By Eleanor Sciolistein
I have a confession to make. I, am in a three way relationship with Frankenstein’s monster. Both of them.
I love them both equally and cant’t bear the thought of being without either of them. Which is why it perturbs me so much that one seems forever doomed to hide in the flat headed shadow of the other. It simply isn’t fair. So, like a long haired hippie of horror, I make my plea to Hollywood “Give fiends a chance”!
Whilst it may seem an odd claim to make that such an instantly recognisable cultural icon as ‘Frankenstein’ (and let’s admit, incorrect as it may be, that is how the archetypical character with the flat head, bolted neck and straight armed walk, is mostly known) could have more than one version but it’s true. Not only that, but the other version, is the original.
I’ve been in love with all things related to Frankenstein and his monster since I was around six. Like most people, my introduction to Mary Shelley’s tragic creation was through the 1930’s Universal horror films, in which a pathos drenched Boris Karloff, monochrome and monosyllabic, lurches through one gorgeously shot scene after another and is persecuted by mobs of torch wielding villagers. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that the character I was falling in love with wasn’t ‘Mary Shelley’s tragic creation’ at all. It was something entirely new.
At age six ‘Frankenstein’ ( I still referred to the monster by it’s creator’s name at this point, gimme a break, I was six!) was my superhero. Sure, I was also obsessed with Spiderman and the Hulk, who when you think about it, owes an awful lot to the Frankenstein monster character anyway, but it was Boris Karloff’s depiction of the Frankenstein Monster that captured my imagination.
This ‘superhero like’ view of the character was helped along by the fact that in the later crossover films such as ‘Frankenstein meets The Wolfman’ and even later Universal referencing films like ‘The Monster Squad,’ old Frankie always seemed to be portrayed as the good guy monster.
So, it was with some excitement that aged around eight, I dove into the gorgeously illustrated Ladybird Classics version of Frankenstein. What I found in there however, was baffling.
Sure, there were some familiar scenes. The monster was created in a lab, encountered a blind man and was chased by the seemingly ubiquitous peasants with torches, but there was no denying that the monster in this version was different. He spoke for a start.
When I say he spoke, he didn’t just mumble or slurringly over-enunciate a few key words. This monster was the chatty type and in fact, his whole story was revealed from his own lips. I decided that this anomaly required further investigation.
Aged ten I made my first attempt at Shelley’s original novel. I won’t lie and say that I found it easy going. There is a reason why a number of writers and artists including, notably, Stephen King and Berni Wrightson (whose masterpiece would turn out to be his illustrations for the very same novel) were initially disappointed by Shelley’s version.
Raised as I had been on the Universal vision of the monster, King, Wrightson and undoubtedly, countless others, picked up Shelley’s novel expecting a horror tinged adventure story. What they got was something else. Aside from being stitched together, coming to life and bolting,(bolting? Frankenstein? Mercy!) the monster hardly even appears for the first ten chapters. Once he does though, wow.
I returned to the novel as a slightly more mature reader aged 14. By this time I had discovered Shakespeare and Marlowe, was a far wider read, had a better understanding of the archaic language used in the novel and was able to more fully appreciate Shelley’s intention and genius. This time around I enjoyed every word.
By this point I had realised that it was Shelley’s intention to keep the monster from us for ten chapters. That she consciously made the decision to present the monster through Victor’s eyes first, making the reader as much as any character in the novel, guilty of prejudging him as a fiend.
Whilst the character that emerges in Chapter 10 of ‘Frankenstein ‘or the Modern Prometheus’ lacked the square head and electrodes made famous by Karloff, what he had instead was an eloquence. A skill for the melodramatic and beautiful manipulation of language that stunned me.
If we take for example the creatures very first line, when he confronts Victor on the glacier. Victor, filled with anger and remorse screams at the creature in rage and threatens to destroy him, to which the monster, gently and with a resignation that eclipses even Karloff’s soulful performance, responds “ I expected this reception”.
So wearied and jaded with the world of men has he become in the short time he has been alive, that the monster has come to expect this violent rejection as the default response. Unlike his Universal counterpart, this monster is a master of language. His words are made all the more impactful by the fact that having learnt to speak by reading Milton, he speaks in a manner that was already outdated when Shelley wrote. Even his language use demonstrating his difference and isolation from every other character.
The ‘thous’ and ‘arts’ that characterise the creature’s unique way of speaking in the novel lend an almost religious weight to his words, making his pleas to his creator all the more affecting “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” As well as making his threats all the more sinister “ If you refuse. I will glut the maw of death, till it be sated with the blood of your remaining kin” Damn.
Which brings us to the ‘Two monster dilema’. Despite having a ready made (see what I did there, ready made, Frankenstein? Brilliant!) character with sympathetic tragedy built in, big screen versions of the creature have almost exclusively tended towards the Boris Karloff blueprint. One glance at the Hammer horror versions and you see far more relation to the Universal shuffler than to Shelley’s wordsmith.
Admittedly, Kenneth Brannagh’s ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ did attempt to give the the creature (played here by the innately menacing Robert De Niro) a level of intellect and lucidity far beyond anything before seen in a major on screen adaptation. Even there though, the butchering of the original text and De Niro’s prosthetic encumbered delivery, made for a film that was ultimately unsatisfying and which disappointingly, didn’t quite add up to the sum of its stitched together parts. Don’t even get me started on 2015’s Victor Frankenstein (What the fuck is Harry Potter doing in my Frankenstein movie? No, no a thousand times no).
However, with an audience currently hooked on the sub gothic melodrama of Game of Thrones and horror classics such as IT being produced over two parts, I would argue that the timing is perfect for Hollywood to revisit one of it’s most enduring characters and allow this second, lesser known, version of the monster to finally take the limelight.
One rumour that surfaces every few years in the film industry is the possibility of one Guillermo del Toro taking the reigns on such a project. The famed director of such classics as Pan’s Labyrinth and award magnet ‘The Shape of Water’ has made no secret of his affection for the original novel and has mentioned that in terms of aesthetics, his version would be far closer in appearance to Berni Wrightson’s interpretation than the classic Karloff look. (The Spanish director being the proud owner of some of Mr Wrightson’s original artwork for the novel).
We all know how successful fanboy directors can be when they pour their passion for the material into an on screen vision. Could Mr Del Toro do for Shelley’s novel what Peter Jackson did for The Lord of the Rings? This horror fans, would be the stuff of dreams.
Unfortunately, for now, it will remain the stuff of dreams as there has been no concrete indication of this project going ahead, though with over one hundred years of Frankenstein movies in the can, we can at least hope that it’s time someone finally went back to the source material and gave Shelley’s ‘hideous progeny’ the spark of life it so richly deserves.
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