Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein directed by Kenneth Branagh (1994)
Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) directed by James Whale
It may be November, but I hope you haven’t already said goodbye to the Halloween season, because I am continuing with the Halloween theme for one week more to discuss one of the most famous “monster” stories-Frankenstein!
I will focus mostly on the book in comparison to the 1994 adaptation, but I also watch both movies from the 1930’s and will talk about those for a bit as well.
I am so excited to get into this episode, because I love this book so much, the ‘30’s movies are so iconic, and then the 1994 movie is just absolutely fantastic!
I have read this book multiple times-around 2010, then in 2019 and again in 2020. This time around, I realized even more how this can be interpreted in so many ways. Does the creature represent modern science? Shelley’s father was big in the advancement of science and this book almost feels like it is Shelley being critical of her fathers beliefs and modern science. This book could be her way of showing the dangers of getting caught up in the desire for more knowledge and of course the dangers of pride. The creature was also supposed to be a more advanced human thanks to science, yet he ends up being monstrous.
Then you have the creation story. Frankenstein creates a living being, but then abandons it and is then haunted, and hunted, by its existence. The creature tries to understand the purpose of his life and why his creator made him. The creature reads Paradise Lost and says he should be like Adam, but finds he identifies more with Satan. Frankenstein is also a man of course, so we have a man trying to create life in this scientific manner which doesn’t require a woman. Yet when he does, he isn’t a father to this new life and instead wants to be rid of it and hates it.
I also thought more this time around about the soul. The creature presumably doesn’t have a soul because he wasn’t made by a God in a natural way, but made by man. Are people so quick to reject him because he is just this living corpse and they can feel the emptiness in him where there should be a soul? But then I also kind of like the thought of what if in its creation, Frankenstein gave the creature half of his own soul. They are connected not only in a father/son, creator/creation kind of way, but also by each having half a soul. In the book, the creature is its own thing, and it’s not like it’s Frankenstein in like a Fight Club kind of way. But I read it thinking that what if the creature is part of Frankenstein, and therefore going forward with Frankenstein’s darkest desires…?
I will come back around to some of those themes but thought I would just share some of those thoughts right at the start!
1994 Movie Review
Francis Ford Coppola had directed and produced Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was then going to make Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a companion piece. However, he decided not to direct and handed it off to Branagh, who plays Victor Frankenstein.
Coppola and Branagh were constantly butting heads, and others involved also disagreed with some of Branagh’s choices. Yet Branagh continued to make the movie how he thought it should be done and honestly, I love that. I love that he stuck to his guns and made the movie he wanted and the movie he could stand beside, even if it upset others involved. And I love the outcome! I think this is a fantastic movie, and a fantastic adaptation!
There are parts where the acting is very over dramatic and took me out of the moment a couple times. But even that melodrama is fitting for the material because the characters in the book were very over dramatic and so emotional. The performances are incredible by all-Branagh as Victor, Robert de Niro as the creature, and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth. So many scenes just gave me chills!
This movie is like the creature, in that they took different parts from various Frankenstein adaptations to create their final product. The main body of course comes from the book, but they took bits and pieces from past material. I therefore can’t give them all the credit for the changes they made, because it is actually previous adaptions that each made their own adjustments. There is a three hour British version from the 1970’s which I’ve heard is very good and I would like to watch at some point.
Leading up to the creation
Getting into the actual story now, in the book and movie we see that Victor grew up in a wealthy home and at a young age they adopted a girl named Elizabeth. In both versions, his mom ends up dying-in the book she dies of scarlet fever and in the movie she dies when giving birth to William. The movie really shows how this death effected Victor and began his obsession with preventing death.
The book shows his love for Elizabeth and how it grew over time, but the movie plays this up even more. We see how his mom, and then later Elizabeth help him remember to have fun and enjoy life and not be so obsessed with work.
In both he goes away to college, but in the movie before leaving he asks Elizabeth to come with him and marry him. She says she loves him, but she needs to stay home right now. They promise to be married upon Victor’s return from school. This wasn’t in the book. By the way, in the movie there are a couple times where Victor and Elizabeth are having a romantic moment and they say something about being brother and sister. She is adopted remember, so they aren’t blood related, but it was still weird. In this moment he says, how do a brother and sister say goodbye? And then they make out. Awkward…
Creating the “monster”
In the book we learn how Victor was obsessed with certain philosophers and scientists, such as Cornelius Agrippa before he goes to college. He talks to his dad about it, and the dad just calls it rubbish and says nothing more. As it is with teenagers, when the adult shows they don’t approve of something, it makes the teenager want it all the more and that is what happens here. He later reflects that if his dad had explained how Agrippa had been disproved and had a discussion with Victor about it, rather than just tossing it aside and not giving an explanation, Victor would have been satisfied and dropped it. I thought this was a great point with kids. It’s so important to explain to them your adult reasonings, rather than just telling them no but not bothering to turn it into a teaching/learning experience for them.
Anyway, he goes to college and is a bit of a radical. The movie does an amazing job showing how he confronted different professors as he debated the hows and whys about life and death. In the movie he gets to know a professor who is also a bit of a rebel in the field because he himself had some of these thoughts’ back in the day. We find out he tried to reanimate the dead, and he shows Victor a monkey arm he reanimated. This man won’t give Victor his journals on these experiments and tells him to not probe further and it will only lead to danger.
This man ends up being killed while giving out vaccines (a staunch anti-vaxer doesn’t want to be injected and kills the professor. This man being played by Robert de Niro and he is later hung for the murder).
Victor gets his hands on this professor’s journal and can see where he went wrong and knows how he can improve on this guy’s work. He cuts down the body of the hanged man, gets other parts from graves and tombs, and gets the brain of the dead professor to use as the brain.
All of this is not in the book. Victor never tells anyone of his experiments, there was no older professor that he learned from. We don’t even hear about his digging up graves or cutting down hanged men. In the movie we also see in a way how he creates life, but in the book absolutely no descriptions are given.
In the book as he creates this person, he says how he made him bigger than your average man and that as he was working on him, he thought the creature was beautiful. However, when it becomes alive for the first time he is immediately repulsed and leaves the building in disgust. When he returns, the creature is gone and he is just like, whew what a relief! As if the creature is no longer his problem. I want to share a section from the book describing this scene,
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
In the movie, the creature is in this vat, and Victor gets him out of it and the vat spills over. The fluid inside spills everywhere and the creature and Victor are slipping around in this slime and trying to stand up. I might be making it sound funny, but it was just so gross! I read they uses a gelatin mixture to create this embryotic fluid slime stuff but yeah, that scene was gross. But he gets him to stand up, but then he gets caught in these chains and it seems like he is dead. Victor realizes this was a mistake but thinking the creature is dead anyway, goes to sleep. He wakes up when he hears the chains moving and he sees the creature. He gets an ax to kill it, but it has taken one of his cloaks and left.
In the book, he stays in school and all seems to be well. When he is done, he is getting ready to finally return home when he gets a letter telling him that his younger brother William has been killed and that Justine, a girl who worked for them who they all loved, has been accused of his murder because a locket William had been carrying was found on her and she had seemed delirious which the police found suspicious. Right away though, Victor suspects the creature is who killed William. Justine is in jail and they talk with her and even though they believe her innocence, there is nothing they can do to save her and she is killed. And I say there is nothing they could do to save her, but that isn’t true for Victor. He knows she is innocent and that his creation is the murderer, yet he sits by while Justine is charged and put to death. Ugh, stand up for her! Say something! Throughout this whole book he is feeling so sorry for himself and his situation and as his loved ones die around him, he is just so self-centered and only thinks of himself.
In the movie, before he finished the creature, there was cholera epidemic and his friend Henry Clerval and Elizabeth show up at his place, trying to get him to leave the city before is it shut down for quarantine. He refuses to leave and when Elizabeth asks to stay with him he tells her she can’t. Heartbroken, Elizabeth leaves and returns home.
After the creature escapes, he gets sick and awakes from his delirium to see Henry taking care of him and sees Elizabeth there as well. They tell him people who were out in the city have died, and Victor, assuming the creature couldn’t have survived such a disease, believes he must therefore be dead.
We then see them enjoying their time, before officially heading back home and inviting Henry to join them.
As they prepare to be married, William goes missing, his dead body is found, and the police find Justine and arrest her. The movie shows how important Justine is to the family, and here it seems she was in love with Victor but it isn’t played up too much. I hate love triangles, so I was glad they didn’t make that this huge thing.
Anyway, they rush to town and there is a mob going to the prison and they grab Justine and hang her before a trial can even be had. This makes Frankenstein more sympathetic because one, he thinks the creature is dead and doesn’t think he has anything to do with this, and two, Justine’s death was so sudden and unofficial, he really didn’t have the chance to help her in any way unlike the book.
The creature’s story
In the book, he sets out to find the creature and when they meet (2-3 years have passed by the way from the time of his creation) the creature can speak eloquently, can read and write, and is quite philosophical. He tells Victor how he hid in the woods and came upon a cottage where a family lived. He watched them from the outside and helps them in the night gather firewood and such and forms a love for this family. There is a blind man, and the blind man’s son has a wife who is from another country. They teach her how to speak French, and the creature will listen from outside and is able to learn to read and speak thanks to these lessons.
Time passes, and he decides to approach the blind man while the others are out. He tells the man of his ugly appearance which causes him to be an outcast and how he has a family he is going to get help. He is of course referencing the blind man and his family. The blind man listens, but then the family is returning and when the creature hears them walking up and grabs the blind man and tells him this is the family he spoke of and to please help him. The family walks in and sees this creature with their father/grandfather and immediately start beating him to get him out of there. The creature is beyond hurt by the cruelty and the family ends up abandoning the house to get away and the creature angrily burns the empty house.
He later sees a girl drowning and he saves her. However, her father sees him and thinks he is a threat and shoots him. The creature survives the shot, but this just furthers his hatred for people and seeks out Victor.
In the movie it is similar with the cottage people and how he helps them secretly and learns to read and write thanks to them. But one day this guy comes to get rent and the guy is a jerk and pushes the grandpa. The little girl runs to her parents to tell them. Meanwhile, the creature knocks out the man, and the blind man gets up and talks to the creature. He is kind to the creature, but then the parents walk in, the daughter had run up to them saying “he hurt grandpa” but didn’t specify who hurt him. So, when they walk in and see the creature, they assume she was talking about him and beat him. The creature is weeping as he runs away, but then finds a flower in his pocket that they had left for the ”spirit” who helped them at night. He wants to show them this, so they will know it is he who helps them and that he is harmless. But when he returns, they are gone and he burns their home. Here again, the movie made the people more likeable. In the book they hit the creature just because he is big and ugly. At least in the movie, they were under the impression that someone was harming their grandfather and therefore came prepared to defend him.
In both book and movie, Victor’s journal was in the pocket of the cloak the creature took, and that is how he knows who is his creator.
I also wanted to touch on how in the movie the creature was surrounded by death at his birth. Of course, he is made of dead body parts, but when he leaves the building, the cholera epidemic is going on and there are dead bodies in the alleys and such. I thought that was cool symbolism, showing him just being “born” yet surrounded and even made from these dead bodies.
The creature is obviously very violent, but this is due to his mistreatment. People think he is a monster, so he therefore is what they think of him. “I am whatever you say I am” attitude is a petty way to live life, but the creature wasn’t raised to know any better. Had Victor helped him from the start, who knows what he would have been like.
Wanting a friend
After the creature tells Victor his tale, he asks Frankenstein to make him a female friend. He says how even the devil has his companions, yet the creature is in this world alone. He says this great line, which is also said in the movie, “There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied int he one, I will indulge the other.”
Victor agrees to make him a friend and returns home and tells Elizabeth their wedding must continue to be postponed.
In the movie, we see more how often Elizabeth is cast aside while he does his experiments and fulfills his scientific endeavors. At this time, he tells her he promises this will he last time and then they really can be married. And remember, he isn’t actually telling her what he is doing and is keeping his future wife in the dark about it all. She tells him his promises mean nothing to her because he has broken promise after promise and says if he leaves, she will also go her own way. (Although, in the movie he sets up his lab in the attic of the house, so he isn’t actually leaving. But he is putting off his wedding, and he is going back to what drove him mad while he is away and that is what bothers Elizabeth.)
Book-creating female and the wedding night
In the book, he does go away and is with Henry just checking out the countryside and sight-seeing for a while before he gets to work.
While putting this new creature together, he starts to realize that just because the creature says the two will live in peace someplace in the woods and no longer be violent, that this new creature will have a mind of her own and who’s to say she will agree to this? How do they know she won’t be repulsed by the creature? Or, almost worse yet, what if the two do go off together and they procreate and create this race of monstrous creatures that are bigger and stronger than humans? He sees the creature watching him through a window, and as the creature watches he destroys what he has so far created. The creature comes inside and Victor tells him he will not comply. The creature then says if he doesn’t make him a companion, then he will be with Victor on his wedding night and leaves.
Victor then grabs all the parts of the female creature, puts them in a bucket thing and goes out on a boat and has the bucket of parts be sunk down at sea. He then falls asleep and when he awakes, he is on the shores of Scotland and he is taken to jail and accused for the murder of a man whose body had washed ashore overnight-the murdered man being Henry Clerval.
While is prison he gets sick and is delirious and his dad comes to his aid. He is proven innocent and his father nurses him back to health.
When he is better, the father says how he hopes to see he and Elizabeth married soon and the two go back home and plan for the wedding. Elizabeth can see Victor is distraught, and Victor says that the day after they are married, he will confess everything to her.
That would be so annoying by the way. Not only is Victor constantly being that annoying person who is like, “ugh my life is so hard, you don’t even know” but then when you ask what’s wrong they’re like, I can’t talk about. But he also says he will tell her after they are married?! And the creature says he will be there on his wedding night, and rather than thinking of Elizabeth as part of this, he is so self-obsessed that he thinks only of the danger that could happen to himself on his wedding night.
But on his wedding night he tells Elizabeth to wait for him in their room and he waits downstairs for the creature. Of course, he then hears screams and runs upstairs to see Elizabeth dead and the creature leering at him.
From here, he follows the creature to the artic, trying to capture him. When he finally gets close, he collapses of exhaustion and is found by an artic explorer Walton and he tells Walton his story.
Movie-creating female and the wedding night
In the movie, the creature brings him the body of Justine, saying he wants her to be used for the second creature. Victor is horrified at this idea and says he will not go through with it and the creature can go ahead and kill him. The creature lets him live but tells him he will be there on his wedding night.
Victor goes to Elizabeth who hasn’t’ left yet and begs her forgiveness. Elizabeth forgives him and says they will get married that very day, and tomorrow he can tell her everything. The movie making Victor more likeable yet again by having this be Elizabeth’s idea to have him wait to tell her the next day.
Victor also tells the estate about how there is a giant, disfigured man who is after them and to be on the lookout and everyone is on guard. Another smart move that Victor never does in the book. Also in the movie, his friend Henry is at least somewhat aware of what Victor had done because he too had been friends with that professor who had died.
Anyway, during their wedding night they hear something and Victor leaves to see what is happening. He then sees that the creature is in the room and rushes back in time to see the creature take Elizabeth’s heart and kill her.
Victor is in anguish over losing Elizabeth, so he takes her body to the attic where Justine’s body still is and all his equipment. Henry sees him with Elizabeth’s body and tries to stop him but Victor continues on. He then combines the bodies of Justine and Elizabeth and brings her to life. He dresses her and then dances with her as a way to help her remember. The creature than shows up and says she’s perfect. Victor says he didn’t make her for him and the two call to her, and she ends up going to the creature. While looking at the creature, she realizes she herself is sewn together and is horrified. The two fight over her, before she gets away from them both and then commits suicide by breaking a lamp over her body and the whole house goes up in flames.
When he recreates Elizabeth is such a great, disturbing scene. Making you really see the madness and the horror of what Frankenstein is doing and how is inability to accept death he instead creates this grotesque nightmare situation.
The creature and Victor escape though and as in the book, he follows the creature to the artic where he is found by Walton and tells his tale.
In book and movie, after Victor tells Walton his story he dies. In the book he is alive for a few days before dying, but in the movie, he dies right after he is done.
Also, at the start of the book Walton writes to his sister about how he craves friendship and how none of the sailors make good friends because they aren’t as smart as him and are all below him basically. When he finds Frankenstein, he finds a kindred spirit. Pretty pretentious of Walton, but an interesting connection to yet another character who felt alone and wanted companionship.
Anyway, in book and movie when they return to the cabin with Frankenstein’s dead body, they see the creature there crying over his death. He mourns the death of his creator/father and in the movie, they set up a burial mound and the creature burns himself as well as the burial mound and dies. In the book, he tells Walton he is going to kill himself and then walks off but we don’t actually see him die.
The arctic explorer
In book and movie, we see that Walton is similar to Frankenstein in his obsession and pride-wanting to achieve his goals regardless of the cost. After meeting Frankenstein, he realizes the dangers of pride and the obsession with knowledge and acclaim and in both at the end he decides to head back home rather continue on the dangerous journey. I thought this was better shown in the movie though. In the book there is a part where the men threaten mutiny if they continue on because they will most likely die. Victor then gives a motivating speech about not quitting on your goals and gets them to continue. Whereas in the movie, when this is said and Walton wants to continue despite a possible mutiny, Victor says something about how he shares the same madness and then tells his tale.
At the end of the book though he does tell Walton to live a life seeking simple happiness basically not to let his ambitions get the best of him.
Creature and Frankenstein’s connection
If this was a more modern story, there would probably be a twist revealing the creature and Victor to be one and the same. That is not the case though, however as I said earlier, I like the thought that Victor did unintentionally give part of himself to the creature in a way-perhaps part of his own soul. The creature could be a manifestation of Victor’s selfish, dark desires.
The creature kills William, Victor’s younger brother who everyone loved. Maybe he was jealous of that love William received.
He then frames Justine in order to get away with it.
He then kills Henry Clerval, the friend who was always so positive and seemed to have a perfect life. Again, wanting him dead out of jealousy and anger.
Elizabeth is then killed. His future wife who was always so forgiving and who was so pure. Maybe being around her, and the threat of having to come clean was too much for his conscious and it was easier to just have her dead.
His father also dies in both. The father that was hard to please and Victor could never be good enough (specifically in the book).
Victor and the creature also love to each play the martyr. Each one says how much they suffer and they have such a hard life and no one can understand. Maybe Victor likes to suffer and it gives him a feeling of superiority in a weird way to think he suffers more than anyone could understand. So, the creature is a self-fulfilling prophecy, to ensure he does suffer.
The Modern Prometheus
I also wanted to touch on the title of this book because it was originally given the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus”. “Prometheus is best known for defying the gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity in the form of technology, knowledge, and more generally, civilization. In some versions of the myth he is also credited with the creation of humanity from clay. Prometheus is known for his intelligence and for being a champion of humankind and is also generally seen as the author of the human arts and sciences.”
This is fitting of course, because Victor disobeys human laws and conventions by creating life in his own way. Prometheus is punished though by being tied to a tree and an eagle eats his live, then overnight his liver grows back and the next the day the eagle returns to eat it. So, he is in this cycle of eternal suffering. Frankenstein also is constantly suffering as I was just saying. His creation caused him to be continually punished.
I guess I should get to the 1930’s movies now! When people think of the story of Frankenstein, the majority of the time they think of the green creature with a square head and bolts in his neck. They think of Frankenstein digging up graves with his creepy assistant, and yelling “it’s alive, it’s alive” as lighting and thunder strike. None of this is in the book though!
Nonetheless, even though this isn’t a faithful adaptation exactly, I really enjoyed both of these Frankenstein movies. The ending of the first one makes it seem like the creature is burned in the windmill and Frankenstein is recuperating from the fight. But then they made the sequel in ’35 and we see that the creature was able to escape. The second movie is actually more like the book and we see him interact with the blind man but is then attacked when others show up. Here though, the blind man had been living alone and the creature stays with him for a day or two just hanging out and learning how to speak. There is even a touching scene where the blind man says a prayer thanking God for sending him a fiend because he had been lonely. I loved these few minutes with the blind man and the creature hanging out, smoking cigars. Can we get a spin off about the two of them as roommates/best friends??
In the first movie he had come across a young girl and the two play with through flower petals in the water. The monster, getting caught up in the game of throwing petals, then throws the girl in the water and she drowns. I was surprised at how dark this moment was, and the father then walks through town holding his dead daughter, disrupting the wedding day of Frankenstein.
But in the second movie, there is a second scientist who has heard about Frankenstein and the two pair up to make a female version. This guy is crazier than Frankenstein, but the two work together to make the bride of Frankenstein. However, this new creature is horrified by the monster and the monster than sets the lab on fire, saying he and this new creature deserve to be dead and they die along with the crazy scientist.
I really like the combination of both of these movies and love just how iconic they are and they really turned Shelley’s work into their own creation. Colin Clive was great as Frankenstein (by the way, here he is Henry Frankenstein because the studio thought “Victor” was too harsh sounding and wanted to give him a softer name). Clive struggled with alcoholism and when Bride of Frankenstein was being made, he was in rough shape but director James Whale was insistent on keeping him because he loved that unhinged way he had about him. And I mean, come on, can you imagine anyone else manically shouting out that famous line??
And of course, Boris Karloff is great as the monster. He is given a bit more to do in the second movie probably, especially since he talks in the second, but just grunts in the first movie.
The second movie does kind of beat your over the head with explaining the moral to the first story, but it’s not too surprising considering the time period.
These movies also take place in current time (the 1930’s) rather than in the 1700’s which is when the book takes place.
Book vs Movie
Honestly, I love all of these. When it comes right down to it though, I am almost tempted to say the 1994 movie wins even over the book. I like that they made Victor more likable, gave Elizabeth a bigger role, and like I said, it just really captures the insanity of Frankenstein but is also able to make him sympathetic. The creature is also sympathetic and I like that they stayed so close to the book with having him learn to speak and is so smart. De Niro really captures the creatures rage, but also his despair.
I was reminded of Blade Runner, because both have “creatures” that are man-made that are trying to understand the purpose of their existence and want to meet their maker.
The book is amazing though and I feel like it is wrong to name any movie above the source material. If you like the book, you have to watch the ’94 adaptation because it is just superb. The book too though is just amazing and I cannot believe Shelley wrote it when she was only 19?? Seriously?? Come on!