|The Many, Many Interpretations of Frankenstein
By William Henry Pratt
We all know the story of a man made from the body parts of the dead strung together by the mad
doctor Victor Frankenstein. The original story written by Mary Shelley and published two hundred years
ago has over the course of cinema history been made, remade and remade and so on and so on ever
since the 1910 Thomas Edison short film. True to the 1931 Universal classic is and will always be the best-
known version of the Frankenstein creature, but that film although the most known was not the first or the
last movie to star the undead character.
The Frankenstein Monster has, since his cinema debut in 1910, gone through many changes and
depictions over the last one hundred and eight years. He has been shown to be scary, funny, cute, evil, and
even an action hero. In some films, he is nothing more than a mindless brut and in other movies, he is very
intelligent and clever. He has joined forces with others to fight Dracula and his minions of creatures and
even met the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello. He has grown as tall as Godzilla and did battle with
giant monsters in one film and has clashed with demons in another. The Monster has even gone on to host
his own comedy show, a sitcom and a Saturday morning children’s TV series. Hell, the Frankenstein
Monster is so well known that some films bear his name…..and he’s not even in the movie! He even has
his own brand of breakfast cereal. So let’s take a look at all the many faces, themes, and adaptations,
descriptions and various styles the Frankenstein Monster has over gone over the years.
Yes again the 1931 Universal classic will always be maybe the Monster’s crowning jewel but there
were two films that did come before. The best known is the Edison 12 minute short that first depicted the
creature as a lumbering thing cooked up in the doctor’s lab. Five years later though, Frankenstein got his
very first feature length film in a movie called Life Without Soul. This 1915 film is now sadly lost to history,
but it featured the Shelley character called in the movie The Brute Man or The Creation played by actor
Percy Standing. With little make-up, Percy’s Brute Man is the killer of his creator’s sister and his hunted by
his creator. In the end The Brute Man aka Frankenstein’s creation is killed. Since this is a lost film and I
cannot view how the actor played Brute Man, I can only guess that he was more of a faster moving
character than in the previous film. Damn shame it’s lost I would have liked to have seen this movie.
Although Universal strayed from the source novel a bit in the making of their movie, their rendition of
the Frankenstein Monster, even after eighty seven years, is still the definitive depiction of Shelley’s
creature. For one thing, it was Universal who coined him The Monster in their films. In the novel, Shelley
only referred to her living dead man as The Creature but Universal turned The Frankenstein Monster into a
true household name. Their monster played brilliantly by Boris Karloff was a slower moving monster and in
the case of the first film to feature him a mute brute, almost childlike in his lost wonder of the world he was
now living in. By Bride of Frankenstein, The Monster had gained some matter of speech and an
understanding of the world he was now living in. The Monster was played as a sad creature lost in a world
of people where he did not belong.
This idea of the Frankenstein creature being a lost child in a big bad world gave the character a depth
that sadly was lost in many of the movies that were to follow both in the following Universal films and must
of everything else that was to come. After all this poor soul was just born…..had no idea who or what he
was and hated and feared by all who saw him. The Monster never took a life out of evil intent but out of his
own fears and for self-protection …..something that even the novel never really covered. When in the 1931
masterpiece he tosses the little girl into the pond, he has no idea that she will die and as she goes under
the water, she panics and looks for her upset that he thinks he did wrong.
In 1957 however, the Frankenstein character took a darker tone in Curse of Frankenstein the first of the
horror Hammer Films. Here the creature was played as a mindless killer with little thought or care in what
he did. Played by Christopher Lee before he would so famously go on to play Dracula, his Frankenstein
was a monster who ran the countryside on almost a murder quest. He was a mute brute with little on his
mind and as his creator hunted down his abomination. The movie kicked off following films but unlike their
Universal counterparts, Hammer continued their series with a focus on Doctor Frankenstein where
Universal centered on the creation…..The Monster as their lead in their sequels.
As time went on, Frankenstein was not just a figure for horror movies but had branched out into
comedy as well with Young Frankenstein, the 1974 Mel Brooks movie. Here the monster played it for
laughs alongside comic actor Gene Wilder. Wilder who played the doctor had his creature sing and dance
in one scene and be loveable and not the scary creature as he was played in so many horror remakes of
the Mary Shelley novel. A cute and cuddly Frankenstein was the father figure in the TV sitcom The
Munsters that hit the airways in 1964. Here Herman Munster was based on the Universal make-up design
for their Frankenstein film series only with light alterations in design and the friendly face of actor Fred
Gwynne to make what could have been scary into something welcoming for the funny TV series.
Frankenstein would also co-star along with Dracula and the Wolfman in on the Saturday morning TV
series Monster Squad in 1976. Here Frank and his follow monsters were wax figures who came to life to
fight crime in this very funny kids show. Later Frankenstein would team up with a group of kids to battle not
only Dracula but the Mummy, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the 1987 horror
comedy The Monster Squad where we again saw a monster that not only talked, but wanted to do good.
At one point in 1971, Frankenstein even had his own children’s comedy show called The Hilarious
House of Frankenstein where he and other monsters played sketch comedy for their younger viewers. The
Monster would also appear in the children’s animated Saturday morning series The Groovie Goolies
alongside his monster friends in 1970 and The Drac Pack in 1980. He would also be part of a monster
fighting team in the Monster Force in 1994 where he and a group of army like members did battle with evil
creatures of the night.
Mary Shelley who first wrote the novel published in 1818 would have never imagined that her creature
would go on to have chance encounters with the likes of Abbott on Costello in 1948 and even more oddly
enough meet Alvin and the Chipmunks in a 1999 animated movie. It seems like old Frankie hung around a
lot of interesting characters over the last 200 years since Shelley created him. In not so cute encounters,
Frankenstein first met up with the Wolfman in 1943 and has been friends and foes with Dracula as in
Dracula vs Frankenstein 1971, House of Frankenstein 1997 and Van Helsing 2004. He has also met and
done battle with other creatures as well as in Frankenstein vs The Mummy 2015 and demons in I,
Frankenstein was even the star of a Japanese Monster Movie called Frankenstein Conquers The
World where he grew to an enormous size to do battle with a Japanese monster called Baragon.
Released in 1965, the movie follows the heart of the Frankenstein Monster being discovered by the Nazis
near the end of the war and is transported to a Japanese Sub to bring back to the homeland to study it in
Hiroshima shortly before the U.S. drops the fatal bomb that destroys the city. Within the destruction of the
city, the heart of the Monster that cannot die starts to slowly regenerate and fifteen years later, a young boy
is discovered living in the ruins of the city. The boys his discovered to be the Frankenstein Monster reborn
and soon grows to the size of a great beast large enough to fight the monster Baragon.
Like Dracula filmmakers have done one of two things with the property that is Frankenstein, one retell
the story that Mary Shelley wrote and two use the character in a completely new story. Universal has done
both with the character tell Shelley’s story 1931 movie although somewhat loosely based and continue him
in all new original telling as with the films that followed Bride of Frankenstein 1935, Son of
Frankenstein1939, Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman 1943, House of
Frankenstein1944, House of Dracula 1945 and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein 1948.
Other filmmakers took on the job to remake Shelley’s story on screen as with movies like Frankenstein
The True Story 1973, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994. While others took the creature and created
their own story using him from being an action hero as in I, Frankenstein 2014, The Monster Squad 1987,
The Horror of Frankenstein 1970, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. The character is even parodied
in the movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Frankenstein even shows up in movie titles that he has nothing to do with at all. Films like Frankenstein’
s Blood Terror 1971 about a werewolf and nothing to do with Shelley’s creature at all. Other movies don’t
even feature the Monster only use his name to justify another character or reference as in the case of the
driver in the movie Death Race 2000 1975 or the resurrected streetwalker in Frankenhooker. There is
Frankenstein’s Army and there was even an exploitation film called Black Frankenstein. A Frankenstein
like the character is used in the 1965 movie Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster and in name only for
the Tim Burton 2012 movie Franken Weenie.
Like the many different movies that the character has been used in, so has the many ways he’s been
portrayed. Even in the movies that follow the Mary Shelley novel, the creature is handled according to how
the filmmaker wants to show the character. In the novel, the doctor’s creation could speak and articulate
his words like anyone else. The 1931 Universal movie has the Monster childlike and unable to speak. By
Bride of Frankenstein, he is taught to speak by the old blind man in the cabin in the woods where the
Monster is given a safe place to hide from the world and learns to talk with a limited vocabulary. In other
retellings of Shelley’s story, the creature is fully educated in the usage of words.
In some films with an original story, he is either a lumbering mute like Dracula vs Frankenstein or well-
mannered and action paced as in I, Frankenstein or House of Frankenstein 1997. Both these films show a
very intelligent creature and not a child trying to make his way in the world. Here he knows who and what
he is and for better or worst deals with it. The 2014 movie I, Frankenstein turned the lumbering heavy
footed character into a fast running, jumping action hero type who carried the movie as its leading man.
Other renditions of him such as in the movie The Bride shows a speaking creature as was the character in
the TV series Penny Dreadful as well.
As you can see there are as many ways to portray and display this character as there are as many
movies that feature him. There is a reason why this creation of Mary Shelley has lasted for these two
hundred years and has remained in her hearts for so long. For two hundred years, the novel has never
once in its entire history even been out of print and for one hundred eight years, he has been a part of
cinema history as well. He may be played in numerous ways from horror monster to action hero, but in the
end Shelley’s creation will always be there to star in another movie be it horror, comedy, action/adventure
or science fiction one thing is for sure. Frankenstein will be around for the next two hundred years.