From the first dramatic version of Frankenstein on the London stage in the 1820’s until Hollywood most recent attempts to exploit the myth (46 titles at last count), the general spirit of Mary Shelley’s original has significantly changed.
What was once a literary classic about parental abandonment of human creations and the curse to be “different”, soon became a narrowly focused presentation of a mad scientist and a grotesque monster.
The different mediums of the stage and screen of course had its effect. Playwrights and movie directors, in the hope of attracting large audiences who weren’t necessarily readers of classics, simplified the original plot.
The important “stories within the story” that make up so much of Mary Shelley’s framework were quickly excised in favor of the single theme of Dr. Frankenstein creating the Monster. Thus, in the stage and screen versions, Walton in the North is not seen learning about his own troubled heart, and the Monster has no platform in which to articulate his arduous journey into human adulthood.
By focusing on external action scenes rather than the minds and emotions material of the character, the story has been made more popular and stageable. It seems that until Kenneth Branagh’s version, all Frankenstein movies were focused on the unthinkable thrill of creating life out of dead body parts.
Emphasizing the “horror” of the physical creation of the Monster, and its often violent aftermath, has masked some of the deeper and most essential meanings of the book.
The ambiguity of the Creature, as a project of Dr. Frankenstein’s distorted unconscious, is totally forgotten. Although Mary Shelley suggests that he was born without human memory or character (tabula rasa), the Creature educated himself through observation, trial and error and through reading classical literature. Instead, the Monster, played most notably by Boris Korloff, appears as intellectually stupid, mute and physically awkward.
Portrayals of the mad scientist with his grotesque zombie creation, however entertaining, prevent us from identifiying with the passion of Dr. Frankenstein and the struggle for humanity of the Creature. Whale’s version of the monster is typical of movies which are used to exclude people of another race or ideology.