How can we think of Frankenstein and ignore the film classic of 1931?

Yet the celebrated film does not follow the novel by Mary Shelley. Although the scene of a futuristic laboratory entrances movie audiences with the mad Dr. Frankenstein and his faithful assistant Igor, the scene is derived from twentieth century imaginations and interests, not the novel itself. For good reason, the novelist chose not to begin her story with the chilling event of the dreary night in November. Instead of a major event, the book opens with a series of letters from Robert Walton.

It is not his want for the voyage of discovery, but his obsession with fame, that drives him to the unknown in hopes of being credited with expanding mankind’s knowledge and control of the universe. Similarly, Victor Frankenstein is drawn to the mysteries of experiments with the unknown. Early in his education he read about alchemists and early natural philosophers and becomes so impressed with the power of electricity that he makes it his mission to harness it to procure mans place among the gods.

But unlike the familiar films, no faithful Igor helped him rob graves or assisted him in an extravagant, futuristic laboratory. In the novel Frankenstein tells no one of his experiments and worked alone. Specifics concerning the actual experiment are omitted; no account of the actual process of locating, obtaining, and transporting body parts appears in the novel. It just says that he is made up of dead body parts. In the novel the necessity of focusing on death itself forms an important part of Victor’s study–he believes that only by examining death can he re-create life, and in doing so overcome the human condition.

Remove Walton from the story and no audience remains for the important lines; the wider implications of the scientific experiment fail to affect the viewer. The parallel stories, one of attempting to discover the secret of life and the other of forcing nature to open her secrets to man, disappear from the film. The events on screen remain remote from the viewer. The absence of Walton diffuses the warning to consider the final effects of scientific exploration and experimentation.

The reader discovers the dangers inherent in defying the natural order, while the movie audience watches an ugly thing lumbering about the countryside. The film creates an image of the creature as a silent; malevolent being because a thoughtless young scientist creates a powerful object, yet provides no measures for guidance and control. Victor seems unfairly persecuted by the dreadful fiend he created. His initial dreams of benefiting mankind and creating a race, which would be grateful to him, are emphasized, rather than focus on his own disdain for that which he brought to life.

In the novel the readers sympathy shifts for the monster when he confronts Victor with a demand for reasons for his abandonment and hatred. Even more startling is the being’s extraordinary range of ideas, precise vocabulary, and concept of justice and obligations. The articulate figure challenges his maker: both reader and Frankenstein recognize the justice of the creature’s demands. Slowly, reader sympathy shifts to recognition of its deplorable state, abandoned and unprepared for any role in the world.

The creature had committed no crime due to not knowing better, yet his creator shunned him. The being, nameless as an object with no legitimate place in creation, deserves an answer. Movie directors ignore the dramatic potential of such a scene. As the narrative unfolds reader response shifts from the need to allow the creature to speak to a sense of pity, perhaps outrage, for the injustices he suffered. Mary Shelley does not leave the monsters murderous nature to a simple error in brain selection; instead it is the result of his neglect.

This is not the monster that roams the countryside in search of its next victim; instead it is a miserable, lonely thing that has no place in society whatsoever, and not place in the heart of his creator. The monster of the novel is a victim of human arrogance and denial, while the monster in the film hates his state of being and the people who reject him. The power of the myth of an unattended scientific creation, left to destroy innocent lives, assumes importance in the final decade of the twentieth century.

The book questions the morality of Frankenstein’s attempt to cheat death, one that our society can easily identify with. Did he have a right to create and abandon the creature? In her novel, Mary Shelley anticipated the problem of a destructive force created by man, a force with no genuine means of control. Although her story served as a springboard to a host of horror movies, the dramatic presentations omit the basic intelligence of the creature, its initial benevolent impulse, and its ability to recognize good or evil.

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