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by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein Movie

Frankenstein Movie Analysis: From the small page to the big screen.

English teachers everywhere probably giggle to themselves as their students do the whole "huh?!" thing when reading Frankenstein. Everyone grew up with the image of Boris Karloff stapled to the story like those famous neck bolts: hulking, mute, standing about five-foot-forty and with the brain of a well-developed eggplant. So when we read Mary Shelley's original novel—with its intelligent, erudite monster who quotes Milton and debates philosophy—the cognitive disconnect gets pretty heavy.

How did it get that way? We can point the finger at director James Whale, who adapted the novel as Frankenstein in 1931 and unleashed an endless tidal wave of Halloween decorations, breakfast cereals, and Sesame Street cartoons in the process. He did it so well that the line between his work and Shelley's is now completely blurred, with Karloff's monster claiming the limelight and the original text acting as second banana. But never fear: Shmoop is here to untangle the pop culture monster from its literary predecessor.

What's the Same

Whale kept the basic themes and ideas intact for his movie: specifically, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) attempts to build his own human being and give it life. Bad idea. It turns out to be a freakish monster, outcast from society and hunted as an abomination before finally meeting a tragic end. Major womp womp.

The raw core of the story is in the movie. Frankenstein tries to do what God does, but he can't quite manage the job. And the monster gets stuck paying the check; it's innocent and even noble in a weird way, but no one can get past its ugly, ugly looks. See, even in its innocence, it ends up doing harm. Think about that one infamous scene where Karloff plays with a little girl before throwing her into a pond, totally unaware that she will drown because his less-than-responsible creator forgot to fill him in on little details like that. The doctor goes against nature, and his flaws doom the monster to persecution and loneliness. Whale feels deep sympathy for the monster, like Shelley did, and you'll definitely break out the tissues when Karloff is killed at the hands of a torch-bearing mob.

What's Different

Hoo boy, where to start? The movie does quite a number on Shelley's storyline.

Exhibit A: Elizabeth Lives! While the book let the monster kill Elizabeth (showing how the monster could exercise power only by killing), Hollywood's Happy Ending clause demands that she survive the movie. Frankenstein doesn't suffer the consequences for his actions, blunting one of the book's most whopping messages.

Exhibit B: The Creation Scene. The most important part of the movie—the actual creation of the monster—doesn't really get much attention in the book. Shelley's pretty vague with the details and takes just a paragraph or two to get it down. Whales, however, embellishes it with the infamous mad scientist equipment, replacing Shelley's quiet scene with something noisy, loud, and majorly attention-grabbing. Looks like it worked, too, because it's definitely the scene we remember.

Exhibit C: The Monster's Death. In the book, Frankenstein chases the monster all the way to the Arctic, where he dies. The monster asks for his forgiveness (too late!) before jumping onto the ice to die himself. Nice sense of tragedy: both characters share the same fate, everyone wipes a little tear from the eye. Great, right? Well, Whale completely skips the whole scene in favor of a new one, where the monster throws the doctor off a windmill in front of an angry mob—read: he doesn't beg for forgiveness. But get this: the doctor survives the fall. That's right. The guy who caused all the damage in the first place gets a happy life with the woman he loves, while the monster gets to burn like a Roman candle at the hands of edgy peasants. Whale definitely feels sympathy for the monster, but he doesn't want to let the doctor share the tragedy. So Shelley's sense of closure gets tossed out the window, in favor of a happy ending and an "I sure won't try to tamper with the laws of God again!" moral.

Exhibit D: Fritz and the Brain. And here we get to the meat of it. One of the big questions in Shelley's book is the exact nature of Dr. Frankenstein's Big Boo-Boo. What's the sin: creating the monster or abandoning it? Whale cuts the Gordian knot by putting the blame on the doctor's idiot assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), who dropped the genius brain in the lab and replaced it with an "abnormal" criminal brain. In one fell swoop, Shelley's beautifully complex moral debate collapses, replaced by a butterfingered hunchback who can't own up to his mistakes. No moral quandaries; just an imbecilic decision that could have been prevented with a better employee screening service.

Okay, we know. We're being a little harsh. After all, this movie changed the face of Halloween. Just because it's not true to Shelley's work doesn't mean it's not an awesome horror movie.

Other Adaptations

Looking for some more Frankenstein love? You've got plenty of options. In 1935, Whale, Karloff, and Clive came back for the first of many sequels that actually improves upon the original: The Bride of Frankenstein. This one also includes a bunch more elements from the novel, including a blind man who befriends the monster, and the monster's need for some lovin'.

Then in 1957, Britain's famous Hammer studio got its start with The Curse of Frankenstein, which borrowed a lot from Whale's original. Mute, hulking monster, anyone? Christopher Lee plays the monster and Peter "Evacuate? In our moment of triumph?!" Cushing plays the doctor. Sound familiar? That's because this duo went on to play another famous pair for Hammer: Lee as Dracula and Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.

Things turned comic relief in 1974, when Young Frankenstein hit screens. Sure, Mel Brooks plays the story for laughs, but he ends up nailing some of Shelley's big themes. See: the monster's final speech. Just be ready with your hanky.

And finally, check out Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994). This time, it's high falutin' Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh who takes a stab at the story. Not the most thrilling execution, but he comes closer to Shelley's novel than any previous effort.

So, Shmoopers, which movie takes the cake? Shmoop amongst yourselves.

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