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Two hundred years ago this month, at the age of just twenty, Mary Shelley published one a novel that still resonates in the cinema of today.  At last count, there are around 120 film and television adoptions of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 

The origin of the novel came eighteen months earlier when Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was in  Switzerland with her lover and future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley visiting Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva.  Known as the “Year Without a Summer”, 1816 was particularly cold and wet due to the so called volcanic winter following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.  Having read all the ghost stories the villa’s library had to offer the group decided to write their own.  History suggests Mary’s was the best.   Originally not a commercial success, the novel found early success on stage, then in the twentieth century on film.  Often referred to as the original adaptation, James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein (1931), was not the first. The first film adaptation, Frankenstein (1910) came from Edison Studios in the silent era and was written and directed by J. Searle Dawley  This was followed by Life Without Soul (1921), written by Jesse J. Goldburg, and directed by Joseph W. Smiley.  There was also the Italian version, the Italian Il Mostro di Frankenstein (“The Monster of Frankenstein”), no known prints of this film remain. 320px-Frankenstein_1818_edition_title_page

I am not sure when I first saw a Frankenstein movie, but have always been aware of Frankenstein or to be more precise, his monster.  But to many people, Frankenstein is the monster not the monsters creator, who is actually called Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein.  An easy mistake to make as the creator is the real monster, but I am getting ahead of myself.  The monster, or at least the Boris Karloff, Universal version of him is probably the most recognisable and iconic character in movie history.  When did I first see him?  Probably a clip on TV.  The first, I really remember is one of two things: cardboard Halloween masks given out by the ice-cream man, or the Frankenstein’s monster alike, Herman Munster who seemed to always be on TV in the 80’s. Herman Munster

Then at the age of around ten or eleven I saw Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) (shown in a double bill on channel 4 with  Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966). I soon watched many more Hammer movies including their first Frankenstein, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) with Christopher Lee as the monster.  These are probably the best of the Hammer Frankenstein movies, and significant in the series.  Made off the back the Universal Monster Movies that were experiencing a renaissance on TV on both sides of the Atlantic, the 1957 film was the first significant adaptation in years.  Without the use iconic look, the rights to which were owned by Universal Hammer had to be creative.  Taking the board strokes the source material but telling its own story, with a subtext of a fear of science, this is after all a film made a decade after WWII and in the early days of the cold war. Directed with style by Terence Fisher and perfectly performed by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Like Shelley’s novel, the movie was poorly received by critics but loved by audiences proving to be commercial success and a springboard to the Hammer movies of the next decade and a half. frankenstein-created-woman1

A few years later I saw the aforementioned James Whale, Universal movies.  Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Colin Clive as Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff as the monster.  One of the few films where the sequel is better than the original, but like The Godfather, or Mad Max, it doesn’t matter, as they are both brilliant.  Great art often comes from the obscure places.  Universal were haemorrhaging money.  Dracula, essentially a filmed play starring Bela Lugosi, made a lot of money so they decided to fast-track further horror/monster movies.  They hired James Whale, two pictures into a five movie contract (His previous credits were a couple of world war one movies, one of which starred future Henry (changed from Victor) Frankenstein, Colin Clive.  He was also one of the unaccredited directors on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels). Whale elevates the movie above Dracula’s stage origin by both expanding the canvas and through cinematic flair.  Influenced by German Expressionism, the film set a template for future horror.  It also helps that both Whale and Karloff, individually and collectively understood that the monster wasn’t really the monster of the story. frankenstein

Then I read Mary Shelley’s original novel and became obsessed with Frankenstein and its many adaptations.  They include Young Frankenstein (1974).  Not to be misunderstood, Young Frankenstein (1974) is actually among the best Frankenstein movies.  Written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder; Directed by Brooks and starring Wilder, it both tells Shelley’s story, understands the themes, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny.  Utilising original props and set dressing from the 1931 movie, it also looks like a Frankenstein movie. young frankenstein

The total opposite to the Hammer version, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) received good reviews but was less popular with audiences; Audiences who had grown up with various film versions but were less familiar with the original novel, audiences who expected the monster to be a monster.  Kenneth Branagh directs with swagger and style and is ok in the lead but Robert De Niro wasn’t the best choice of monster.  It is a film well worth revisiting. mary shelley's frankenstein

The adaptations are still coming thick and fast, here are a few from the current decade:

  • 2011: The BBC broadcast a live production from Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds; billed as Frankenstein’s Wedding.
  • 2011: The National Theatre produced a version by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle. Actors Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternated the roles of Frankenstein and the monster.  The play was broadcast live to cinemas worldwide.
  • 2014: Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the Monster were both recurring characters in the (excelled) TV horror series Penny Dreadful.
  • 2014: I, Frankenstein: Frankenstein’s monster joins an age old battle between and Gargoyles.  A truly terrible film.
  • 2015: Frankenstein: a modern-day adaptation told from the monster’s point of view.
  • 2015: Victor Frankenstein:  Victorian set drama told from Igor’s perspective.
  • 2016: Frankenstein: A full length ballet performed by The Royal Ballet and simulcasts worldwide.
  • 2019: Bride of Frankenstein: The second film in the “Dark Universe” with Javier Bardem as the monster was due out next year, but is currently in turnaround.

If you are interested in Frankenstein, but don’t know where to start, I would recommend either the 1931 movie or Mary Shelley’s original novel.  Don’t wait for the next adaptation, it is unlikely to live up to either of these.  And finally for those who are wondering, the title of the article comes from a line that appeared in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and not a line spoken by Russell Crowe in the trailer for The Mummy (2017). bride of frankenstein 1935

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