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Literary Essays on Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

— from Mary Shelley to M. R. James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Top Film Adaptations of Frankenstein: from the Early Icons to Dark Re-imaginings

Like his peers Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein's Creature has been featured extensively in film – both adaptations of the source novel and as a stock character in original plots: over eighty unique films in total. The following is an annotated list of the most notable adaptations.


THE EARLY ICONS


Frankenstein.

1910, starring Charles Ogle and Augustus Philips.



This silent film was the first adaptation of the story, produced by Edison Studios. Running at 14 minutes, it’s a quick watch. The plot includes Jekyll/Hyde elements and features some clever use of the Doppelganger motif.



Frankenstein.

1931, starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, and Mae Clarke.



As much as I would like to eviscerate this film for eternally associating the Creature with a bumbling, flatheaded ogre, the movie is a cinematic masterpiece, highlighting themes of otherness, scientific ethics, and isolation vs. human fellowship. Karloff’s mute performance -- deeply vulnerable and childlike in spite of his grotesque appearance -- and that of Clive’s egomaniacal “Henry” Frankenstein are superb. James Whale’s beautiful photography pulls ably from German expressionism, and his vision is startlingly forward thinking.



The Bride of Frankenstein.

1935, starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, and Elsa Lanchester.



Opening with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester, who doubles as the venomous Mate), Percy, and Lord Byron huddled together during a lightning storm, this sequel is even better than the original, following the Creature’s development from stupid brute to brokenhearted reject. This plot wrings out some of the novel’s best subtext, delves deeply into its themes of social otherness, and is considered a queer masterpiece for its exploration of gender, use of camp, and exploration of sexual isolation and otherness. Of all the films listed here, this is the best piece of cinema: it is beautiful, deeply spiritual, thematically inventive, and tragic from start to finish. Here we see Karloff's Creature reach his pathetic apotheosis.


OTHER NOTABLE UNIVERSAL ADAPTATIONS:

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)


STYLISH RE-IMAGININGS


The Curse of Frankenstein.

1957, starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing,

and Hazel Court.



Following several Universal sequels, this Hammer Film was the first serious attempt to adapt the novel since Karloff. Hammer’s first color film was controversial for its gore, brutality, and amorality. Lee’s grotesque Creature was less relatable than Karloff’s, and Cushing’s Victor was more of a rational sociopath than Clive’s raving psychopath, which more accurately reflects Shelley’s disturbing, narcissistic protagonist.


OTHER NOTABLE HAMMER ADAPTATIONS:

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)


Frankenstein: The True Story.

1973, starring Michael Sarrazin, Leonard Whiting,

and Jane Seymour.



Though extremely loosely adaptated from Shelley, this teleplay is worth watching for its unique perspective, partially derived from The Picture of Dorian Gray: the Creature begins as a beautiful man, his beauty deteriorating with time into gruesome ugliness. The Creature is shocked and hurt by Victor’s coldness towards him as he loses his looks, and turns to Victor’s less scrupulous mentor (James Mason) in order to revive the corpse of a woman he frightened to death (Seymour) into a Mate.


Young Frankenstein.

1974, starring Peter Boyle, Gene Wilder, and Marty Feldman.



Mel Brooks’ comic masterpiece is a loving homage to the black and white Universal films – especially The Bride of Frankenstein and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. It is a hilarious but devoted rendition of the story which takes a surprisingly sentimental turn towards the end. Gene Wilder recreates Basil Rathbone’s role in Son: a reluctant descendent of Victor who revives the monster with the help of a wise-craking hunchback (“Eye-gor”) played by Marty Feldman.



DARK, TRAGIC, AND EROTIC REASSESSMENTS


Gothic.

1986, w/ Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands, & Timothy Spall /

Rowing with the Wind.

1988, w/ Elizabeth Hurley, Lizzy McInnemy, & Hugh Grant /

Haunted Summer.

1988, w/ Philip Anglim, Alice Krige, & Laura Dern.



All three of these late ‘80s movies adapt the events which lead to the writing of Frankenstein: the Shelley/Byron excursion to Geneva in the dismal summer of 1816. Gothic is a deeply Freudian nightmarescape with brilliant visuals and powerful acting that includes a seance gone awry in which the party give birth to their own worst fears and rapidly descend into disfunction and paranoia; Rowing with the Wind depicts the Creature as Mary’s dark brain child who materializes into the real world and visits her as an omen of death -- robbing her of her friends from the the Geneva excursion one by one; Haunted Summer blends the themes of the previous two films into a psychological romance. Only Rowing With the Wind includes the Creature as a character. All three are especially quirky and uncomfortable to watch, exploring the tension -- romantic, emotional, and resentful -- between a close group of libertine friends who claim to believe that "anything goes," but who are forced to confront the painful reality of their free-spirited worldviews when they are shut up in a house together over a miserable summer. Not unlike Victor Frankenstein, they learn all too late that a life dedicated to the seemingly enlightened ideals of libertine individualism, self-pleasure, and moral relativity is not without its victims.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

1994, starring Robert De Niro, Kenneth Brannagh,

and Helena Bonham-Carter.



Trying to springboard from the success of 1993’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this lushly produced adaptation was crafted with passion for the source material but falls flat for a variety of reasons, primarily – as the disappointed screenwriter noted – due to “no patience for subtlety... it’s big, loud and blunt” Indeed, the film is heavy handed, unnecessarily intense, and wildly melodramatic (just watch the short clip above). Worth watching due to its obvious desire to do honor to Shelley’s novel, and for Brannagh’s on-point acting.


Frankenstein.

2004, starring Luke Gross, Alec Newman,

and Donald Sutherland.



This Hallmark teleplay is the single most accurate version of Shelley’s novel which has ever been filmed – as a result it is somewhat boring, not terribly horrific, and undeniably long. But the soul of the novel is intact – a rare thing to encounter in adaptations of the text. Luke Gross’ Creature deserves particular mention: no more accurate rendition has ever been performed – with long black hair, dry yellow skin, and androgynous features, this tormented, sensitive loner is every bit the philosopher that Shelley envisioned, with none of the bizarre grotesquerie that Karloff and Lee introduced to pop culture. It also sticks amazingly close to the actual plot, and carries with it the unique emotional atmosphere of Shelley's novel: one softly touched by quiet tragedy and Homeric pathos. If you teach Frankenstein in an English class, show Hallmark’s faithful version.


The 2010s have witnessed a number of unique adaptations which I will merely note in passing:




These include 2014’s regrettable I, Frankenstein (Aaron Eckhart and Aden Young), wherein the hip and hunky Creature fights off an army of demons;2015’s gritty, in-your-face Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy as Victor and Daniel Radcliffe as the protagonist, a reimagined version of Igor); and the brilliant, critically acclaimed Penny Dreadful series (2014) where the raven-haired, soulful Creature is accurately depicted by Rory Kinnear.


#frankenstein #films #gothicnovels