Frankenstein and his monster might be one of the monsters on this list most removed from his source material, and I doubt it will find its way back any time soon. I think the closest modern approximation of the creature I’ve seen is Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole (don’t ask). There is very much that could be said on the original novel and very much that has been said on it. I think perhaps the most startling information related to the story of Frankenstein is that Shelley had a miscarriage at some point previous to starting her short story turned novel. Considering the many themes of the book that relate to an abhorrent fatherhood and a neglected, deformed child, it’s worth considering. There’s a lot to examine within the original text, but I want to focus on the modern depiction of Frankenstein and his creation, especially after he became a green, hulking, monosyllabic force rather than an erudite but neglected individual driven by compulsion.
Three silent films exist before the 1931 Frankenstein. The first, simply titled Frankenstein, was created by Edison Studios. Unlike just about every other silent film, a version of this movie was found in the 1970s, and has since been released on 35mm and DVD. The plot shares the bones of the classic Frankenstein novel, but the creature and his killing are more similar to the later 1931 version. He’s described as “loyal as a dog” to his creator, and is driven into a rage when he sees his creator with his bride. In a strange ending for the film, the monster realizes he can never be with his creator, and he holds his arms out to a mirror, fading away entirely. Frankenstein enters the room, and in his reflection is the monster. His bride joins him, and the monster fades away entirely. Since the film is in public domain, I can post a version of it here:
The other two films, Life Without Soul and The Monster of Frankenstein, are more straightforward adaptions, with some changes, and they are lost films. It’s entirely possible Life Without Soul faced similar copyright issues of Nosferatu, as the names of the characters are changed, and the monster is referred to as the Brute Man. There’s many things I find interesting about the 1910 adaption of Frankenstein, the most of which being the monster reflected in the mirror. The monster’s dog-like obsession with his creator to the point of jealousy of Frankenstein’s bride mimics a little less of the neglected child and reads a little more into a queer interpretation of the text, though I am waiting to get to that, because I have a whole James Whale to talk about. Hold onto this split image of the creature and the doctor, because it’s going to get used a lot.
It is of note that the 1910 Frankenstein is probably the happiest ending for Frankenstein. He’s not killed by his creation, nor forced through torturous hoops to defeat him, and in the end he gets the girl and the house and gets to move on with his life. This will be mimicked, eventually, in the Bride of Frankenstein, but not before he goes through some stuff.
The reflection of the monster in the mirror as Frankenstein looks on in horror speaks to a more traditional reading of the literature and an occasionally egregious correction: the “Frankenstein” the majority of pop culture refers to is the monster. To the point of parody at times. The flagship Monster High character is, of course, named Frankie Stein, a name that’s been used a hundred times before her and will be used a hundred times after. And the creature is a monster. He murders a child in a rage, he launches an elaborate revenge plan, and once he has enraged his creator to the point where he has nothing left, the creation has him chase him all over the Arctic Circle so they are forever locked in a game of cat and mouse. But the truth is, Victor Frankenstein himself is the one who created life and then cast it out because it didn’t match his definition of beauty. He left a mummified baby on a doorstep and was surprised years later when that baby came back with a knife. Frankenstein has evolved into an egomaniac, a man so desperately involved with his own success he ignores everything else around him, and is unafraid to break covenant with man and God to achieve his aims. Frankenstein’s monster is vengeful, and he enacts some murders of his own will driven on by nothing more than to see his creator suffer, but Frankenstein is as much a monster.
The 1931 Frankenstein is the image of the monster. If you have ever eaten a bowl of Frankenberry cereal, or done the Monster Mash, or joined the Monster Squad, or watched any number of Saturday morning cartoons, or shouted “It’s alive!”, that is the version being referenced. Here is the description of the creature from the text of the original novel:
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
And the description of the pop culture Frankenstein’s monster, via TVTropes:
The “standard” appearance of the monster, usually consisting of a square head, greenish skin (despite the classic Universal films all being released in black and white), enormous proportions, a scarred or stitched forehead, and bolts (actually electrodes) on either side of the neck.
The story is similar, though it begins with Henry Frankenstein in the midst of creating his monster. Fritz, his hunchback assistant, brought a criminal brain for the creature, and he is placid, almost childlike up until the point that Fritz antagonizes him with a lit torch. Henry finds the monster has strangled the assistant, and they lock it up, deciding to destroy the creature. Of course, it doesn’t work, and the creature escapes, drowning a girl out of misunderstanding, bringing the villagers to raise their torches and pitchforks and mob the mad scientist in his tower. Frankenstein escapes to marry his beloved Elizabeth, and to be seen again in the sequel.
When it came time to make that sequel, James Whale was brought back on production, and, fearing nothing could compare to the original, he decided to make a movie that almost parodied it. The two movies together make a whole book, and the opening of the Bride of Frankenstein is a scene from the fateful night Frankenstein was first told around a campfire. Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester, who also plays the Bride) has just finished telling her husband, Percy Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron the tale of Frankenstein’s monster, and they ask her for more. The movie proceeds to pick up right where the previous one ended, with more senseless violence by the monster, Henry recovering from his injuries, and the town still burning. Dr. Pretorius arrives, a Mephistopheles of sorts to Frankenstein’s Faust. As Frankenstein has given up his mad scientist ways, Pretorius convinces him with homunculi of his own creature, tiny creatures he keeps in jars. The creature, meanwhile, attempts good. He saves a woman from drowning, tries to interact with others, and is chased out until he meets a blind man, the first act of human kindness ever granted upon him. But their happy union is destroyed when two hunters arrive, recognize the monster, and drive him into the graveyard. Here Pretorius finds him and convinces him to aid him in his attempts to create a mate for the creature. This leads to the Bride’s creation, who rejects the creature soundly, and as the monster rampages, he allows Henry and his wife to leave, declaring, “We belong dead!” as the roof crumbles around them.
The Bride of Frankenstein is possibly more influential than its original, with the Bride, who has less than ten minutes of screentime, inducted among the Universal canon. She’s been parodied and her likeness used nearly as much as Frankie’s before her, and the two movies introduce many elements that would be staples of old school monster movies and send ups of those films. From here on out the creature would no longer be the astute, revenge driven complex creature, but a caricature. And very often a good one.
Which means now I get to talk about the gay elephant in the room. James Whale directed Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein (and the Invisible Man, we’ll get to that), and was an openly gay man in 1930s Hollywood. This is more common than one might think. The debate on the queer undertones in specifically the Bride of Frankenstein has raged on, with many reading into Pretorius’ character (the actor who, reportedly, was told to play him “like an over the top caricature of a bitchy and aging homosexual”), to the monster’s relationship with the hermit, and to the innate act of an “unnatural birth” itself in relation to Frankenstein and his monster. Two aspects seem to be the main reason for the homosexual debate in the Bride over its original: the hermit character, and the camp nature of the piece. It is decidedly camp. It was made to be that way. And camp is often associated with gay culture and queer men, which probably plays no small part in interpreting the film. However, I think the hermit plays a more compelling argument. He is the only one to show kindness to the creature out of any of the characters of either movies, except Maria, the little girl, who was drowned for her trouble. The thing I’ve always found most striking in the Bride is that the monster never really seems to ask for a mate. Pretorius does. Frankenstein suggests it as well. But the monster is looking for a friend. This article posits, among many assertions, that the same word is used to describe the hermit and the Bride herself. The hermit is his first friend, and is the one who teaches him the word. He uses that word again when speaking of the Bride.
This has a few interpretations, of course. Supposedly Whale discussed that “the Monster would have the mental age of a ten-year old boy and the emotional age of a lad of fifteen”, which suggests that he wouldn’t be interested in any romance and certainly not a bride, not in the traditional sense. Friendship is all the monster has ever truly wanted, affection from his father, the innocent kindness of a child, the warmth of another human being. Pretorius offers him a bride, and the monster only wants someone who is like him. The other interpretation is the more obvious. The use of “friend” to define male companionship and female companionship offers a bisexual view of the monster’s interest. He lives, briefly, as roommate and companion to the hermit and intends to live longer with the Bride. If the hunters had not arrived, how long would the monster have stayed there, learning, receiving kindness, living a domestic life with another man?
Friends and coworkers of Whale refuse the queer interpretation, saying he was an artist first, only interested in providing the best vision for any film, but I find that shortsighted. As a gay artist, I find it nearly impossible not to include some queer reading into my text. I also find it nearly impossible not to interpret in the same way. Queer artists even in the Hollywood system have managed to create things that resemble them, and life experience colors nearly every piece of art any artist has created. We are painting, writing, and filming from our perspective. Saying there’s no queer reading to a text created by a queer person is a paradox. I don’t know if James Whale created the Bride as others suggested, as a dismantling of a heterosexual system, as a camp parody of his own work, as a venue to work out his own internal conflicts or ideas. I don’t like putting words in the mouths of creators long gone. But as a queer woman who creates things on a regular basis, I don’t think there’s another way to interpret his work.
There are other adaptions of Frankenstein, as recognizable as these others. The Curse of Frankenstein, which helped establish Hammer Horror’s brand and style, was an incredible success and borrowed many elements from the book, though it bares a passing resemblance to it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a Frankenstein plot twice, and the second time, with Adam, was probably the most derided part of its season (except for Riley). Penny Dreadful tries for a more complex and traditional version of the creature as well, and while I haven’t seen enough of the seasons to judge it properly, he remains a prominent character, along with the Bride. And of course, the most famous parody of Frankenstein is Young Frankenstein, which follows the 1931 film beat by beat, borrowing elements from its sequel as well. It is a near perfect parody with some iconic bits. Frankie appears in Marvel comics, DC comics, and even the series Fables.
Frankenstein is unlike the other monsters, because the creature is a singular entity. People fight werewolves or become vampires, but the Frankenstein’s monster is himself, whoever that may be based on who’s writing it. There are Frankenstein-esque creatures. Among the many, many, many depictions of Frankenstein in pop culture on Wikipedia, the film Ex Machina is listed. So when I describe the other monsters as relating to us some kind of “other” or filling in for our anxieties, what “other” matches best with Frankenstein? Frankenstein’s monster has been goofy, tragic, heroic, villainous, incapable of speech, and capable of the most beautiful words any man can hope to say. What defines this monster and his creator? What do we keep coming back for? Is it possible we identify both with the monster and Frankenstein himself? We see in us the capacity to become like God, and in that hubris create monstrous things. We see a creator struggling to build his magnum opus and failing. We see a man who loves his wife and his family and is repaid his slights by losing all of this. And as for the creature, we see in us a thing born into this world unfairly and then immediately cast aside. We see a thing that could’ve been beautiful, could’ve been kind, could’ve been any number of things, but because of how society and even his own father reacted to him, he becomes a dark thing with dark urges. His desire to be loved is only matched by his desire for revenge. He is angry. And someone else made him this way. Maybe there is no “other” in Frankenstein’s monster. Maybe there is only ourselves.
I do recommend checking out the Universal version of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as reading the original book, which is in public domain and can be found for free. Young Frankenstein as well, for the three people in this world who haven’t seen it. I adored the short film Frankenweenie by Tim Burton when I was younger, though I haven’t seen the full length movie. The role of the monster in Monster Squad does actually mimic the Universal one without the child drowning and it’s rather sweet. Rocky Horror Picture Show is possibly the ultimate gay send up of Frankenstein, and I did actually enjoy the Laverne Cox production as well, though nothing quite beats the original. I also implore you to seek out Anthony Stewart Head’s role in a Rocky Horror special. I do enjoy Penny Dreadful but not enough to watch more than one episode in a go, though that may be because the overly sexual nature of it is a little ridiculous in even the best of times. Still, the monster in that version I’m fond of, and his story plays out (as far as I’ve gotten) in a familiar way. I actually don’t have too many Frankenstein themed works I’m very fond of, which is sad because I have such an affinity for the monster and dress up as the Bride at any given opportunity. Though I am doing this examination as part of my 1950s monster mash story, which is on hiatus for another month before part two begins, though Frankenstein plays more heavily into my Victorian era monster mash, of which you can read an excerpt here. I’m leaving the big three after this, but there are still some monsters to go.