Somewhere along the way, Frankenstein’s monster has changed drastically. From the challenged, complex character Shelley presented, he’s become a dumb, slow icon of fear and monstrosity. He has become subject to vigorous transformations in a number of mediums. Since the original publication in 1818, there have been (at least) 24 direct adaptations. Films, television and plays have retold his story with new visions, new words and new worlds.
Some have got it right, some have got it wrong and some have included him in a time travelling adventure. What happened?
We’ll define the original characteristics first. In Shelley’s novel, the monster is nameless. Initially, upon his creation, he is like a baby: gentle, innocent and new to the world. Victor Frankenstein assembles the monster in a gruesome Ikea fashion of stitching body parts together from… other bodies. He’s eight feet tall, enormously strong and hideous, with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceal the muscle tissue and blood vessels beneath.
(I’d feature an image here but it’s perhaps not the most appetising thing to see!)
However, he’s abandoned by his disgusted creator and shunned by every person he comes across; he’s a feared, unknown entity, prompting strangers who cross his path to expel him. His self esteem – undoubtedly – is horrendously damaged, especially when he is called:
“monster”, “creature”, “demon””, “fiend”, “wretch”, “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “wretched devil”
It’s important to note, as well, he’s not your typical grunting, slow moving ‘monster’. He’s a smart, thinking and articulate individual. He learns how to speak English and studies literature, in particular Milton’s Paradise Lost and, when confronting Victor, even quotes the book to converse his feelings:
Did I request thee,
Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
John Milton, Paradise Lost (X. 743–5)
He’s quite the complicated character but interesting and brilliantly sculpted nonetheless. Though he does seek (and triumph) in brutal revenge against his creator, it is because he is developed and made into a villain, he is not born one. Ultimately, it is a tragedy. The hate and expulsion from society and his father turn him into a killing machine.
So, how is Frankenstein portrayed by other artists? Let’s begin the makeover!
Frankenstein (1931) – Boris Karloff’s depiction of the monster is perhaps the most iconic. The film spawned the image of the monster most of us know. Square, abnormally shaped head with a face riddled with scars and bolts garnishing his neck.
He’s slow to talk and initially is gentle and innocent; however, he never really adopts the vocabulary-filled persona we see in the novel. Only in the early hours of birth are there are some similarities and while it ranks as an iconic horror film, it’s not entirely translating the original character.
The story gets points for having the principles present in the film; the themes are explored and the values are challenged. But the groaning, grunting creature never grows into a complicated being. Transformation in progress.
Frankenstein Unbound (1990) -Based on Brian Aldiss’ novel, which is loosely similar to Shelley’s novel, is a time-travelling adventure. This does feature a monster and it is Frankenstein’s monster but the resemblance isn’t really there. He acts solely as an angry antagonist. I’m not sure why it had to use the same characters, an original piece would have sufficed.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) – As a film, it’s not bad. It does feature some great performances and it does touch on some of the themes in Shelley’s novel. The Creation, played by Robert De Niro, does start out on similar tracks. He’s somewhat smart, articulate and cunning.
However, the ‘villain’ in him is brought to the surface a lot faster, vowing revenge on his creator almost immediately after being shunned by the family he helped. His killing spree starts and the rest loosely follows the book. This is perhaps an example where you can’t make us completely understand and sympathise with the Monster in the average film length. De Niro does depict the being well but the story lacks the existing fire.
Van Helsing (2004) – Not an adaptation but the monster, now named Frankenstein, is part of the monster ensemble in the Hugh Jackman lead film. He’s more Karloff in appearance than Shelley in character: he’s a gentle but strong giant and that’s it. There isn’t really evidence of him being smart and we’re far from the original; he’s there because he is a familiar monster and provides a joke or two. Is there resemblance? Physically yes. In his character? Some, there’s some!
Frankenstein vs. the Creature from Blood Cove (2005) – I can’t say I’ve seen this one so I’ll just leave a description of the film I found:
Frankenstein’s monster is resurrected to fight terrorists along with a half-fish, half-man creature. However, the plan soon goes awry.
…I’m… I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch this one. I think it’s safe to say the transformation has continued.
I, Frankenstein (2014) – The nod to the original novel is only in the introduction to the film and the character. It’s based on a graphic novel and it’s… interesting. Fun, action-based but like Frankenstein Unbound, I don’t think it needed to use the character Shelley created. An enjoyable story that could have been built on entirely different canvas. The monster and name were perhaps used just because it was something people would recognise. It does win a point for monster attractiveness level, however.
Frankenstein (play) 2011 – Now, this is adaptation done right. The National Theatre production, written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, is perhaps the best adaptation to date.
It hit the nail right on the head with the themes Shelley original displayed. What it means to be human, how science can go too far, how to deal with the consequences. In the translation to the stage, the story remains intact and most importantly, we are given a raw depiction of Frankenstein’s monster in the truest of forms. It’s done so well and executed so precisely, it is worthy to wear the same title as Shelley’s piece. What this piece did better than any other is show that Victor Frankenstein is the monster – how it should be.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller both won Best Actors in the 2012 Olivier awards for their portrayals of Frankenstein and his monster (they played both the creator and the creation!). Viewing this piece again, in the future, is hopefully likely. It was filmed and showcased in cinemas as part of National Theatre live and if it returns, make sure to see it.
As a final note, somewhere on his journey, the monster is named Frankenstein. It’s not uncommon for people to believe this and it’s fair to. The posters weren’t always clear with it and soon it was adopted.
Is it wrong to name him? Absolutely! Although the monster does label himself after his father…
At length the thought of you crossed my mind. I learned from your papers that you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life? (Chapter 16)
…it doesn’t exclude the fact that no one gives him a label. No one named him, no one claimed him. The essence of his struggle can’t be taken away!
This is only scratching the surface on the number of times the monster has been depicted. I’ll note, of course he’s not the only character to undergo a makeover. Dracula is another, so is Batman! Compare Adam Wests’ Batman to Christian Bale’s and it’s mad.
Nonetheless, it’s evident the monster has been transformed. There are some other pieces that are very close to the book. At times, we’ve seen resemblance and other times, we’ve been a million miles from it…
…and that’s okay, I think. As mentioned before, it seems odd to include the monster and other characters when the story trying to be told would do fine with an original setting and cast. But the legacy that Shelley ignited will forever be retold. We’re still left with the source, and that’s what’s important. As long as we have the original, which we always will, fans can go crazy with their ideas. I’m sure Shelley would have been honoured to see so many people interpret her story and her characters in so many different ways. It’s fascinating how far this character has been taken.
And besides, there’s quite a lot of appeal to seeing how far people will take it.
How about Me, Myself and Frankenstein…
…Or Frankenstein and Snakes on a Plane!….
Or Frankenstein in Space!