Why Do Most Frankenstein Movies Ignore the Source Material?

Why Do Most Frankenstein Movies Ignore the Source Material?

Jan 23, 2014

In the impending disaster that is I, Frankenstein (sorry, Aaron Eckhart), the title monster is taken to the near future, where he battles gargoyles and tries to prevent the apocalypse... or something. The trailer earns chuckles and grimaces from both casual and seasoned filmgoers alike because they know one thing: that scarred action hero engaging in all kinds of CGI derring-do isn't Frankenstein's monster. We know Frankenstein and that is no Frankenstein.

Well, at least people think they know the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation.

They know the mad, raving doctor with his lab in the castle on the top of a mountain. They know his hunchbacked assistant. They know the monster himself, a mute, awkward and violent thing with bolts protruding from his neck. They know that Frankenstein later builds his creation a bride. They know this because it is the popular image of the Frankenstein story.

But it couldn't be more different from what author Mary Shelley wrote in the original novel of Frankenstein in 1818. In fact, the vast majority of Frankenstein movies stray so far from the original text that you can't help but think the original book must be a tough nut to crack. It must be too dense or complicated. It must not be very cinematic. It must look like a lousy movie as written. And yet that couldn't be further from the truth. As written, Shelley's original Frankenstein remains as chilling as ever, its sprawling narrative more fit for the movies than any of the so-called adaptations that strayed from the material. For some reason, Frankenstein movies seem to have routinely rejected the book that created the character in the first place, ignoring a version of the story that's better than any of the character's countless reinventions.

This may sound blasphemous to fans of classic horror cinema, but the iconic take on Frankenstein that we've been watching for decades is just as much a bastardization as I, Frankenstein is.

So, how did the common version of the Frankenstein story come to pass? We can trace all of the cliches -- Lightning storm! Hunchback! -- to Universal's 1931 adaptation, but it cannot be solely blamed for throwing away Shelley's work (nor should it, since it's still pretty fantastic). The real blame can be thrust upon the stage version of the book that the film was based on... which was, itself, based on another stage play which was only loosely based on the book. As you can imagine, the finer points of the story were lost in translation over the course of 100 years.

But here's the important thing: Universal's Frankenstein was a huge, massive hit and its effect can still be felt in horror cinema today. It has been rereleased countless times. It has been a television staple for decades. Kids still wear Frankenstein costumes during Halloween. The Hollywood version of Frankenstein is an unavoidable cornerstone of culture and we literally grow up knowing the story. Sure, some people get around to reading the original novel in high school or college, but it's always going to be easier to accept the common picture of something than read the excellent-but-dated novel that started it all.

In short, Frankenstein movies tend to ignore the source material because the source material has stopped being the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The original book is so alien to "our" perception of the story that following the book would only generate confusion. It's a sad state of affairs, but your average moviegoer would probably be just as baffled by an "accurate" adaptation than he would be by dreck like I, Frankenstein. An accurate Frankenstein wouldn't be familiar and it probably wouldn't be as instantly popular and it probably wouldn't do the same kind of business. The end.

Although Kenneth Branagh attempted to stick to the source material with 1994's abysmal Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, his own grandiose storytelling decisions completely derail the movie before the third act arrives, abruptly throwing away the book and deciding to indulge in some truly awful Hollywood habits. While that version may have poisoned the well, it's time to try again. Audiences have shown in recent years that they can embrace complicated, morally grey heroes. They have shown a high tolerance for long films that ask big questions in between the set pieces. It may be time to try Frankenstein again and to do it properly. When people think of Frankenstein, they think of a mad scientist and a monster. They should be thinking about a decade-long revenge story about a spurned son dismantling the life of his father, piece by piece. They should be thinking about a story where the creator and the creation are both equally sympathetic and monstrous. They should be thinking about what it is arguably the greatest piece of horror fiction ever written.

Hollywood may have spent nearly a century ignoring the book behind Frankenstein, but in the age of reboots and reinventions, the freshest take of them all would be to go back to the roots.

 

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