When you mention the name of Frankenstein to someone, the first image that comes to mind is likely that of Boris Karloff in 1931, complete with a flattened head, bolts popping from the neck, and an ill-fitting black suit. Or maybe the mention of Frankenstein brings to mind the Glenn Strange portrayal, similar to Karloff but even larger and more brutish in appearance, which was used in creating those great old plastic models from the 1960s and seventies.
For most people, whether they are horror fans or not, the true origin of Frankenstein does not immediately move to the forefront. That origin is rooted in literature, more specifically in the famed novel of the same name written by Mary Shelley. It was first published in 1818. That’s an origin that brings us all the way back to a point in time 203 years ago. And yet, more than two centuries after the fact, Shelley’s masterpiece continues to be studied by academics, in colleges and universities, and by devoted fans of Gothic subject matter.
In particular, it is the latter group of Frankenstein “students” who will continue to celebrate Shelley’s novel in 2021. Having started this past Sunday, January 24th, and continuing for 15 weeks, Frankenstein devotees will gather virtually to dissect and probe the original novel, with occasional forays into the film adaptations. These 15 online shows will be hosted by a friendly scholar named Edward Pettit, who serves as the manager of public programs for the Rosenbach Museum and Library located in Philadelphia. Each week, Pettit will interview a different expert or team of experts on Frankenstein while dissecting two chapters from the novel.
While it’s remarkable that the story of Frankenstein is still fascinating us all these years later, the initial accomplishment of the novel remains amazing, as well. Shelley was all of 19 when she finished writing the novel. She wrote the story as part of a challenge at a small dinner party that was attended by her future husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, the famed poet and politician. The challenge was simple but daunting: who among the three could write the best horror story?
Mary Shelley thought about the challenge for a few days before devising a story about a scientist who has created life essentially from scratch, but then becomes horrified at the creature he has made. Beginning to write the novel at the age of 18, Shelley published it within two years. Initially, she published the book anonymously before taking credit and putting her name to the story.
The end result was a literary classic and the first novel of the science fiction genre. It was not, however, the first Gothic horror novel; that honor goes to a far lesser known volume, The Castle of Otranto, written by Henry Walpole in 1764. But it is Frankenstein that stands as the book that made Gothic literature more appreciated and respected, at a time when the genre was not quite as fashionable as it has become in the years since. And until Bram Stoker delivered Dracula just before the end of the 19th century, Frankenstein stood at the top of horror’s literary mountain.
As great a piece of literature as Frankenstein is, it’s important to note that The Monster that Shelley created is very different from The Monster we would come to know through the Universal Studios films of the 1930s and forties. Those monsters, as played by Karloff, Strange, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Bela Lugosi, would have been almost unrecognizable to Shelley. The differences are many and stark, covering both the physical look of The Monster, his mental capacities, and his behavior.
Appearance: When Karloff and the other actors took the screen as The Monster, they sported a similar look to one another: the flattened head with a visible scar on the forehead, small bolts protruding from each side of the neck, a lumbering frame, and slow movements. Shelley’s Monster, referred to as The Creature, is still unsightly and horrific to look at, but much different, with long black hair, a rounded head, watery eyes, whitened teeth, and yellow skin. Many of his blood vessels are visible, as opposed to being hidden by the skin. The appearance is bad enough to immediately repel his creator, Dr. Frankenstein.
The Creator and the Hunchbacked Assistant: In the 1931 movie, The Monster’s Creator is named Henry Frankenstein, a scientist in his thirties who works with the assistance of Fritz, a deformed hunchback. Later film interpretations would portray similar characters, usually named Ygor. In Shelley’s novel, the doctor is named Victor Frankenstein, a younger man and college student who works alone while essentially hiding in his dormitory room. Without any help from others, he creates the beast that he would come to regret.
Intelligence: The Monster that we know from the classic movies is limited in its mental capabilities, and only able to speak articulately in the second film, The Bride of Frankenstein. In Shelley’s novel, The Monster starts out as childlike, but soon learns how to speak and read, much like a student does during the years of elementary school. Within time, The Monster becomes highly intelligent, fully able to reason, and self-aware. With regard to the latter trait, The Monster is so aware of his plight that he becomes depressed and frustrated, to the point that he seeks revenge against his creator.
Behavior: In both the novel and the films, The Monster acts abominably, losing his temper, killing people, and causing massive destruction to property and homes. But the motivation behind the behavior is different. In the original movie, The Monster is supplied with the brain of a demented criminal, a result of the bungling by Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz. In the book, The Monster becomes angry because of the way that he has been abandoned by his disappointed creator, Dr. Frankenstein. To compound the situation, he is isolated from other people, who reject him because of his awful appearance. With no one to turn to for help, Shelley’s Monster takes out his anger by plotting violence against others.
There are many other contrasting features, too. For example, the book begins with a series of letters from a ship captain named Walton, whose crew has rescued Victor Frankenstein from the frozen ocean waters. In the Universal films, Captain Walton is never even referenced. Another alteration involves the actual creation of The Monster. In the book, we are not witness to the creation; that is left to our imagination. In the movie, the creation scene is shown in all its splendor, with Dr. Frankenstein boldly declaring, “It’s alive.” Given all of this, it becomes obvious that the book and the movie are two very different things. For viewers of Frankenstein on screen, that can create difficulty in trying to appreciate the written word of Shelley. But if fans are willing to approach the book with fewer preconceived notions and apply a clean slate, they will likely appreciate the novel on its own distinct merits.
Those fans who want to learn more about the book can begin doing so this winter and spring. Visit the Rosenbach web site (https://rosenbach.org/events/sundays-with-frankenstein/) to learn more about Sundays with Frankenstein, how to make the virtual connection to the program, and how to actively participate. It’s a chance to discover the book fully, while also picking up a few additional insights into the many film adaptations of the franchise known simply as Frankenstein.
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