19th Century Literature and Culture
Perhaps the hardest element in film-making is procuring an established work to the screen and still remaining faithful to the original. The movie adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein have been copious and well-known, and yet none of them have ever successfully stayed true to the source. Even the earliest Edison film deviated from the story-telling of Mary Shelley’s novel. Probably he most well known and equally inaccurate adaptation was the 1931 James Whale’s rendition starring Boris Karloff.
Several things about the film differ from the text. One of them almost immediately noted is that Victor Frankenstein’s name was changed to Heinrich or “Henry.” In the original novel, the means of the creation of the monster were never explained. In the movie—we were introduced to the ironically cinematic scene in the libratory and use of lightening. Victor’s movie counterpart also shows extreme character differences. While Victor showed a horrified, appalled reaction to his creation, Henry embraced him and celebrated his birth. Henry also had a helpful apprentice by his side who inadvertently procured a criminal’s brain for the monster. The strange hunchback does not appear anywhere in Shelley’s novel, but has become almost as iconic s the monster himself. Though in his first appearance his name was Fritz, in the sequels, it was changed to Igor.
The monster himself shows vastly differing elements as well. While Shelley had created an articulate, sound-minded creature, Henry’s monster was a lumbering, simple-minded giant. His appearance also greatly differs, and Boris Karloff’s character became the iconic visage we all associate Frankenstein to today. The green skinned, bolted-neck toting monster could not speak and had only basic concepts of speech and social patterns, while Shelley’s monster was capable of strong sentiments of emotions, ranging from compassion, to loneliness and anger and was fully capable of learning speech and reading. Shelley’s monster had wanted acceptance from his creator and the humans, and throughout his lifespan showed a growing sense of emotional capabilities. Like a child, when first born he wanted nothing but attention and love from his creator. As he continued, these changed into wanting to be accepted into society. His emotions matured as he did. Karloff’s interpretation barely strayed from his birth.
While Shelley’s monster eventually turned towards anger and resentment and resorted to killing, Karloff’s character had initially murdered by an accident. Instead of rescuing a young girl like in the novel, Karloff’s monster did not comprehend his own actions and drowned the girl. The creature was also terrified of fire, which acted as a foreshadowing plot device that was later revealed in the creature’s death. Instead of creating a contrast between Monster and Creator as Shelley originally intended, the film scrapped any real dynamics in their relationship. Henry falsely recounts the monster’s fear of fire as a lash of anger, and thus simply decides to kill him. It isn’t until the monster escapes and the villagers are after him do the two confront again.