Classics Month II, or, It’s alive….ALIVE!

by TheLitCritGuy

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Br...

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein’s monster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Firstly let me get this out of the way as early as possible in order not to affect the rest of this week’s post. I’m not quite sure how to put this but….




The more sharp eyed may have put two and two together and realised that this week’s blog title fits with this theme and really quite nicely with today’s book, the classic Gothic horror novel from 1818, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Now in order to make this one a little special, this comeback blog is mixing things up a little, with not one, but two films under discussion, just as little treat to those of you who have stuck with the blog in the last few weeks whilst I haven’t done anything.

So here it is people! Frankenstein (1818) vs. Frankenstein (1931) vs. Frankenstein (1994)

Let’s begin with the book, as per usual I’m going to do my best to avoid any major spoilers but this is really one of those that you should have already read and so I hope that anything I can come up with is more jogging your memory rather than telling you something completely new. Ready? Then here we go…

The book is written in an epistolary style, somewhat unusually for the turn of the 1800’s as the more technically sophisticated third person style was starting to gain traction. Basically this means that we as readers encounter the story at a step removed. The novel opens in a letter written by a sea Captain, Robert Walton, who is writing to his sister back in England detailing his adventures in the North Pole in order further his scientific knowledge and in the hope of gaining some fame. The expedition, after glimpsing a mysterious figure in the snow comes across a man on the ice, bring him aboard and his story is told to the captain, who then relates it to his sister and thus to the reader.

The man is a Swiss scientist called Victor Frankenstein raised in a wealthy family in Geneva with his adopted sister Elizabeth. After his mother dies of scarlet fever Victor goes to university and becomes a scientist. Here, he discovers the secret of re-animating the dead and it is here that he creates the famous monster. In a classic ‘man shouldn’t play God’ moment Victor is horrified by what he has done and needs to be nursed back to health by his friend Henry. The rest of the novel revolves around this idea of the monster seeking Victor’s acceptance, Victor’s rejection of his own creature and the two vow destruction on each other.  It is brutal, costing Victor his best friend, his younger brother, his wife and even his father whereas the monster knows nothing but pain instead of love and that experience turns him into monster that he becomes.

A novel as rich in ideas as this one was initially not as successful as you might think, the literary star-maker of the day, Sir Walter Scott, called it a work of genius whereas the Quarterly Review labelled it ‘a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity,’ But quality will win out and the book swiftly established itself into the classics canon with its rich ideas, imagination and technical skill so it was only a matter of time before different mediums came calling.

So in 1931 the first major adaptation of the novel was released and if you know nothing about the book I can almost guarantee that his film informs what you know about the monster. Boris Karloff has gone down in cinema history in his portrayal of the monster, with his blank eyes, lumbering gait and the famous neck bolts. The plot is also a little different – Henry Frankenstein and his faithful assistant Fritz, bring the monster to life. Due to Fritz’s incompetence the monsters brain has been taken from a criminal. Simplifying the plot of the novel a great deal the film ends with the classic scene of the monster trapped in the windmill that is burned to the ground. As one of the first great horror movies it has become part of modern cultural history and been incredibly influential on film making. After all, you can tell if a film has made it when Mel Brooks makes a movie based on it.

Yet as an adaptation?

Well…it isn’t great. The plot is stitched together from the novel’s synopsis and it avoids the more nuanced approach that the book sets up in favour of an easy morality tale. That being said I feel uncomfortable laying into this film too much. Karloff gives a seminal performance and the film is a lot of fun to watch, particularly if you have any familiarity with the tropes of horror movies. The classic line of ‘its….ALIVE’ is just as fun as you think and though the plot is simple it still manages to generate a surprising amount of pathos.  With a certain application of retro nostalgia it is a whole lot of cheesy and enjoyable horror movie fun but in comparison with the book this film feels insubstantial and intellectually light-weight.

With this criticism in mind let me turn to the next adaptation, this time from 1994. To avoid the fairly merited accusation of me being a rabid fanboy I should fess up as quickly as I can. Yet again, Kenneth Branagh will be making an appearance here once more. As someone with a background in the classic dramatic position Branagh is no stranger to the challenge of fitting works from one medium into a new one. He takes the director’s chair here for the 1994 version and I think I may have already said too much about Branagh as a director in my Thor review, but I will try and say something new here. Obviously this is much more a retelling than the earlier film and the period detailing and costume is as accurate as you would expect it be.

The cast is, aside from one major problem that I will return to later, uniformly excellent. Branagh has the necessary flourishes of melodrama and gravitas to convince as Victor and Helena Bonham Carter does great work as Elizabeth.  The supporting cast features Ian Holm and John Cleese among others and they are all top-notch. What’s nice about the film, clearly a labour of love for it’s director, is that it makes the attempt to engage with the issues and intellectual themes of the novel such as the idea of nature vs. nurture, the nature of humanity and how who we are is affected by those around us. Whilst it may not manage it successfully all the time the fact that a horror film tries to engage with something deeper than, ‘oh…SCARY’ is something to be applauded.

At the top of the last paragraph I made it clear that there was an elephant I the room with this film and one that has to be addressed. Whereas with the 1931 had possibly the classic movies monster, this film has Robert De Nero. Yes. Robert De Nero. In makeup. As a monster. I cannot begin to express what a colossal piece of miscasting this is. Now, this isn’t to say that De Nero is bad, far from it. But for someone who is supposed to inspire terror just by his very appearance De Nero just doesn’t cut it. And for this movie, with the amount of screen time that De Nero gets this is a major flaw in the film.

In the films defence this is partly because of the films desire to explore the humanity of the creature and grapple with the philosophical issues in the novel. Whether that is enough to make up for the monster being, well, not that much a monster, is up to the viewer to decide.

I hope what has come through is that this novel is dependent upon ideas rather than action. A big, bold, plot driven story that uses the revenge storyline as a means to discuss the issues that interested the novel’s young and breathtakingly talented author. To say which film is better or worse is a little reductionist of me though in terms of which is truer to the book I would probably side with the 1994 version. Though if you haven’t seen these films, make sure you check out both of them.

I know, I know, I should have split more hairs here, that was what you were expecting. I must be a little rusty, but don’t worry – I’ll get back into it.

Anyway, I guess it’s just good to be back!