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  • Writer's pictureMichael W Rickard II

Comparing "Frankenstein" (1931) to "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994). Par

Editor's Note: I started reading a book about the novel Frankenstein's cultural impact and the author mentioned how she doesn't like referring to Frankenstein's creation as a monster. Apparently my comments below are just another example of low-hanging fruit in the creative garden.

Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein has inspired many adaptations. The novel led to a stage adaptation The Fate of Frankenstein which in turn would have elements incorporated into film adaptations (Behlmer). There are many film adaptations of Frankenstein from many nations. Two of the best known are James Whale's Frankenstein and Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Each movie has elements that make them enjoyable but after watching both, James Whale's version is my favorite.

My first exposure to Frankenstein's creation (I cannot call him a monster) was the classic 1960's sitcom The Munsters. From there I was fascinated with the Creature. The first Frankenstein film I saw was the TV movie Frankenstein:The True Story. Unfortunately this was in the era before VCR's were common and I only saw the first part in 1974 and would have to wait thirty years until I saw both parts on DVD. From there, I saw Hammer Films' The Curse of Frankenstein. The film was quite chilling to an eight year-old boy. When Marvel Comics released Frankenstein's Monster, I checked out the comic book. Interestingly enough I do not recall seeing the original Frankenstein until Universal released all of its Frankenstein films on DVD at the start of the 21st century. My closest exposure to Universal's version of the Creature would be Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein which I saw in the early 1990's on VHS.

Frankenstein seems like an ideal story for a cinematic adaptation. However not everyone has thought so. Writer Jeffrey Heffernan argues "Mary Shelley's novel is by turns supremely cinematic and stubbornly uncinematic. Much of it-such as the Creature's account of what he learned from reading Milton, Plutarch, and Goethe (see F, pp. 124-27)-would be numbingly static on the screen (141)". A 1931 memo from Universal executives expressed concern that Shelley's novel was inadaptable due to its multiple points of view (Frayling). However the number of stage and film adaptations suggests that there is much to be mined from the story.

Like any adaptation, how the director chooses to interpret the source material can dramatically affect the way the movie is presented and this is clear with the two films in question. Both directors have different takes on the Creature which make for two very different storylines. While the Creatures are both man-made and hideous, the similarities end there. Branagh's Creature is highly intelligent and motivated by revenge (due to people shunning him). Branagh focuses on the Creature's desire for companionship after Victor abandons him along with Victor Frankenstein's quest for revenge after the Creature takes the lives of Victor's loved ones. Whale's Creature is simple minded and prone to odd behavior due to Frankenstein's assistant Fritz procuring a criminal's brain. This "good brain" vs. "bad brain" dynamic turns much of Whale's version into a question of eugenics whereas Branagh's Creature (like Shelley's) is largely driven by alienation (Frayling). Whale's film treats the Creature as more of a misguided animal wandering about in a world he cannot understand and one in which he does not belong. In Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein's mistake in scientific overreaching are far less costly than Victor's in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with Henry escaping with his life and reputation while Victor loses everything.

It is difficult to choose which of the two Frankenstein films I prefer because both films are excellent in their own right. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a close adaptation of the novel but like most adaptations, some liberties are taken. For example, Branagh deletes the storyline of Henry Clerval's murder and he adds a scene of Victor reanimating Elizabeth after the Creature murders her. The acting in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is excellent, the effects captivating, and Branagh's directing captures both the beauty and horror of life. Branagh contrasts the beautiful pastoral home of the Frankensteins with the dirty, bloody medical school and laboratory in which Victor builds the Creature. Branagh creates a gothic feel to the story with its fog, mysterious creature, and murders. His acting captures Victor's desire to create life after his mother's death, his remorse over playing God, and his desire to revenge himself on the Creature following the Creature's attacks on his family. All of these factors make Mary Shelley's Frankenstein an excellent film. Despite all this, I prefer Whale's Frankenstein.

Whale's version of Frankenstein is a loose adaptation of the novel. It discards characters and segments of plot to create a story about Frankenstein's obsession with creating life and its results. The director makes the most of existing technology to make a film that was very scary at its time and which maintains an air of spookiness even today. Whale had the benefit of utilizing filming techniques that were not common to American audiences as well as making the film before the Production Code was strictly enforced.

Whale filmed Frankenstein (1931) in an Expressionist style. Expressionism …"refers to an extreme stylization of mise-en-scene with low-key, shadowy lighting, and at times highly fluid camera movement, which together evoke an atmosphere of foreboding, anxiety, and paranoia" (Kuhn and Westwhell). Anyone familiar with Expressionism can see elements of it in Frankenstein, especially Whale's use of shadows and sharp angles. For example, the graveyard scene at the film's beginning shows Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz digging up a corpse. Everything seems off-balance, suggesting that their world is just not right. Note how heavily shadowed Fritz is while Henry is in light, suggesting the difference in each character's personality.


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