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Frankenstein at the movies: Bad parents, problem children

From high tragedy to slapstick comedy, 'Frankenstein' has remained a favourite with film-makers through the decades

A still from ‘Bride Of Frankenstein.’ Photo: Alamy
A still from ‘Bride Of Frankenstein.’ Photo: Alamy

Among the many ways of looking at Frankenstein, and by “Frankenstein" one necessarily means not just Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking book but what that book birthed over 200 years—as other authors, playwrights, theatre producers and film-makers prodded away at it, moving body parts around in their sinister laboratories—here is one interpretation. It is about terrible and unhappy parents, terrible and unhappy children, and how, to misquote Philip Larkin, we pass misery back and forth.

You’re Victor Frankenstein, you think you’ve done your best, but here’s this monster you created, which refuses to be what you hoped it would be. Worse, it turns around and blames you for everything that’s wrong. Look at the Paradise Lost line—Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay, To mould me Man?—which serves as an epigraph for Shelley’s novel, and then listen to director Guillermo del Toro, who is currently working on a Frankenstein film: “It’s the quintessential teenage book. You don’t belong. You were brought to this world by people that don’t care for you and you are thrown into a world of tears and hunger."

Most parent-child relationships, when looked at over a period of time, bring high tragedy and slapstick comedy together in the same frame. Little wonder then that cinematic Frankensteins have inhabited every mode from deep seriousness to goofy, pseudo-science-driven humour—and that the most enduring films accommodate both extremes.

Consider one of the most effective scenes, gentle, idyllic and horrifying all at once, in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Boris Karloff’s monster comes across a little girl, joins her in placing flowers on a lake’s surface and watching them float—and then, in all innocence, dunks her into the water too, causing her death. So iconic was this moment—often censored in early screenings—that 40 years later the Spanish director Víctor Erice made it the focal point of his coming-of-age narrative The Spirit Of The Beehive: the six-year-old protagonist Ana is traumatized when she watches the scene; in the days that follow, she becomes aware of subtler monsters in her own world.

Or see Whale’s 1935 sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein, in which Karloff’s plaintiveness—as the monster yearns for a companion who will love and understand him—brushes up against Elsa Lanchester’s brief but delightfully lunatic performance as his bride-not-to-be (the actress also played an impish Mary Shelley in a short scene).

Those are still the two best-known Frankenstein films, and to modern eyes they can seem creaky and overwrought. Taking cues from theatre adaptations staged in Mary Shelley’s lifetime, they turned Victor Frankenstein into the prototype of the mad scientist, shrieking that he knows what it’s like “to be God" (in the book he is a diligent, conscientious man). But Karloff’s performance helps erase some of the differences. While the creature in Shelley’s novel gains in eloquence and dignity once he learns to use language, the “dumb" movie monster is sympathetic by other means, conveying childlike pathos through his gestures and expressions. In fact, one can argue that in the broader-comedy scenes where he grunts words—the refrain of “Good! Good!" when an old hermit makes him taste bread and wine—he becomes less likable.

A still from ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’. Photo: Alamy

Of course, there are other films where the monster is not meant to be at all likable—see the 1957 Curse Of Frankenstein, starring those two masters of the Hammer Horror franchise, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and watch Lee play the role as a deformed, inexpressive zombie, starting with the shocking moment where he rips the bandages off his face as the camera zooms in on him.

Another dominant mode is that of parody mixed with affection for the source material. Mel Brooks’ 1974 Young Frankenstein, shot in atmospheric black and white, has madcap scenes like the one where the doctor’s assistant brings along a brain labelled “Abnormal"—thinking it belonged to someone named “Abbie Normal"—but the film also understands the sense of wonder and danger that permeates the original story. This is equally true of three 1980s films—Gothic, Haunted Summer and Rowing With The Wind—which aren’t straight renderings of the Frankenstein tale but dramatize the famous 1816 summer house party involving the Shelleys and Lord Byron, where both Frankenstein and the John Polidori horror story The Vampyre were conceived.

And, of course, there are “serious" Frankenstein movies, which usually err on the side of earnestness. Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set out to be faithful to the book, in a way the Karloff films never did, but the promise was marred by half-hearted execution—and ironically its best moments were the more inventive ones such as the scene where the naked creature (played by Robert De Niro, channelling a middle-aged Travis Bickle) slips about like a newborn baby in what looks like amniotic fluid.

Frankenstein is often regarded as the first true science-fiction novel, and this perception has become increasingly relevant in our time, where Artificial Intelligence has taken on forms that Mary Shelley couldn’t have envisioned. The idea of an imitation human being more humane in some ways than the flesh-and-blood people around him is a theme that has informed a lot of modern sci-fi about automatons: from the replicants in Blade Runner to the 1999 Bicentennial Man (adapted from Isaac Asimov’s The Positronic Man) and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (based on Brian Aldiss’s Supertoys Last all Summer Long, and often seen as a futuristic version of the Pinocchio story).

But it’s just as instructive to go back in time, to two decades before the Karloff films, when a 12-minute Frankenstein was made by Thomas Edison’s studio in 1910. Watching this relic (you’ll find it on YouTube) is like getting into a time machine: given that the world of the Shelleys seems so impossibly distant to us today, it’s unsettling to realize that the Edison film is closer in time (a mere 92 years) to the publication of the book than to our present day.

What I find fascinating about that ancient film—as a cinema student and as someone who thinks of the Frankenstein story as being rooted in honest scientific curiosity—is how much it does with the very limited motion-picture technology of the time. For instance, for the challenging scene in which the monster comes alive, a wax replica of a skeleton was placed in a vat and set afire until it dissolved and crumpled. They then played the film backward, so that the impression we get is of something hideous being forged out of fire and sitting upright after its limbs have formed.

To watch that scene is to think of the imagination and daring required of early film-makers when they wanted to do something more ambitious than simply record reality. One could say those pioneers were kindred spirits of Victor Frankenstein, tinkering in their workshops until their children grew and became something vast and uncontrollable, slipping out of their godlike hands.

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