Mary Shelley‘s gothic novel Frankenstein is a story constantly being retold — but almost never has it been retold faithfully. In 2015, we got Victor Frankenstein, the latest in screen adaptations bearing the Frankenstein name, but having little to do with the original text.
This habit of less-than-faithful adaptations of Shelley’s work goes back a long time. The history of Frankenstein adaptations is the history of hodgepodge narrative parts continually being stitched, torn, and re-stitched back together into an amalgamation of what has come before. But, when “before” is 200 years of stage and screen adaptations, source material and inspiration bleed together, and the “original” becomes distorted — like a game of temporal telephone.
But past the narrative convolution that comes with the passage of time, Frankensteinhas seemingly always been a text that eschews faithful adaptation. From the very beginning, on the stage and as one of the first films ever made, Mary Shelley’s original vision of a man and the creature he created has rarely been its own…
How Frankenstein Came to Be
For those with an interest in English literature, feminism, or the birth of modern science fiction, perhaps the story of how Frankenstein came to be is as famous as the book itself. The basic tale was first written down by an 18-year-old Mary Shelley (then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) in 1816 while she and lover/future husband Percy Shelley were visiting Lord Byron in Switzerland.
Dubbed “The Year Without a Summer,” the eruption of Mount Tambora had the Europe of 1816 in the clutches of a volcanic winter, leaving the idle group with little to do in the form of outdoor recreation while staying near Lake Geneva.
Instead, the literary colleagues took to reading German ghost stories to one another, leading to the challenge that they each pen their own ghost story. And thus, one of the first works of modern science fiction was born. Frankenstein,as a full novel,would be published anonymously two years later on New Year’s Day in 1818.
Do you Know the Story of Frankenstein?
For those unfamiliar with the source material, Frankenstein is an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister, as well as in his journal entries (it should be noted that this narrative framing very rarely makes it into screen or stage adaptations).
Glory-driven Walton is on an Arctic expedition when his crew finds a cold and broken Victor Frankenstein. They pull him aboard, and Dr. Frankenstein relays the story of the monster he created to Walton–the monster he is pursuing across the ice.
It is a story of creation and abandonment and family. The Creature is arguably much more of the heroic, sympathetic protagonist here than Frankenstein, whose sin is not in playing God (though some have made that argument) but rather in leaving his creation alone in a confusing, cruel-to-difference world.
Unlike so many of his on-screen interpretations, the Creature of the novel is eloquent, thoughtful, and — at least at first — inspired by the beauty of the natural world. Later, he uses his gift for language to articulate his anguish, telling Frankenstein, “I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?”
The First Frankenstein Plays and Movies
If none of this plot or backstory sounds familiar, it’s probably not your fault. (Well, you could read Frankenstein, which is one of those classics that holds up remarkably well.) Most screen adaptations pick and choose what they want from the original material, more often drawing inspiration from the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff than Mary Shelley.
But a full two decades before director James Whale made the iconic horror film, Frankenstein was already a movie star — in fact, the story was one of the first committed to film. Frankenstein‘sadaptation to the screen happened roughly a decade after cinema itself was invented, making this self-admittedly “liberal adaptation” from Edison Productions one of the first movies ever.
One of the notable changes form the novel in the 12-minute film is a happy ending for Frankenstein and his new wife, Elizabeth (spoiler alert: in the book, the Creature kills Elizabeth on their wedding night, and Frankenstein himself later dies on the ice. Pretty bleak).
Of course, the decision to make Frankenstein into one of Edison’s earliest motion picture productions did not happen in cultural isolation. There is an adaptation path to be traced between the publication of the novel and the creation of films like this 1910 classic and the 1931 version.
According to this Film School Rejects article, 1823 — the first year Frankenstein was adapted to the stage — had five separate plays on the stage. It was these early stage adaptations that first introduced the character of Victor Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz, who would later evolve into the Igor we know from so many later movie adaptations.
The Boris Karloff film actually drew inspiration from a 1927 stage play by Peggy Webling, rather than the novel itself. And, moving forward into the era of such classics like Young Frankensteinor not-classics like the recently-released Victor Frankenstein, one could easily argue that most subsequent Frankenstein adaptations have more to do with James Whale’s 1931 film — and its 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein — than they do with Shelley’s work.
The Most Faithful Adaptations to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Though many Frankenstein adaptations are more interested in the 1931 film or some action-oriented blockbuster (yes, I, Frankenstein,I’m looking at you), there have been attempts at a more faithful version over the years.
Kenneth Branagh took a stab at a faithful retelling of Frankensteinwith his 1994 filmMary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The movie does a slightly better job articulating the nuances of the Creature than most other adaptations, but still falls short of the mark. The film also changes the ending in a particularly jarring way, not only bringing the Creature’s bride to life, but giving her Elizabeth’s head and memories. Yikes.
Everything from the Monster’s raven hair to his loquacious love for John Milton was transferred to television in tact. However, if you’re looking for an adaptation that not only takes on the iconic character, but the full story, I would recommend the National Theatre’s stage version undertaken in 2011.
British film director Danny Boyle brought Frankenstein to the stage starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. The two well-known actors alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature every performance, creating a more literal thematic connection between the two characters. Two sides of the same coin. Two creatures eventually brought down by their guilt, hate, and anger.
The production was a relatively close adaptation of the original novel (with the problematic addition of a rape scene), and was broadcast to cinemas around the world through National Theatre Live, meaning that this adaptation, in some sense, was also a screen one.
However, the performance has yet to be released on DVD and, according to the theater, never will be if the play’s creators have anything to say about it. The Powers That Be prefer that the ephemerality of the performance be preserved. One can only hope this means Frankensteinwill find its way to cinemas again for more encore performances.
Why Does Frankenstein Resist Faithful Adaptation?
Why is Frankensteinso rarely adapted with a sense of fidelity? One need look no further than the earliest stage adaptation — Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein(1823) — to at least partially answer that question. Chris Baldick’s book In Frankenstein’s Shadowdetails how the play made great efforts to appease conservative backlash (many found the novel subversive and atheistic).
The production was nonetheless boycotted by a “friends of humanity” group, prompting the play’s management to release the following statement: “The striking moral exhibited in this story is the fatal consequence of that presumption which attempts to penetrate beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature.”
Furthermore, director Richard Brinsley Peake introduced the Frankenstein’s assistant character who “prepares the audience to interpret the tale according to received Christian notions of sin and damnation by telling them that ‘like Dr Faustus, my master is raising the devil.'”
Almost two centuries later, Daniel Radcliffe plays an incarnation of this character designed to explain to the audience how they should feel about Frankenstein’s playing God in Victor Frankenstein.
The Importance of the Female Perspective
As the daughter of anarchist philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who died 11 days after Mary’s birth), Mary Shelley was a fascinating woman, one with much to say in a culture not-so-interested in what women had to say about it.
One of the reasons Frankenstein so endures is because of its examination of the arrogance of man and the failings of a world without empathy — a theme that, of course, can be explored by anyone, but one that doesn’t seem to get a lot of play in works undertaken by privileged white men.
It seems important to note, at this point, that most of the Frankensteinadaptations (though certainly not all) have been undertaken by men who are perhaps less culturally-motivated to consider the more traditional way life is brought into this world. After all, due to the limitations Western society places on both genders, while science has historically been a man’s domain, child-rearing has, historically, been a woman’s.
Journalist Sady Doyle recently responded to Victor Frankensteindirector Paul McGuigan’s recent assertion that Mary Shelley’s original work is “dull as dishwater,” by outlining the convincing theory that Mary Shelley wrote Frankensteinas a sort of revenge for her sister Fanny (given name: Frances), who was abused for being illegitimate and eventually killed herself, writing in her suicide note: “You will soon forget there was ever such a creature as…”
There are many interpretations of the Frankenstein story — many of them autobiographically-based. This is one of the reasons it is such a good story. But a parent’s neglect and the toll it plays not only on the child, and everyone in his life, is certainly a central one. And one that is often neglected in Frankenstein adaptations in favor of exploring the themes of science, nature, and man’s hubris specifically in relation to his work. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but the latter is often valued over the former.
It is perhaps easy to look at Frankenstein,and its two male protagonists, and to adapt it with little attention to the importance of women and other socially-devalued characters in the story. After all, they are all periphary characters. But they are the characters who suffer the most. Or at least the ones who suffer the most with the least amount of power to change their fates.
Victor and his Creature are constantly suffering, but they have created their own suffering and have many chances to alter their own destinies. Elizabeth and the Creature’s female companion are never granted that same power.
The Future of Frankenstein Adaptations
As this Den of Geek article points out, faithfulness does not equate to quality. Some of the most faithful screen adaptations of books are the worst, while some of the least faithful adaptations can become something better. There are too many variables involved, too many possible permutations to make sweeping generalizations. And, in the world of Frankenstein adaptations, for example, Whale’s 1931 film remains the classic, one that continues to influence culture in its own important ways.
However, it would be nice to get a modern Frankensteinadaptation that is more readily available than Danny Boyle’s stage version and more complete than Penny Dreadful‘s Creature — if only for all the high school English teachers who need something to show when they are out sick.
Sadly, as far as I know, there are currently no faithful Frankensteinadaptations in the works. What is happening in the Frankensteinadaptation world? Recently, a whole lot of biopics about Mary Shelley. In 2017, Elle Fanning played the author in Mary Shelley, a conventional biopic that told the story of the relationship between the young author and Percy Shelley, as well as the ways in which Mary Shelley felt out of step with her time. The film boasted a female writer, Emma Jensen, female producers, and a female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadja).
Elsewhere, HBO Max has ordered a series called The Shelley Society from Riverdale/Sabrina showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The series will depict a young version of Mary Shelley, who moonlights as a hunter of monsters and supernatural threats (including a manifestation of Mary’s own literary creation, Frankenstein’s Monster).
Perhaps a continued interest in Mary Shelley’s fascinating life will eventually drum up some excitement for a more faithful retelling of her most famous story. In the mean time, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got: one of the best genre novels of the last few centuries.