Book-to-Movie: What is the best Frankenstein film?
Book-to-Movie: What is the best Frankenstein film?
Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley in the 1800s, with the first edition being published on January 1, 1818. There were two other editions released, on August 11, 1823 and October 31, 1831, respectively, with the latter being the one that is still widely distributed today. The novel is very brief, sitting at just under 200 pages. The latter edition was an immediate success, and like Dracula, has since led to numerous film and television adaptations, as well as games and other spin-off novels. That being said, none of the 9 Frankenstein films we watched (which is nearly all of the popular ones, excluding team-up movies and sequels) really follow the book or, in my opinion at least, preserve its themes very well. So, for this review we are simply taking a look at the most accurate movie representation of the novel, as well as the best one in terms of capturing the themes and portraying the spirit of the book.
So, for the purpose of this review, we are looking at the films Frankenstein (1931), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Young Frankenstein (1974), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), and Victor Frankenstein (2015). We excluded 2014s I, Frankenstein because it picks up where the novel left off, and although it follows the events at the end of the novel pretty well, the actual story has nothing to do with Victor Frankenstein or the events of the book. If you are not familiar with these films or want a run-down of them as well as the sequels we are excluding here, check out our Frankenstein: rapid-fire reviews by clicking the link in the comments!
For those of you not familiar with the novel (if you are feel free to skip over my brief summary!), Shelley opens it with letters from a Captain Walton, who is leading an expedition into the arctic when he and his crew pick up a stranger who was drifting in the icy waters, Victor Frankenstein. Victor then relays his unsettling tale to the captain, about how he was a scientist who left his home to study at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. There, he conducted a series of experiments and brought to life his “monster”, who then escaped. Victor returns home with his childhood friend Henry, only to find that tragedy has struck. The monster had murdered his young brother and caused an innocent woman to be wrongfully blamed and hanged for it. Victor confronts him, and the monster relays his tale about how he was alone for two years, wandering around the forest and attempted to make friends with a blind man and his family, only to be beaten and driven away. He demands Victor create for him a mate, a being like him and Victor at first complies (then later changes his mind), the monster murders his new wife on their wedding night, and Victor chases him over land and sea, vowing never to die until he has destroyed his creation. One important thing to note here is that throughout the book, Victor is the only one to ever know about the monster. He never tells anyone about his experiments in detail, and the monster never actually reveals himself to anyone (except for Victor’s wife Elizabeth, and only when he murders her).
I thought that summary was important to illustrate how all of the films miss the mark on one big thing or another. The original 1931 film for example, while iconic, creates a whole new notion of “diseased” versus “normal” brains (which Young Frankenstein hilariously makes fun of), as well as portrays Victor as a mad scientist. The monster, while portrayed accurately as like a kid and making him sympathetic to audiences, never talks or grows beyond that, never learning like he does in the book (becoming nearly as intelligent as Victor, and often the voice of reason in their conversations). Bride of Frankenstein (1935), although we’re not counting it, does a lot of things right. It draws Victor (Henry) back into conflict with his monster after he thought he was dead, who then convinces him to create his mate (which is not book accurate because Victor brought his second creation to completion). It also includes segments where we get to see the monster learning from the blind guy and his family, which is more than the original does. So while Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) together are a solid adaptation of the novel, containing many of the themes, more of the character development for both Victor (Henry in the those two) and the monster, and even many of the events, it still took two films, where later adaptations did as much in just one.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Victor and his creation, respectively, follows the book slightly more than the 1931 film. We get the intro with Victor and his family, adding in the backstory of Elizabeth’s adoption and bringing in the character of Henry as his friend (even though this one portrays him as Victor’s professor). Due to the film’s smaller budget though, several key events are changed to revolve around the more confined setting, including the omission of the Artic expedition, the choice to have Victor conduct his studies at home rather than leaving for the university, working Elizabeth into the story later on, and never having the monster too far from Victor’s reach. The movie is a character piece focused on Victor, so for what it is it gets a lot of things right. His friendship with Henry is portrayed as the most important aspect of his character, alongside his passion for science rather than just being a mad scientist. His often-strange relationship with Elizabeth, while underdeveloped, is a key aspect of his character; and while his relationship with the monster is different, his reactions to the monster’s existence is very book accurate, where he is immediately regretful and continuously conflicted. That being said, the portrayal of the monster is underdeveloped, existing for the sole purpose of Victor’s character development, barely growing as a character himself or having a part to play.
Young Frankenstein (1974), starring Gene Wilder as the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. While meant to be a comedic piece on the tale, as well as a loose remake of 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, it actually manages to accurately capture many of the themes and events of the book. It is one of the few films to capture the essence of Frankenstein’s monster, being ignorant and childlike at first and then learning and growing as a character, rather than being there simply for motivational purposes for Victor. He is also sympathetic and not portrayed as too off-putting, which is something many of the other films really hit on. In addition, the portrayal of Frederick Frankenstein is done well. Like The Curse of Frankenstein, the character has a lot of mixed emotions about his creation and his experiments, realizing only too late the danger he has caused. While it does those things right, the movie is in itself a comedy and a remake; so, it chooses to sway events for the purpose of comedy and accuracy to the former movie.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), starring Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro as Victor and his monster, respectively, remains faithful to the book throughout. It is the only film to portray the opening with Walton, and from there dutifully follows nearly all of the events to the letter up until Victor creates the bride. While I want to like the film for that reason, it is not enough to carry it, as it gets nearly everything else wrong. Victor is portrayed as a typical mad scientist/lunatic who does not care about the repercussions of his actions and goes as far as to create another monster, something the book stresses he would never do. In addition, while the monster is portrayed as being very intelligent, he is not portrayed as sympathetic or regretful of any of his actions, much like Victor. In addition, the tone is all over the place, with Branagh bringing in the most over-the-top/Shakespearean performance he could think of. While I like Branagh as an actor, he was not a good choice for a Frankenstein film (as he acted in and directed this one). Simply put, the movie is melodramatic and often times uninteresting as the audience is left to follow events from the perspective of either the mad scientist who doesn’t care about people or the consequences of his actions or the deranged monster who exclusively seems bent on revenge towards Victor and the world.
Lastly, we have 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, starring James McAvoy as Victor and, red flag number one, Daniel Radcliffe as Igor (a character resulting from film adaptations that does not exist in Shelley’s novel). As harsh as that sounded, I actually thoroughly enjoy this film. Victor as a character is very book accurate, being the right age and very passionate about science and his work, wanting to truly benefit humanity through his experiments and being knowledgeable about its potential consequences (even though he often pushes past them in his ardor). In addition, Radcliffe’s Igor is essentially Henry’s character from the book, being very loyal and supportive to Victor, even though he assists in his creation and fully knows what Victor is up to the entire time. That being said, the movie misses the mark on nearly all of the events. Like Young Frankenstein, the movie twists events for the purpose of its focus, which is on the character of Victor through Igor’s perspective. For example, the Elizabeth character is the love interest of Igor instead of Victor, Victor’s father is hardly present, and when he does visit is unsupportive and harsh towards Victor. In addition, the monster is not actually created until the final act of the film and is only alive long enough to rampage the laboratory and be destroyed. The film is essentially trying to be a prequel to the Frankenstein story, however even as a prequel it often misses the mark, substituting the structure of the original in an attempt to be an origin story.
Obviously, the best Frankenstein adaptation is 2014’s I, Frankenstein. The inclusion of the secret war between Gargoyles and Demons is something Shelly focuses heavily on, and the portrayal of the monster as a good looking man with some scars who has an identity crisis as a soulless demon-hunting warrior who hates everything but also fights for the good of mankind is second to none. Sorry, I got carried away there; I, Frankenstein is garbage. When it comes to adapting the story, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is easily the most book accurate, being the only major Frankenstein film to even include key events like opening with Captain Walton. However, unlike Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film is arguably not a faithful adaptation in terms of tone, themes, of characters. This honor, as much as we love the one-two punch of the 1931 Frankenstein and it’s superior sequel, has to go to the criminally underrated 1957 Curse of Frankenstein, which sacrifices a few key points for the sake of crafting a more compelling story that focuses on Victor, his relationships with those around him, and the themes reflected from his experiments, despite a minimal focus on the monster. Essentially, there is no strong adaptation of Shelley’s novel, as even the more accurate films make key sacrifices that change the events, tone, themes, or characters which alter the overall story in one way or another.
So, Frankenstein? Have you read the book? Seen any/all of these movies? Any Frankenstein movies that we missed that you think should be on this list? Which is your favorite? Or which do you think is the best Frankenstein interpretation? Whatever your thoughts, please let us know in the comments below! And please leave a like if you are enjoying our monster series so far!
P.S. Looking for a fun, complicated, strategic, and not accurate Frankenstein-centered board game? Check out Abomination, or Heir of Frankenstien, where you get to build your own monster! (although it’s still more accurate as a sequel than I, Frankenstein)
P.P.S. Check out our Dracula book-to-movie review by clicking the link below, and stay tuned for our Invisible Man reviews coming soon!
-review by Rachel Grosselin and Ryan Prince