankenstein (2014). These monstrous depictions tend to favor a version of the Creature who does not speak and lacks intelligence, which is what kills me the most about film adaptations of the novel.
Karloff’s Creature never learns speech or language. His labored moans and groans and screams make him even more inhuman than his green-gray skin and bolted, stitched-up neck, showing to the audience that this is a being who may have once been human but is fundamentally changed. It makes his accidental murder of a young blind girl (who cannot see his ugliness) tragic, and his intentional murder of Elizabeth terrifying. I won’t deny that the medium of film and the horror genre want the killers to be monstrous and scary, but again: this is a film attempting to adapt a novel with a very specific vision about the intersection of intelligence and appearance. This isn’t to say that the characters in novel Frankenstein aren’t terrified of the Creature (because they are), but rather to suggest that the 1931 film and its derivatives misunderstand what makes the novel version of the Creature so horrifying: his intelligence and eloquence when condemning his creator for abandoning him in the moment of his birth.
Shelley’s Creature expertly quotes Paradise Lost and the Bible, is able to curse and damn Victor Frankenstein without a single stutter; his intelligence is what makes him so dangerous and threatening. He’s managed to surpass — or at least come close — to the power of his creator. His murders are methodical, purposeful, and outright vengeful, implying that violence and hatred is taught and not born. So no, watching Karloff’s Creature stalk into Elizabeth Frankenstein’s bedchamber and kill her without any motivation isn’t terrifying to me. Reading the Creature’s unholy vow that he’ll be “with you on your wedding night” with no promise of what that entails, only to discover that he is going to kill Elizabeth, is suspenseful and titillating to the nth degree.
For a long time, I’ve sung my praises to Rory Kinnear’s Creature on Penny Dreadful (swoons) and to the shockingly novel-accurate two-part adaptation from Hallmark. I knew this movie was for me when I watched the scene of Frankenstein animating the Creature for the first time. It doesn’t hurt that the Creature looks so much like Shelley’s description of him, with beautiful black hair and a lithe muscular body scarred over with stitches; he’s more handsome than anything else, with the mottled skin of his face being the only thing that makes him “ugly” by normal standards. Before his animation, he has a sheet of linen draped over his face, looking more asleep than once-dead. His lips are parted suggestively.
The moment of birth and awakening is undeniably hot. It’s fucking sexy, even. Watching the way Frankenstein attended to his waking Creature, gripping his hand in expectant want, looking at him with nothing but awe in his eyes… It reminded me of the eroticism in the book. The way the Hallmark series gives it to the viewer is akin to the way Shelley gives it to us in her novel — not some crazed mad scientist hopped up on power, but rather an obsessed man full of shame and desire watching his creation come to life. When the Creature coughs himself awake, it’s very nearly feminine because of the way his breath flutters the linen covering his face. He looks like a bride, like Sleeping Beauty; it’s a perfect moment of foreshadowing to the scene where he murders Elizabeth in her wedding dress.
That being said, I’m excited for what Guillermo Del Toro is bringing to the table with his upcoming adaptation of Frankenstein. I mean… you don’t give the monsterfucker director full control over a film adaptation of the original monsterfucker novel and not make him fuck the monster. Knowing that it’ll have scream queen Mia Goth as Elizabeth, Internet boyfriend Andrew Garfield as the Creature, and my legal husband Oscar Isaac as Victor Frankenstein means I’m going in with incredibly high hopes for a tortured, frantic Elizabeth, brooding, Shakespearean Creature, and moody, dark Victor. And who knows — maybe it’ll end up being the most faithful (and fascinating) adaptation of the iconic sci-fi novel made yet.