Analytical Essay on Frankenstein: Perceptions of the Character

Posted on May 14, 2009

In 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published and since then, it has become a tale that lives on in everybody. Beginning in the 1900’s, comic books, movies, jokes, television shows, cartoons, and even cereal has been made because of Frankenstein. Since the very first film was made, in 1910 by Thomas Edison, several other movies have been created about this legend. In this essay, I will examine a few of the many popular films made and I will compare and contrast them to Mary Shelley’s 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

In the 19th century, there have been roughly 400 films that use the characters of Frankenstein and/or his monster(Carter 354). The first film adaptation consists of four scenes on one reel and is only a 16 minute silent film(Carter 355). Produced by Thomas Edison and Directed by Searle Dawley, the film has a very interesting scene. On Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding night the monster goes into the bride’s room where Elizabeth faints at the sight of him. The monster is seen looking into the mirror but the image gradually fades away. Victor is so overpowered by his love of Elizabeth that the monster cannot exist. Victor comes in and looks into the same mirror, but instead of seeing himself, he sees the reflection of the monster. As Victor focuses on the good in him, the reflection gradually changes back into Victor. The film ends with the embrace of Victor and Elizabeth, both relieved that the forces of evil have been conquered. Thomas Edison seen Shelley’s novel as the forces between good and evil. Like most movies, the good guys always prevail. She did not have a typical, forces of goodness win, Victor and Elizabeth live happily ever after, ending. The only people that survive in her novel are Walton and the monster. Mary Shelley obviously was not trying to show us that the good outweighs the bad in every situation.

In 1931, Universal Pictures presented us with not only Dracula but also Frankenstein. Director, James Whale, based this film on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but it does not follow it very well. He makes us feel sympathy for the monster as Shelley’s novel does also. Shelley has the monster strangle his victims after he realizes that he cannot live normally in society and wants to get revenge on Victor. He knows exactly what he is doing. In Whale’s film, he hangs Fritz, the hunchback assistant that taunts him with fire, and he strangles the Doctor after he tries killing him. He is only killing out of self-defense. Then, he drowns Maria in the pond only to see if she would float like the flowers did. She did not. It is odd though that in the book he actually saves a drowning girl and strangles everyone else, and in the movie he breaks peoples neck, hangs them, and drowns them.

James Whale decides to keep Walton out of the film but he adds a Dr. Waldman. Walton/Waldman, sounds a lot alike. He also has Victor as the friend and Henry as the mad scientist that creates the monster.

Boris Karloff plays the monster in Frankenstein. In the opening credits of the film, he is uncredited as the monster (Young). In the beginning credits titled “The Players” the monster is listed fourth, with a question mark after its name. Then, in the end credits where the cast list is prefaced by Уa good cast is worth repeating” (Frankenstein), the monster is listed fourth with Boris Karloff’s name following. Why does Whale decide to do this? This is the series that really launched Karloff’s acting career (Young). Like the monster, no one really gave him any credit. That was until he played the gruesome monster in Frankenstein. So, at the beginning they do not include him as an actor. Then, they question his ability with a question mark, and finally, they give him credit at the end.

In 1935, Whale makes a sequel to Frankenstein, and names it the Bride of Frankenstein. At the end of Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein ends up burning the windmill with the monster in it, but in the sequel they tell it differently. It starts out with Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron discussing the novel Shelley wrote. Mary Shelley says, “The publishers did not see that my purpose was to write a moral lesson: the punishment that befell on mortal men who dared to emilate god” (Bride of Frankenstein). James Whale tries to put Mary Shelley into this movie as much as he can. He even gives the Frankenstein family a servant names Mary in the movie.

The thirst for knowledge was definitely a major theme in Shelley’s novel, and in
Kennith Branagh’s 1997 film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he makes it very evident. Unlike Whale, Branagh decides to keep Walton in the movie. At the beginning, Walton is portrayed as a man who is so set on getting what he wants. He does not care if he risks everyone’s lives on the ship as long as he proceeds north with his accomplishments (Branagh). Only after Victor tells him his story does he decide to turn around and go home. Branagh is faithful to Shelley’s novel more so than the other movies but still goes off track a lot. He has Victor’s mother die giving birth to her child. This is very ironic since Mary Shelley’s own mother dies giving birth to her. That very same day Elizabeth is introduced into the plotline. Branagh noticed Victor’s obsession with replacing his mother with Elizabeth in Shelley’s novel. He does it again when, like the novel, he has a dream that he is kissing Elizabeth but instead holds the corpse of his mother (Zakharieva 421).

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor does not attempt to make a creature for the monster, but for himself. He makes a creature out of Justine and Elizabeth both of whom love Frankenstein and are desired by the creature (Zakharieva 429). She must choose between them but she does not. Instead she kills herself so she does not have to choose at all. So, not only was Victor acting as god by creating her without a woman, but the creature he created was too by taking her own life, and deciding her own fate. In Whale’s the Bride of Frankenstein, the bride is terrified by the monster and chooses Henry Frankenstein before he burns the place down. This brings up Elizabeth Young’s argument about the gender triangle between two rivalrous men and one woman.

Young argues that Whale’s film “Characteristically invokes its third (female) term only in the interests of the original rivalry and works finally to get rid of the woman” (Young). To simplify it she says that Elizabeth is Henry Frankenstein’s bride. But, Dr. Praetorious triumphantly names the female monster as “the Bride of Frankenstein” (Bride of Frankenstein). So, there are now two brides of Frankenstein. Also, actress Elsa Lanchester, plays both Mary Shelley at the beginning with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, and she plays the bride. Here, she is not two women, but only one. So, Mary Shelley, Elsa Lanchester, Elizabeth Frankenstein, and the monsters mate are all Mrs. Frankenstein (Young). Young argues that the role of women therefore is not interchangeable in Bride of Frankenstein, but it is no one at all.

The “Mad Scientist” theme is apparent in James Whales film. Henry Frankenstein is determined to create a human being. In the book Victor is so dedicated to his work that he does not tell a single soul about his experiments except for Walton, and that is only so he will continue in hunting the monster down and killing it. In the movies though, directors have given him assistants such as Fritz in the 1931, Frankenstein, and Igor in the 1974, Young Frankenstein. Shelley does not let Victor tell anyone, and no one even knows where he is half the time. In Kenneth Branagh’s film, Victor does not meet Henry until he is away at school. Most of the time Henry knows everything that Victor is doing. Elizabeth actually travels to where Victor is and sees his laboratory that he is working in. She tells him that he cannot stay there, and Victor says that he has to. Elizabeth says, “Even if it means you will die?” and Victor says “Yes” (Branagh). Victor chooses death over his own life and better yet, over the monster not being created.

In 1974 Mel Brooks directs the movie Young Frankenstein. He believes that scientists will never give up their attempts at bigger and better things and will always strive to do better than the last (Woodridge). Brooks has a young brain surgeon, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, inherit his grandfathers castle, which just happens to be Victor Frankenstein. He meets up with his assistant Igor, and together they create a human being after Frederick finds Victors diary in the castle. Mel Brooks really is not that far off the mark on scientists though. They kind of have to be like that in order to achieve everything they have so far. No one knows the exact risks that come with experimenting and in order to live life better we have to experiment. If we want to find a cure for cancer a few rats might have to die first and thousands of humans will die of cancer until some scientist out there finds a cure. Hundreds of astronauts had to risk their lives and crash their aircrafts before we finally built one that would make it to the moon. Granted, this stuff has nothing to do with creating humans, but scientists are already trying to clone people. How does this make them any different from Victor Frankenstein?

In the book titled Frankenstein’s Footsteps, author Jon Turney stresses that from its very first appearance in the 1818, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, it has taken on a life beyond the original book by being constantly retold in a variety of ways (Carter354). Frankenstein has been made into comedies such as the 1948, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Al Adamsons 1971, Dracula vs. Frankenstein. Some directors have gone completely off track of the novel and created films like, Frankenstein: The College Years, Frankenweenie, and Frankenstein Island. In fact, “Frankenstein” is not even recognized as the last name of Victor anymore. The name “Frankenstein” is given to the monster now. No matter how many movies are created and how many translators try to translate Mary Shelley’s classic novel, only one person holds the truth and that person has been dead for a very long time now. I’m sure she is rolling in her grave now laughing at all the ways people have interpreted her book.

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