On March 11, 1818, The Modern Prometheus was published, although the book is better known by the first part of its full title: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the 21-year-old author, is credited with creating a whole new type of novel, blending gothic horror with science fiction.
Shelley began writing the book in 1816 while staying in Geneva with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their friend Lord Byron suggested they each compose a gothic ghost story, and Mary Shelley produced the classic we know today. Well, what we sort of know today. I remember reading the book in high school and being surprised to discover that the book differed somewhat from the movies. In the book, the Monster’s creator Victor Frankenstein is tracking the Monster, who can speak intelligently instead of merely deliver grunts as the character does in the classic films. But there are many elements from the novel that do appear in the movies, like the Monster’s desire for a mate, and the story raises interesting ethical questions about the creation of life.
Few characters in a novel have inspired so many creations, from movies to TV characters to a cereal character, although many mistakenly call the monster “Frankenstein,” which is actually the last name of the scientist who created the creature. Actor Boris Karloff is most famous as the Monster, beginning with his portrayal in 1931′s Frankenstein, directed by James Whale. Karloff creates a sympathetic creature that is both scary and sympathetic in the way he is misunderstood. The films had a dark sense of humor, but it also was a product of a director who lived through World War I. Different viewers find different parts more disturbing than others. But part of the scene below was originally cut by censorship boards in some states because they found the Monster throwing the little girl in the water (and accidentally drowning her) as too disturbing.
Many consider the 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein to be even better than the original. Again Whale directed the movie, which again starred Karloff as the Monster and Colin Clive as the Doctor. Elsa Lanchester defined the role of the bride in only a brief scene, while she also played the role of Mary Shelley in the movie.
Universal Studios played on the popularity of Frankenstein and its other monsters by putting them together in different movies in the 1940s like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and various other films followed with mixed results. Some movies expanded on the subtle humor in the original films. One of the most famous funny versions of the monster appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which is below in its entirety. Glenn Strange played the monster.
One of my favorite versions of the Frankenstein story remains the Mel Brooks’ interpretation, Young Frankenstein (1974), which is a wonderful funny tribute to the original film and its sequel while still being a great comedy in its own right. In this film, Peter Boyle played the monster while Gene Wilder played the young doctor. Below is this movie’s take on the blind man and cigar scene from Bride of Frankenstein above.
The Frankenstein humor was taken to a surreal extreme in The Munsters when the monster character was imagined as a father in a sitcom setting. The Munsters originally ran on CBS on Thursday evenings from 1964 to 1966. In the clip below, Herman Munster tries out for the Dodgers.
In 1994, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which tried to be true to novel’s plot while modernizing the scariness. The movie also starred Robert De Niro (as the monster) and Helena Bonham Carter. The movie, however, was a disappointment at the box office. I saw it in the theater and enjoyed it for what it was, although it did not come close to the classic original films. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 40% critics score and a 50% audience score.
Even though it is almost two centuries since the story was written, there will continue to be new versions of the Gothic tale. Many more folks today know the story of Frankenstein than know the Greek myth of Prometheus, who supplied the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s monster book (and a poem by her friend Lord Byron). The Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. Because of this rebellious act, Zeus punished Prometheus by binding him to a rock, where every day an eagle would return to eat his liver, which would then grow back for the next day’s torture. Like Prometheus, Dr. Frankenstein stole something from the gods — the ability to create life — and because of that, he was a tortured soul.
Currently Paul McGuigan is directing a new version of Frankenstein, from the viewpoint of the assistant Igor, played by Daniel Radcliffe. The new film is set for release in January 2015 and also stars James McAvoy as Dr. Frankenstein. I have no idea how good it will be, but I am certain it will not be the last retelling of the story that Mary Shelley published in 1818.
What is your favorite version of Frankenstein? Leave your two cents in the comments.
Photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein in Bride of Frankenstein via public domain.
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