CONTACT US    |
HOME|
        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 a story that might be ideal 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 interpreted and this is clear with the two films selected for classroom discussion.  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. 



How a Loose Film Adaptation Can Succeed: Comparing "Frankenstein" (1931) to "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994)
As Caroline Picart notes, "The Universal series, and in particular Whale's films, bear the stamp of German Expressionism with their atmospheric and symbolic settings" (24).  While Universal's "monster" films would vary in their use of Expressionist elements, Frankenstein is full of them whether it's the sharply angled steps of the watchtower, the heavily angled cell the Creature is imprisoned in, or the long shadow the Creature casts in one of his earliest scenes.  This is not a surprise as "the films that most influenced the look of Whale's Frankenstein were Paul Wegener's The Golem (1914 and 1920), Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and Hands of Orlac (1925) and perhaps not surprisingly in its portrayal of technology pitted against archetypal values, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926)" (Gerblinger 2).   All of the aforementioned films were very Expressionistic.   For example, the scene where Fritz breaks into the university to steal a brain is reminiscent of Nosferatu with Fritz casting a long shadow as he skulks about the auditorium, just as Count Orlok did when he climbed the stairs, staling his prey.

        American producers were astonished when they saw the effect that Expressionism could create.  Universal's owner Carl Laemmle brought many European directors (Expressionism began in Europe, primarily Germany) with him to Universal (Laemmle would gift the film studio to his son Carl Laemmle Jr. who in turn would go on to make the studio's iconic monster films). The Expressionist elements of angles and shadows would be seen in several of the Universal monster films.   For American audiences unfamiliar with Expressionism, this must have been astounding and it surely contributed to spooky atmosphere of Expressionist films.

        As historian Rudy Behlmer notes in the film commentary, Hollywood films were usually shot in high-key lighting (aka flat lighting). This created a bright effect in order to let audiences see everything that was going on.  It could also be used to show a happy mood.   In Frankenstein, there are scenes of happiness and scenes of joy that give the audience time to recover from the horror they have seen.   One such scene is after Henry has returned home and is recovering from the shock of his experience with the Creature.   He and Elizabeth share a romantic moment in their yard, discussing marriage and leaving the audience to wonder if they can find happiness.   In this scene, the mood in this pastoral scene is heightened by the bright light.

        Whale also uses the combination of high key lighting and a pastoral scene to manipulate the audience's emotions.   In one scene, a young girl is sitting by a lake, a picture of a happy pastoral life.   However when the Creature shows up, the audience has to wonder what will happen as the Creature killed Dr. Waldman in an earlier scene.  As the scene progresses, the audience sees the Creature happily playing with the young girl by throwing flower petals into the lake where they float.   This playful scenario turns to horror when the Creature throws the girl into the lake, not knowing that this will kill her.   The bright pastoral scene conflicts with what we have just seen, showing that the Creature does not belong in this world, even though this is no fault of his own.

 Here, James Whale departs from the Expressionist style he uses for much of Frankenstein and uses flat lighting.   This creates a bright cheery atmosphere which contrasts with the unease the audience must feel at the sight of the Creature with a young girl.
Whale's filming techniques consist of more than just the use of Expressionist techniques.   The scene where the Creature appears for the first time utilizes clever shooting to achieve the perfect combination of build-up and release.   At first, the audience only hears the Creature's footsteps.  The Creature is seen from behind and then slowly turns to reveal his face.   Whale uses a close-up to show us his face then an even closer shot to display more of the Creature.   However after that, the next few scenes involving the Creature are medium to long-shots which tantalize the audience.

        Whale's loose interpretation of the novel makes for an interesting film, particularly in his focus on how the Creature is made.   Shelley left the details of the Creature's creation very vague, particularly its animation.   However in Frankenstein we see details of Henry Frankenstein and assistant Fritz' efforts to build the Creature, ranging from their retrieval of a hanged man to Fritz' bungled theft of a brain.  Both scenes are creepy and I can only imagine what they were like to a film-going audience who were not used to horror films as contemporary audiences are.  This builds up to the famous scene where Henry brings the dead body parts he has assembled to life using an elaborate electrical process.  The highlight of this process is the chilling scene where Henry Frankenstein looks at the Creature's hand, waiting for any sign of life.   The camera cuts to the Creature's hand and shows it moving.   Henry then utters his unforgettable lines "It's alive!   In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God".

James Whale considered the creation scene to be the most important scene of the film (Behlmer).   According to Sir Christopher Frayling, Whale felt he had to convince the audience that the Creature's animation was believable or the film would be ruined.
    James Whale's version of Frankenstein looks great despite the technological limitations of the time.  Frankenstein's special effects hold up well, even by today's standards.  Of note are the electrical effects by Kenneth Strickfaden.   Strickfaden would reproduce these effects for future Frankenstein films as well as other films, well into the 1970's (even utilizing them as part of the rock group KISS' stage show).  Another one of the film's strength are the make-up effects.  As noted in "The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster", Make-up artist Jack Pierce cemented his reputation by creating the Creature's make-up for Boris Karloff.   Make-up effects were much more limited when Pierce created the make-up for the Creature but that did not stop him from creating an American icon.   Pierce's work at Universal would continue as he created monster effects for films like The Mummy and The Wolfman.  His work continues to inspire make-up artists to this day.   Charlie D. Hall's art direction on the film created sets that would become a brand image for Universal's monster films (Frayling).     

        Cultural norms could have been a problem for James Whale but instead, he challenged them with Frankenstein.  The film contained several disturbing scenes despite the Production Code of 1930.   At the time, horror films hadn't caught on yet in America, and the physical horror depicted in Frankenstein was new to American filmgoers (Frayling). Although the Production Code had gone into effect in 1930, it would not be strictly enforced until 1934.  This allowed Whale to include a scene of Henry proclaiming he knew what it was like to be God, a scene where the Creature is pierced with a hypodermic needle, and a scene where the Creature throws a young girl into a lake, accidentally killing her.   Several years later, Frankenstein was re-released and the above-mentioned scenes were cut.   It should be noted that even in 1931, some regions of the United States censored certain portions of the film (due to states and municipalities having censor boards of their own) and in some cases, the film was even banned in overseas markets (Behlmer).  

        Frankenstein remains a film classic and while it may have lost some of the scariness that horrified audiences in 1931, it is an entertaining film thanks to James Whale's use of Expressionist filming techniques, clever directing, and great visual effects.   Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an entertaining film but I prefer Whale's 1931 version.


WORKS CITED:

Behlmer, Rudy. Audio commentary. Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perfs.  
     Colin Clive, Mae Clark, John Boles, Boris Karloff.  1931. Universal 
     Studios, 2014.

Frankenstein.
Dir. James Whale. Perfs. Colin Clive, Mae Clark, John Boles,
    Boris Karloff. 1931. DVD. Universal Studios, 2014.

"The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster". (Supplementary 
     material on DVD release of Frankenstein). 2002. DVD. Universal Studios, 
     2014.

Frayling, Sir Christopher. Audio commentary. Frankenstein. Dir. James
    Whale. Perfs. Colin Clive, Mae Clark, John Boles, Boris Karloff.  1931.
    Universal Studios, 2014.

Gerblinger, Christiane. "James Whale's Frankensteins: re-animating the Great
War." CineAction. 82-83 (2011): 2+. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Apr.
 2015.

Heffernan, James A.W., " Looking at the Monster: 'Frankenstein' and Film"
        Critical Inquiry. Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 133-158. Jstor
        Web. 14. Apr. 2015.

Kuhn, Annette, and Guy Westwell. "Expressionism." A Dictionary of Film
       Studies. : Oxford University Press, 2012. Oxford Reference. 2012. Date 
       Accessed 17 Apr. 2015.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perfs. Robert DeNiro,
       Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham Carter. 1994. DVD. Sony Pictures
      Home Entertainment, 1998.

Picart, Caroline Joan S. "Visualizing the Monstrous in Frankenstein Films."
       Pacific Coast Philology. Vol. 35. No. 1 (2000) 17-34. Jstor. Web. 14
       Apr. 2015.