From Sci-Fi to Fantasy, ‘Frankenstein’ Highlights a Century of Classic to Cult Adaptations

Frankenstein: The Real Story separates Frankenfacts from fiction while exploring the 19th century influences on Mary Shelley’s writing.

Victor Frankenstein and the Creature become more popular, but not necessarily better, with age. Even favorite stage or screen adaptations often differ widely from the plot points or characterizations detailed in Mary Shelley’s 1818 origin story, Frankenstein. Of course, fidelity to the source material should not determine whether a film, television, or stage adaptation is worth watching. However, Frankenstein, more than most literary sources, lends itself to an incredibly wide range of adaptations, and audiences never seem to tire of the Frankenstein saga.

As Adam Frankenstein (Aaron Eckhart) promises in the trailer to the latest cinematic adaptation, I, Frankenstein, “I go my own way.” Such is the proclamation of many a retelling of Shelley’s masterpiece that strives to present the story from a unique viewpoint. In early 2015, for example, director Paul McGuigan’s Frankenstein film will take a closer look at Victor and his creation from the perspective of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor (Daniel Radcliffe).

On stage a few years ago, the Danny Boyle-directed National Theatre production of Frankenstein became one of London’s (and globally, NT Live’s) most popular plays in part because it returned the Creature’s eloquent voice and allowed the creation to debate his creator. Before them, more than a hundred plays, films, and television movies, miniseries, and series dealt in some (at times very tangential) way with Shelley’s characters and themes. Every decade sees the rise of at least a few versions of the culturally ingrained, continuingly intriguing story of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature (AKA “monster” or “demon”, depending on the adaptation).

Before Lionsgate releases I, Frankenstein later this month, Lionsgate Home Entertainment brings Frankenstein: The Real Story to life on DVD in order to clarify the Frankenfacts regarding Shelley’s novel and decades of creative interpretations of her characters. This DVD covers multiple approaches in a thorough study of Frankenstein. Each of the three segments [“In Search of the Real Frankenstein” (45 minutes), “Frankenstein” (44 minutes), and the longest and by far most entertaining “It’s Alive! The True Story of Frankenstein” (1 hour, 36 minutes)] is as diverse in style and approach as the audience for which it was originally broadcast on History or A&E. The “It’s Alive!” segment, for example, was first shown as a television documentary in 1994.

In bringing together three programs for audiences with different interests in Frankenstein, Lionsgate Home Entertainment has, in some respects, sewn together its own DVD creation from a variety of television “parts”. The resulting collection, like the Creature it celebrates, is a mesmerizing, if curious, blend of disparate pieces that somehow seems to work.

“In Search of the Real Frankenstein”, originally part of the History channel’s Decoding the Past series in 2006, sheds light on four 19th century scientists who may have been the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein: Luigi Galvani, Giovanni Aldini, Andrew Ure, and Konrad Dippel. The narrator sensationalizes the science by dramatically describing “macabre” or “horrific” early experiments with electricity to reanimate corpses. If there is a flaw in this group of Frankenstein histories, it is that each includes a biography of Mary Shelley. This first segment’s emphasizes the science facts known during Shelley’s time that likely influenced her fiction. The importance of geography — possibly from her trip down the Rhine River — also is analyzed; the author may have seen an abandoned castle tower that she later used as the model for Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Shelley is a more active character in biographical reenactments shown in the “Frankenstein” segment, which highlights the fateful summer in 1816 she spent by Lake Geneva, where she conceived the idea for her novel. The biographical scenes touch on a variety of topics, including women’s issues and rights, free love, and Frankenstein’s publication history. This segment also discusses the influences that motivated Shelley to write a novel that “captured the dark side of a period of revolutionary upheaval and provided an eerily accurate vision of the future”.

By the third biography of Shelley, presented in “It’s Alive! The True Story of Frankenstein”, viewers may be tired of hearing about her marriage and holiday in Switzerland. Fortunately, the biographical information is only a small part of this presentation. The rest of the documentary should provide film and Frankenstein fans with entertaining interviews, movie trivia, and behind-the-scenes stories of the making of key cinematic adaptations, including James Whales’ 1939 Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff; Mel Brooks’ and Gene Wilder’s 1974 Young Frankenstein; and Kenneth Branagh’s1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, starring Robert De Niro.

A strength of this final DVD segment is the number of audio or video commentaries with people representing the entertainment industry throughout the 20th century, such as Forrest Ackerman, Kenneth Branagh, Mel Brooks, Robert De Niro, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Susan Strasburg, and Gene Wilder. Although an interview with, for example, Jane Seymour from the set of 1990s’ television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman obviously dates the information, the charm and historic value of “It’s Alive!” is its inclusion of enlightening insights from industry insiders, many long gone. To hear Boris Karloff talk about his casting in the Whale film is entertaining but also nostalgic. Film historians, as well as Frankenstein aficionados, should revel in these interviews for their overall value to popular culture as well as specific details about classic films.

The coverage of adaptations through 1994 (when this documentary was made) is impressive. In addition to in-depth studies of the Whale film and subsequent “monster” movies starring Karloff, as well as a lengthy discussion of the development of Young Frankenstein, host Roger Moore and narrator Eli Wallach pay tribute through clips and stills to cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and television series The Munsters. The program also highlights Frankenstein-themed commercials and collectible movie memorabilia. On this journey of cinematic history, films like Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, The Bride (starring Sting and Jennifer Beals), and Frankenhooker are included among more frequently discussed illustrations of the public’s fascination with the Frankenstein legacy.

Suggesting a single rating for this DVD is difficult because the three segments differ in tone and quality. History lovers may prefer “In Search of the Real Frankenstein”, with its descriptions of 19th century scientific apparatus and procedures, even if the narrator’s word choice often is simplistic or sensationalized. The most thorough biography of Mary Shelley is included within “Frankenstein”, and viewers with a greater interest in literature may wish to watch this segment first. Film historians, moviegoers who enjoy everything from classic horror to camp, and pop culture enthusiasts likely will find “It’s Alive!” as the most invigorating and in-depth look at a century of Frankenstein films and cultural references — its brisk pace, range of topics, and numerous interviews make it the most enjoyable for casual viewers, too.

In the trailer for I, Frankenstein, actor Miranda Otto demands that “Frankenstein must be destroyed!” Theater and cinema history — as well as DVDs like Frankenstein: The Real Story — prove the impossibility of that command. No matter how real or surreal the adaptation, as University of Delaware Professor Charles E. Robinson reminds viewers, Frankenstein is “too much a part of contemporary culture” to ever die.

RATING 6 / 10