On My Newfound Appreciation for James Whale’s Frankenstein Films – A Personal Essay by Andrew Williford

The unnamed Creature created by Victor Frankenstein is not some bumbling monster that just goes around killing people. He is Victor’s child. And Victor abandoned him. The Creature’s crimes are not mindless. They are the consequences of his very conscious fury toward his uncaring creator. He is a child who did not receive the love he needed to grow.

This has been my main reasoning for disliking the majority of the cinematic adaptations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel — at least, the one’s I’ve seen. I fell in love with the story at about the age of ten — albeit with an abridged version by Malvina G. Vogel — because this was a time when I felt just as vulnerable and hated and angry as the Creature. I found a sense of solace with this person who was just so lonely, so miserably filled with hate.

So, when I got a copy of the 1931 James Whale film soon afterward, I was so goddamn excited. I’ve always been a greater lover of films than literature, so the idea of experiencing the Creature’s struggles and Victor’s tragedy through visual storytelling sounded like the greatest thing ever.

But what I found in that film was so disappointing that it felt like a personal attack. The storyline bore virtually no resemblance to the book and the Creature seemed much more like the monster Victor and the townspeople of the novel thought he was than the character I felt so close to.

I carried that disdain for the adaptation with me for years, and it carried over into my first viewing of Bride of Frankenstein (1935). I didn’t hate that one near as much then as I had the original film, but I still found myself feeling personally insulted. Opening the film with an actor playing MWS and having her introduce this new film as the rest of her story felt rude, like the film was putting words into the mouth of the dead author just to give itself a little more credibility.

Since then, I have returned to both these films about once a year, giving them another shot, giving them the benefit of the doubt. These viewings only slightly chipped away at my disdain for them as adaptations, bringing me to appreciate Charles D. Hall’s set designs and the performances but never remedying that disconnect with the changes in storytelling.

That recently changed drastically after I read MWS’s original 1818 text — which is almost as strong as the 1831 revision. Carrying with me what I’ve gleaned from my girlfriend’s discussions about MWS’s life and personal vision for the story, the retrospect of Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster’s further bastardization of the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) (although, this is still a good film and I really like the idea of portraying Victor Frankenstein as the real villain of the story), and my growing appreciation of simple/fable-like storytelling in cinema, I decided to give Whale’s two films another go.

I am beyond happy to say that I was wrong.

Mostly wrong.

I maintain that Frankenstein (1931) is one of the most significant contributors to the near century-long erasure of MWS’s Creature character from the original. But I found myself very much enjoying this most recent viewing of the film. I noted down my thoughts in a journal during the viewing, which allowed me to see more clearly the advantages of this adaptation.

It is a deceptively simple film. Frankenstein, the character, in this film is probably a much more accurate reflection of the character in the novel than even MWS’s prose would let on from his perspective. Here, he isn’t just blinded by ambition; he is also extremely defensive about it. His desire is as much for the glory of controlling the laws of nature as it is about genuine scientific discovery. And the portrayal of the Creature is a bit more accurate than I had originally given it credit for. In the narrative’s broad strokes, a “criminal” brain is implanted in the Creature and that is why he is so violent and dangerous. However, in the nuances of Boris Karloff’s performance and the staging of the sequences, it is clear that this perception, as expressed by Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), is wrong. The Creature only becomes violent as a result of Fritz’s (Dwight Frye) prejudiced cruelty toward him. What I saw and despised as a child as the townspeople rising up to destroy this monster for wreaking havoc on their idyllic environment, was actually a tragedy of fear breeding hatred and cruelty toward a disenfranchised person.

Everything about the film felt so much more chilling this time around. Even Baron Frankenstein, the mad scientist’s father, behaves much like Victor’s father in the novel when he toasts his son’s legacy wholly unaware of his crimes. The difference here is that the portrayal of the bourgeois’ lack of care for anything beyond their own self-preservation is portrayed with a much more scathing eye than in the source material.

While I still cannot bring myself to fully get behind the film as an adaptation of the novel due to its role in the all too prevalent misunderstanding of the Creature in the public consciousness, I do really like this film now.

The next morning, I watched Bride of Frankenstein with a similar ambivalence to my previous viewings of it, but this time mixed with a greater sense of enthusiasm.

It turns out that what I saw originally as the film insultingly employing MWS as a character to give itself more credibility is actually much closer to the film paying a kind of penance for its predecessor’s adaptational mistakes. While the Creature here is still far from what I want from an adaptation — I very much prefer the characterization of him as an eloquently spoken, consciously furious abandoned child — this film not only draws far more on the novel’s themes than its predecessor but also expands upon them in really interesting ways.

Now, the Creature’s very conscious rage toward his creator and the masses is actually very present, as well as his deep loneliness and even his self-loathing and suicidal ideation. It goes even further than this. It draws upon the novel’s exploration of society’s prejudices breeding spite in the marginalized and then expands this toward the rich-and-powerful’s manipulation and exploitation of that spite for their own personal gain.

The film is simultaneously crueler and kinder toward the Creature throughout. It actually twice gifts him with the companionship his literary counterpart was so consistently denied only to rip it away from him on both occasions. It even allows him a brief moment of reconciliation between him and his creator that the novel’s circumstances could never permit.

I have never been so happy to admit that I was wrong about a film. I now consider Bride of Frankenstein to be one of my favorite films of all time despite its predecessor’s flaws. I still hope to one day write my own adaptation of MWS’s novel so I can express my love for the source material and my solace with my favorite character of all time, but I am happy in the meantime to simply enjoy this classic as it stands.

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