Movies > Books: Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein was originally published in 1818. It’s become an English literary classic in the 200 years since. Conceptually, it’s phenomenal; the story of a man who dares to become God by creating life out of dead flesh. Unfortunately, for those of us who have actually read the book, we all know how badly executed it is.

Shelley wrote the novel between the ages of 18 and 20. When you read it, you can tell it was written by a teenager. It has no depth, no nuance, clunky prose, it’s idealistic to the point of annoyance, and it smacks of worldly inexperience. It is exactly the kind of book you would expect a teenage girl to write. It doesn’t convey any maturity that an adult writer would naturally have from a lifetime of experience.


Shelley’s book is indeed a “classic” today, but not because she wrote a good book. Shelley got extremely lucky. First, her husband was the world-famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and he certainly had pull within academic and publishing circles. Second, she lived in a time when pretty much anyone who had the wherewithal to write a book (i.e. they were rich) could get it published. It’s not like today when anyone with Microsoft Word can bang out a shitty novel and self-publish it on Amazon. Third, the 1931 film Frankenstein was so incredible, people remember that and not the book on which it was based.

Yes, the reason we all remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is completely due to the efforts of the original movie, directed by James Whale. Every single thing you associate with Frankenstein comes from this film. Read the book and then watch the movie (which is what I did), and you’ll notice this straight away.

All of Frankenstein’s classic tropes were invented for the film. Virtually none of what Shelley wrote ended up on the screen. Why? Because she wrote garbage, that’s why. Nobody wanted a see a movie of that trash. So, they used her, admittedly, genius concept as a springboard to tell an interesting story.

In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant university student who is interested in esoteric work. Through his own research, he discovers a way to create life from nothing. The book is purposefully vague on how he does it, because Shelley was no scientist, and it was better to keep it opaque. He builds a creature from scratch, requiring it to be huge so he can manipulate tiny blood vessels and the like. When it finally comes to life, Frankenstein flips out and runs away like a baby. He later returns to his home to find the monster is gone.

In the movie, Henry Frankenstein (no idea why they changed his name) is a brilliant scientist who is obsessed with creating life from dead tissues. He and his assistant Fritz (he should have been named Igor) assemble a creature from stolen body parts, including an abnormal brain. He then subjects the body to a lightning storm, using electricity to bring it to life.

The lightning storm is far more interesting than what happens in the book. We see Frankenstein’s lab with all sorts of crazy buzzing electrical devices. The lead-up to the storm is fraught with tension. And, of course, once he finds success, he screams the famous, “IT’S ALIVE!” line. The literary Frankenstein does no such thing. One of the most famous scenes in film history was wholly original, and did not come from the book.

Throughout the rest of the book, Frankenstein runs away from his monster. The monster, in turn, goes around strangling everyone Frankenstein loved. Eventually, they meet up, and the monster tells him that he wants a mate. If Frankenstein creates one, the monster promises to never be seen again. Frankenstein agrees, then halfway through changes his mind and destroys the second creature. The monster is understandably pissed, and vows to get revenge on Frankenstein’s wedding night. Frankenstein, being a total imbecile, thinks he is the one that will be killed, and is TOTALLY SURPRISED when the monster kills his wife instead. What a fucking moron. He didn’t see this coming a mile away?

The movie charts a different course. The monster escapes the castle, and wreaks havoc around town. The ire of the townspeople is raised, and an iconic cinema trope is born: angry villagers with torches and pitchforks. The monster escapes to an old windmill with the villagers close behind. Frankenstein and the monster have a final battle in the windmill while it burns to the ground. Frankenstein survives, and the monster vanishes. The scene was exciting and clearly differentiates the literary from cinematic Frankensteins. The book version of the doctor would run away like a little girl, while the film version of the doctor has him confronting the abomination he created.

And what about the monster himself? In the book he is barely given any description. He is merely described as a grotesque giant. He’s so ugly, every time anyone sees him they run away like a pussy. He teaches himself English by listening to people speak it, and not only is he fluent, he speaks with eloquence on par with Shakespeare. In the movie, the monster is big and hideous with flat top hair, green skin, neck bolts, and a lumbering walk. His look is iconic, and essentially built entirely from the ground-up for the film. Shelley was smart to leave the monster’s deformities to the reader’s imagination, but in the film that is impossible. His look in the film is impressive, and manages to effectively capture the horrors of bringing the dead to life. The only major difference is his speech. The monster doesn’t need to be eloquent; who wants to have a conversation with him, anyway? The lumbering beast is far more frightening than the academic twit.

James Whale had an eye for the gothic, and his vision is bold and clear in the film. From the stark shadows of the castle to the modernity of the science lab to the horrific look of the monster, Whale was able to convey much through visuals alone. The atmosphere he sets up is half of what made the movie so good. And, once again, it was all original to the film.

The film itself isn’t perfect. The atmosphere and tropes were original and have become classics in the years since. However, the screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The monster doesn’t even show up until halfway through the movie. And then, he’s stuck in bondage in the castle. He only escapes near the end of the film to briefly terrorize the village, before meeting his end in the windmill. For so much build-up, there was very little climax. Whale did a great job building tension, but once the monster was alive, he seemed to be disinterested in the rest of the film, and rushed to end it.

I don’t watch many films from the 1930s, and it is unfair to judge them by today’s standards. However, I do feel the script could have been better. They could have spent more time discussing the morality of Frankenstein’s creation. They play with the idea at bit in the beginning, but once the monster appears, all sense of nuance is lost. Overall, the film is still strong, and probably one of the best examples from the era, but by the end it comes across as average. It seems to be lacking “something.”

Interestingly, a 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, expanded on the ideas of the original. The mate idea from the novel is given fruition as Frankenstein creates a bride for his monster. The sequel contains more subtle humor and irony than the original. The pacing is better, and the characters are given a chance to breathe and grow on-screen. Further Frankenstein tropes come from the sequel, such as the monster meeting an old blind man who teaches him friendship. The ending is humorous, sad, surprising, and effective. The sequel is the superior film.

Everything you know and love about Frankenstein comes from the movie. His appearance, the mad scientist, grave robbing, angry villagers, “fire bad,” etc. were created expressly for the film. The movie is an incredibly loose adaptation of the novel. They rightfully jettisoned the literary dreck, and used the concept to make an exciting and original story. In doing so, the filmmakers created a cultural icon.

Nobody remembers Frankenstein from the book, because he’s a blithering wuss. Nobody remembers the monster from the book, because he prattles on depressively with nothing important to say. Everybody remembers the movie because of its gothic look, classic monster, and chilling themes that were fully realized.

Taken together, the two Frankenstein films tell a far more interesting story than the book does. The source material was dreadful, and no one should waste their time reading it. The films are an excellent adaptation, which take the concept and craft a riveting tale around it. The book reads more like fan-fiction than an original novel. Frankenstein is best remembered as a classic horror film, and the book is best left forgotten.


Frankenstein book (1818): Shitty

Frankenstein movie (1931): Average

Bride of Frankenstein movie (1935): Good

Check out these other entries in the Movies > Books series:

Naked Lunch

True Grit

Casino Royale

4 Responses to “Movies > Books: Frankenstein”

  1. 1 lokifire
    October 31, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Hey, at least you didn’t watch Edison Co. silent. Within the first minute, Frankenstein leaves for college and then discovers the secret of life.
    It only gets better from there.

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October 2016


BrikHaus - Find me on Bloggers.com

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