It was a dark and stormy night. Really. It was the summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, a site previously visited by literary giants like Milton, Rousseau, and Voltaire and a retreat to which another generation of literary greats had gathered for what some have called the most famous house party in literary history. Among the friends were Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley (Percy’s wife). In response to a mutual dare to write a ghost story, Mary Shelley wrote the legendary novel, Frankenstein (published 1818). She was only 19.
The novel was an immediate success. Ironically, almost anticipating the transformation that the story would undergo in the 20th century, the first dramatic production of the tale, Presumption, was produced on stage in 1823 and the first parody version was produced in 1825 as Frank and Steam. In 1910, it was first adapted for the screen in a silent short produced by Thomas Edison.
The most famous film version of Frankenstein is, of course, James Whale’s 1931 production, which made Boris Karloff an international star and gave the viewing public an imposing image that cast a shadow across the 20th century. The meticulous craftsmanship of the film’s composition and storytelling launched the career of Whale as a major director. The classic film is important in the chronology of visual arts — City Lights, the Charlie Chaplin silent masterpiece, was released the same year, and the sound effects incorporated into the film created an audio revolution. The visual effects of the film were the creation of makeup master, Jack Pierce. Pierce explained that he “built an artificial square-shaped skull, like that of a man whose brain had been taken from the head of another man.” He fixed wire clamps over Karloff’s lips, painted his face blue-green, which photographed a corpse-like grey, and glued two electrodes to Karloff’s neck. The wax on his eyelids was Karloff’s idea. “We found the eyes were too bright, seemed too understanding, where dumb bewilderment was so essential. So I waxed my eyes to make them heavy, half-seeing”, Karloff explained. The entire monster’s costume weighed over 40 pounds.
“It was on a dreary night in November.” So begins chapter 4 of the novel, and this marks the starting point for most of the film adaptations of the story. With the exception of the 1994 film by Kenneth Branagh, all the Frankenstein movies focus on the creation of the monster rather than the reflections of the creator on what he has done as he faces the consequences resulting from his creation. However, even as the film sensationalizes the horror of a creature, assembled from body parts robbed from graves, animated by the raw power of natural energy harnessed by the cleverness of scientific machinery, a central theme from the novel cannot entirely be masked.
Shelley deliberately parallels Victor Frankenstein as creator with God as Creator. As we watch the creature jolted to reanimated life, we ask not only: Is this possible? but: Should this be done? Frankenstein offers these words of warning in the novel: Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Frankenstein is indeed a myth for modern times. The science hinted at in the novel and caricatured in the film seems to be a looming possibility in our present generation. Certainly the ethical questions are still with us: To what end should scientific knowledge be used? The film depicts the all-too-common reality that our good intentions in justifying our bold and reckless use of power and knowledge often go awry, resulting not in the good we had anticipated but the evil that we feared.
The story inescapably poses another question: Is the monster human? Each of the several Frankenstein films struggle with the degree of humanness and subsequent empathy that a humanized monster would evoke. What is the source of his evil? It’s interesting to note that the novel and the film deal with these questions quite differently. Shelley’s Romantic ideals frame the monster’s evil as the result of his cruel treatment (not his nature, but his nurture) — even though hideous externally, he could have been good if he had been treated with compassion. The film versions, however, make the monster intrinsically evil — he is corrupt because his very parts are corrupt, and as an irredeemable beast he can only be destroyed.
Frankenstein’s creation is nameless. But the corruption and evil that we face in our real lives is not nameless. Perhaps one of the questions that the movie invites us to ask is: What name will we give to the things of life, even the things of our own creation, that have gone horribly wrong? Those things that we have attempted with noble and sincere aspiration, but in the end are not what we had hoped they would be? Dare we ask: Who is the monster?