Blinded by Science

by Jennifer Makowsky

28 October 2008

While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a wonderful tale of a tortured man and his experiment, I’ll take Hollywood’s version of the block-headed monster any day.

The first horror movie I ever saw was Frankenstein. I was six years old, sitting in someone’s dark living room as Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff) emerged on the screen in black and white—tall and wonderfully terrible, bolts in neck, and scars across his big, square head. I was fascinated and terrified. I remember screaming and hiding my face in the couch pillows, only to lift my head again to catch another glimpse of that wonderful, horrible creature.

The monster is often mistakenly called “Frankenstein” in popular culture, but Frankenstein is actually Victor Frankenstein – a medical student that comes from the imagination of Mary Shelley.  Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 19-years old, and first published it anonymously in 1818. Later in 1831, she took credit for the novel.

The book came about when Lord Byron issued her the challenge to write a horror novel. While Shelley continued to write more fiction afterwards, Frankenstein cemented her reputation as a writer of gothic science fiction.

With the novel, Shelley created a monster, so to speak. Her book spawned the “mad scientist” craze in literature and in film. About 100 years after the book was published, several movies were made about Frankenstein and his monster, including the first silent Frankenstein adaptation in 1910 and the classic 1931 version, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the monster.

Whale’s version would generate the very famous sequels, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein. Later, there would be many spin-offs, B-movie adaptations, and parodies including I was a Teenage Frankenstein(1957) , Dracula vs Frankenstein (1971), Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974), as well as a host of television adaptations. In popular culture, Shelley’s monster has become synonymous with Dracula and Halloween.

Overall, in the public consciousness, the idea of Frankenstein is more a product of film adaptations than of Shelley’s novel. This is due in part to the fact that the most famous 1931 film version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, was adapted from the 1927 play by Peggy Webling, which Universal Pictures bought the rights to in 1930.

Frankenstein made then-unknown actor Boris Karloff a celebrity.  Karloff, who had previously worked as a character actor, had to wear thick layers of makeup, applied by makeup artist Jack Pierce, to create the trademark look of the monster we’ve all come to know as “Frankenstein”. In addition, Karloff donned asphalt shoes in order to create the monster’s famous stagger.

Karloff’s distorted appearance caused pandemonium in theater audiences, causing the initial inclusion of a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie, advising those faint of heart to leave the theater immediately. Dracula was released earlier the same year, making 1931 a very successful year for Universal Studio’s horror movies.

The differences in plot and character are so many between Shelley’s novel and Whale’s Frankenstein that it would take several pages to outline them all. In any case, there are a few discrepancies so large they warrant a mention. 

First, the monster’s appearance that upset theater goers in 1931 is different from the monster in Shelley’s book.  In the book, she describes him as having hair “of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness”. There is no mention of the monster we’ve come to know in Whale’s film: the monster with the aforementioned square head, neck bolts, and enormous black shoes.

Second, the film concentrates more on Frankenstein’s relationship with his monster whereas in the book, Frankenstein’s strained and destroyed familial relationships are at the heart of the story.

Third and most important, the book touts the idea that Frankenstein’s monster is a man and not necessarily a monster. He learns to speak when he finds books while hiding from the public eye. In addition, in the Shelley’s version, he kills people close to Frankenstein, and when he attacks it’s with conscious motivation. 

In the film, the fact that the monster is not considered a man and rather a bewildered creature with no speech makes him a more sympathetic character.  There is a scene in the film when he comes upon a small girl named Maria who is throwing daisies into a pond. He leans down and joins her in her play, as if he were another child, which in a way he is.  But he then mistakes her for a daisy and throws her into the pond. As she screams and drowns, he acts concerned and confused. The scene displays his misunderstood character and innocence.

While the film may be the reason behind the popular idea of Frankenstein, I prefer it to the novel. Yes, I just said I like the film better than the book.  As The Box Office Belletrist, my job is to scoff at what Hollywood has done to a brilliant and original piece of fiction. But in the case of Frankenstein, while Shelley’s book is a wonderful tale of a tortured man and his experiment, I’ll take Hollywood’s version of the monster any day.

There’s just something about Boris Karloff coming out of the dark, grunting and stumbling on cement boots, that will always make my hair stand on end – and my heart go soft.

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