One of the more interesting things about this bout of homework that I have set for myself, is the fact that I’ve known precious little about the films I’ve approached. Oh sure, I’ve known a line here, or a shot there…but for the most part, my familiarity with the films have ended with their title, cast and crew.
Then along comes FRANKENSTEIN, the story I know well, and have quoted often. You’d think that familiarity would brace me well for what the 81-year-old film had in store for me. And if you’d think that, then you’d have thought wrong.
FRANKENSTEIN is based on the Mary Shelly novel of the same name. As the film opens, we happen upon the titular doctor and his trusty assistant Fritz (quick show of hands everyone who thought his name was Igor). The pair are securing a specimen for the doctor’s latest experiment – securing it from a freshly dug grave. Dr. Frankenstein, as you likely know, is intent on re-animating dead human tissue, and the film wastes no time in getting to the grand experiment. Faster than you can say “It’s Alive”, the monster (Boris Karloff) twitches to life, and Frankenstein’s obsession grows all the more.
However, as we soon see, it’s one thing to find the formula that creates life, and another thing completely to know what it takes to nurture the life that has been created.
Coming into FRANKENSTEIN as a big fan of Mary Shelly’s book, I was bracing myself for something radically different than what I had experienced so far. I knew, for instance, that the film would rob The Monster of his voice, since in the book The Monster not only has the capacity to speak, but he gets into full philosophical debates with his creator. That decision is a curious one, but one I was able to live with. Speaking of philosophical debate, that was the other omission I was braced for – a large omission of the story’s core question of what it means to play God.
The book, as you might know, is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”, after the myth of The God who brought fire to humanity and then paid a heavy price. In the novel, Doctor Frankenstein likewise pays a hefty price for the fire he brings to the people…and while that is in the film, it’s downplayed. The film shows such things as the doctor pulling away from those he loves, and falling deep into obsession…but the ultimate price falls more on the shoulders of the villagers than it does on the Doctor himself.
In a way, this feels like a cheat. Prometheus isn’t paying the cost for bringing fire to the people; the people are paying for what Prometheus brought them.
But then something interesting happened…
As I mentally closed the novel I’d read several times and gave myself over to this different interpretation, I found myself deeply saddened. FRANKENSTEIN is the tale of a being that wasn’t loved by its creator, but was kept in a cage. It was born with a brain that was a specimen in a jar, and quickly after its birth it was not much more than a bigger specimen in a bigger jar. Watching Fritz goad him, watching him fight for his own release, and then watching him stumble through the outside world without a shred of knowledge had me thinking of a toddler that was prodded by its father, goaded by its wet nurse, and ultimately tossed into the street at age two.
James Whale might have intended this to be a monster movie, but it is first and foremost a tragedy. It’s a tragedy that The Monster is born, but not raised. It’s a tragedy that his first truly human encounter ends with him doing something seemingly innocent, but with tragic consequences. And it’s a tragedy that the town’s reaction to The Monster isn’t to capture or corral, but to kill.
But that’s human nature, right? We fear what we don’t know, and fear manifests itself in terrible ways.
An interesting detail to the film is the way it begins with a master of ceremonies offering a word of caution. He lays out what is to come, and suggests that what we are about to see may disturb us…may shock us…or may even horrify us. What he fails to offer up is closer to the truth – what we see above all saddens us.
With that, the film stands alone amongst all of its classic monster-movie brethren. We never sit and silently hope that Count Dracula will evade Van Helsing. We never want The Wolfman to dodge that silver bullet. We never look at The Mummy as misunderstood. And yet, where Frankenstein’s monster is concerned, we feel nothing but pity. Pity not awarded to embodiments of superstition and the supernatural, but pity freely given to something we as mankind have brought upon ourselves.
That is the credit of the amazing adaptation of Frankenstein. It dared to take a hailed classic, and radically re-interpret it. It tossed out much of the original structure, themes, and moral questions, and in their place gave us something simpler, but still so poignant. Whale didn’t unleash another monster on us; he told us the story of a lost little boy, and dared us to reject him like so many others did.
It’s moments like this that I find myself believing in adaptation, and being open to artists re-imagining each other’s work. Sure, somewhere along the way, a filmmaker could have created a faithful adaptation of Shelly’s novel, with all of its ethical quandaries…but by mining the text for pure human emotion, FRANKENSTEIN is able to do something truly special: It’s able to stand on its own two feet.
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for October…
Max Covill watched THE THING
Sean Kelly watched THE EXORCIST
Dan Heaton watched CABARET
Andrew Robinson joins the party late after watching SUSPIRIA
Courtney watched 12 ANGRY MEN
Bob “I’m a Snowflake that Never Falls on Time” Turnbull watched THE WOLFMAN and THE MUMMY
Steve Honeywell watched CARRIE