Frankenstein - The Legacy
Created | Updated Jul 11, 2011
The Formative Years | The Decadent Days | The Marriage | The Widow | Frankenstein - The Legacy
When Mary Shelley originally penned her most famous novel, she couldn't possibly have foreseen how her creation would linger so long after her own death. The novel Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus was, at the time, about the leading edge of science and its moral implications - among very many other things. However, while it was slammed by many as being immoral and inappropriate for many reasons, it almost immediately captured the imaginations of the literati. Today the popular press still refer to Frankenstein to depict the archetypal mad scientist or indeed his monstrous creation. However, this Entry isn't about the 'actual' Frankensteins in our midst, but discusses the various incarnations which have appeared in the almost 200 years since his inception. Frankenstein through the generations, if you like.
In The Beginning
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was Victor Frankenstein, and he was to a large extent based on her beloved husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The monster that Victor created in his lab was articulate, sensitive and a murderer. The people who read this tale of misadventure were quick to appreciate the melodrama and before long Frankenstein was destined for the theatre.
The first adaptation was Presumption: or The Fate of Frankenstein, by Richard Brinsley1 Peake, which appeared only five years after the novel's publication. The monster in this production was played by established actor Thomas Potter Cooke and, since it was written to fill seats, went through some considerable changes. This was, despite mixed reviews, a very successful show, and that success led William Godwin to publish the second edition of the book in the same year.
This initial production also enticed Mary Shelley to the theatre to see her creation on its first outing, but she was less than impressed by this adaptation. Mary felt that Peake had reduced the monster to a crude shadow of his literary self and it is believed that this was the only time she revisited Frankenstein's monster.
It was just the first adaptation of many, however, and Henry M Milner's The Man and The Monster in 1826 gave us what is arguably one of the most well-known lines from Frankenstein, although it never appears in the book.
It does indeed live, to date there have been over one hundred adaptations, both melodramatic and comedic, of this teenager's 'waking dream'.
So who was the first person to play Frankenstein in a motion picture?
It was Charles Ogle, and he can be seen in the Edison Studios motion picture Frankenstein, but only rarely. The one surviving copy of this 1910 silent film is held by a private collector in Massachusetts, USA, and much to the delight of the true connoisseur, he shows it annually2. This film was, in 1980, thought to be lost forever when the American Film Institute declared that it was one of the top ten most culturally and historically significant lost films.
All this is fine and dandy, but the most enduring image of Frankenstein's monster is that in James Whale's 1931 film starring English actor William Henry Pratt, who made a name for himself as Boris Karloff. The movie was an adaptation of Peggy Webling's 1927 play Frankenstein: An adventure in the Macabre and it really brought home the coming of age of the horror movie genre. Universal had been making horror flicks for some time, and when they bought the rights for this movie they envisaged Lon Chaney playing the monster. Lon, however, didn't much fancy the part since the monster's dialogue is non-existent. Their other big star Bela Lugosi screen-tested for the part, but he didn't quite have the physical power to carry it off, so Boris stepped up to the plate and, with the assistance of make-up by Jack Pierce, gave us all one of the most iconic images of 20th Century horror.
In the ensuing 15 years Universal's Frankenstein became almost a caricature of himself, and in order to ensure the maximum value for money, the studio decided to push his credibility to the very edge by casting him in a comedy. Not any old comedy mind, but a comedy movie with two of their biggest stars - Abbott and Costello.
The duo met the monster in the 1947 film which brought audiences to their knees with laughter. The feature pulled together some of the cinema's scariest monsters with Frankenstein being joined by Dracula and Wolfman3. It was the first in a series of comedy/horror films, but it's generally considered to be the best. Although Karloff didn't appear in it as the monster, his make-up did. The studio had the foresight to copyright Jack Pierce's creative make-up, and the monster looked just like audiences worldwide expected him to look.
Another notable comedic venture for Frankenstein was the 1974 Young Frankenstein, a Mel Brooks classic. This film, shot in black and white and using the same castle with the same lab props as the 1931 version, was nominated for two Academy Awards4. It starred Gene Wilder as a descendant of the original Frankenstein who decides to revisit the experiment with outlandish results.
For comedic value, those two films are probably the best, but no tale of Frankenstein would be complete without a reference to the Hammer classics.
It's Hammer Time
In 1957 the British company Hammer Film Studios decided to tackle the subject, but it wasn't without its problems. As already mentioned, Universal owned the copyright of the monster's make-up, so any new Frankenstein couldn't share even a passing resemblance to the Karloff look. Universal had also covered almost every possible plot line, so Hammer had to work hard pre-production to find an angle and suitable players.
The Hammer films went for the creator rather than the monster, and as a result they managed to produce the films sufficiently different from their predecessors. The Curse of Frankenstein was the first film of the genre to be filmed in colour, and it was an immediate success at the box office. For those who haven't seen this classic, it features Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the very different monster. Hammer had created a true Gothic horror with all the brooding menace, shock shots and gory details in glorious colour. The result made Peter Cushing a star, but Christopher Lee was unrecognisable as the monster, and he had to wait for another cinematic monster to come by for his big break.
It could be argued that the formula discovered with this film kept Hammer Studios alive long past their sell-by date, but they produced some terrific horror flicks on the back of this, until their demise5 in the late 1970s.
Apart from a very lucrative film industry surrounding this unlikely film star, a whole other industry also grew: The Comic Book. Many comic book publishers have tackled Frankenstein at one time or another, and as recently as 2005 DC comics have revisited their early editions, but the most famous adaptations are those of Marvel Comics. During the early to mid-1970s they produced an 18-issue series. The artwork was spectacular and they were a big hit with Marvel Comic fans. Part and parcel of the comics were the advertisements throughout. In these pages you could purchase 'glow in the dark' Frankenstein, 'glowing eyes and grunting' Frankenstein, and indeed 'bendy' Frankenstein, among other delights. Just enough Frankenstein to pepper your dreams really.
The Small Screen
Since the 1950s there have been many adaptations of the Frankenstein story made specifically for television. One of the most enduring, and indeed endearing, of the small screen monsters was Herman Munster, played by Fred Gwynne. The Munsters lived at 13, Mockingbird Lane and entertained us from 1964 to 1966 - with countless re-runs since.
The 2007 incarnation featured a female 'Dr Victoria Frankenstein' who, rather than attempting to reanimate the dead, tried to use cloning in an effort to save her terminally-ill son. In this outing the monster is nurtured and mothered by its creator instead of being disowned: a 21st-Century take on the same old story.
Whatever Mary Shelley intended when she created Frankenstein, she could never have foreseen its impact through the years on popular culture. We have seen everything from plays, films, comics, action figures and even duvets. Mary's monster is one of the most recognisable horrors in the world and has been adapted to fit every genre and fashion in the intervening years. Every angle has been covered, from Kenneth Branagh's 1994 Frankenstein to Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Picture Show. The sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between.