October 30 is Frankenstein Friday.
Like a lot of kids, I could not get enough of monster movies. On Saturday afternoons, I would hunker down on my living room couch to watch Creature Double-Feature on our small black-and-white TV.
I loved Godzilla, Gorgo, the giant ants of Them!, War of the Worlds, and those delightful shock-fests from England’s Hammer Studios with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
But none were better than Universal’s classics: The Creature from the Black Lagoon; Bela Lugosi as Dracula; Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man; and of course, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein. Watching Colin Clive scream, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” remains one of the most thrilling moments of movie magic ever filmed.
Those movies were so creepy because, unlike today’s horror films, they left almost everything to my imagination—and my imagination can be a whole lot scarier than anything Hollywood can dish out. It’s no wonder audiences back then found those classic monster movies shocking and truly scary.
But the beauty of a story like Frankenstein is that it succeeds on so many levels. The movie captured my imagination as a kid, but as I grew older, I began to appreciate the subtleties of Mary Shelley’s novel.
For one thing, her creature is an eloquent, thoughtful being who’s ugly but graceful. That’s a stark contrast to the lumbering Karloff, who had steel bars sewn into his costume to make him move so stiffly. Karloff’s monster barely uttered anything beyond growls and snarls, and when he does learn to speak in Bride of Frankenstein, it’s in short, choppy sentences.
More importantly, the book asks big-picture questions that are still highly relevant: Just because we have the technology to do something, should we do it? What role do ethics play in science? What is the cost of failure—and the price of success? What makes a human human?
Frankenstein raises questions about parent/child relationships, class struggle, commitment and responsibility. The text is rich with themes worthy of exploration and reflection.
We sympathize with the creature when the villagers chase it through the forest with torches and pitchforks for no reason other than they’re scared of it. After all, the creature is different. It’s not inherently evil, even though the villagers insist on casting it that way. As viewers or as readers, we feel uncomfortable at the injustice of it. The poor creature—if only they would just leave it alone!
But what’s really sad—or perhaps really horrible—is that Frankenstein happens around us every day. Angry villagers drive someone out of town just for being different: for being black or Hispanic or homosexual or foreign or poor. And when that happens, we have a tougher time seeing it for what it is and a tougher time feeling sympathy for “the creature”—especially if we’re the villagers.
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But if it sounds like too much work to engage Frankenstein on those levels, there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and letting the story capture your imagination the way it’s been capturing imaginations for nearly 200 years.
The book has never been out of print. It’s one of the most adapted pieces of literature ever written.
Movie versions include seven Universal films, including the first three with Boris Karloff; an equally long-running series from Hammer Studios, starting with Curse of Frankenstein, featuring Cushing and Lee; a version directed by and starring Kenneth Branaugh, with Robert DeNiro as the Creature; and most recently a version from Hallmark Entertainment.
There’s Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. There’s Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, Frankenstein and the Creature from Outer Space, and even Frankenhooker.
The first film version, though, came from the man who invented motion pictures, Thomas Edison. One of his first movies was a ten-minute production of Frankenstein.
There are songs written about and inspired by Frankenstein. Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” has almost-instant guitar-grinding, wawa-peddling recognizability, and Aimee Mann’s “Frankenstein” reminds listeners that “It’s rare that you ever know what to expect/from a guy made of corpses with bolts in his neck.”
And let’s not forget Herman Munster on TV, a role that made Fred Gwynn famous.
The first stage version appeared in 1823, just seven years after Mary Shelley published her book. She was excited at the chance to see her story staged. The play was such a success that it was revived in 1826, the same year the first foreign-language version of the play appeared. Today, no less than a dozen stage versions exist.
If anything can be said of Mary Shelley’s story, it’s that after nearly 200 years, it has a life of its own. “It’s alive! It’s alive!” indeed.
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Several years ago, a community theater I worked with decided to include Frankenstein as the kickoff to its tenth-anniversary season. I was immediately drawn to direct the project because of my lifelong love of the story. Of the many scripts available, we settled on one by Victor Gialanella because it sticks closely to Mary Shelley’s themes.
Other scripts tend to stray too far from Shelley’s story. One reason is that Boris Karloff’s shadow is verrry long. Almost everyone who hears the word “Frankenstein” thinks of Karloff’s flat-topped creature with bolts in its neck. As a result, most versions try too hard to go out of their way to not be like Karloff.
Shelley’s story sometimes gets sacrificed as a result. The emphasis gets shifted to the spectacle and the horror—after all, those kinds of elements make for good movies and plays because they’re exciting to see.
But the meat of Shelley’s story is in all those big-picture questions. After all, what makes each of us “us” is different. It only stands to reason that we’ll each have our own answer to the questions “Who am I? What makes me me? Where do I come from?”
Frankenstein’s creation asks this of his maker. Mary Shelley’s novel asks this of its readers.
It’s the most important question any of us can ask.
I know where at least part of me comes from, and these days, I can sometimes still be found there. Only nowadays, I am curled up on my living room couch watching old monster movies with my 9-year-old son. It’s like taking a trip down memory lane while simultaneously opening the doors of imagination.
My son got a little scared by Karloff the first time he saw Frankenstein. He and hid under a blanket, trying to decide whether it was safe to steal a peek. I chuckled.
He was just one more victim of Frankenstein’s 200-year-old legacy—just like me. Just like a lot of us.