“Frankenstein”: A message lost in adaptation 


“Frankenstein” (1931), directed by James Whale, is an adaptation of the Mary Shelly novel of the same name. The story follows Dr. Henry Frankenstein as he struggles to contain and eventually kill a monster (Boris Karloff) whom he made from parts of reanimated corpses. Overall, the film is quite different from the original source material. The film’s changes from Shelly’s novel end up stripping the film of the original message. 

In the film “Frankenstein,” Dr. Henry Frankenstein creates an enormous monster out of parts of exhumed corpses, ignoring the concern and criticism from the people around him. Henry expects the monster to behave; however, it turns out to be violent, due to his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), grabbing the brain of a corrupted individual instead of a normal individual. After strangling Fritz and then Henry’s professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), the monster escapes out into the world. On Henry’s wedding day, the monster attempts to strangle his fiancé, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), but does not succeed. This prompts the townspeople to go out chasing the monster; it knocks Henry unconscious and drags him to a windmill. After throwing Henry out of the windmill, the townspeople set it on fire. 

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein (Henry in the film) is an ambitious college student who spends two years assembling his monster in secret. After the monster’s animation, he abandons him out of fear, leaving the monster to wander the world on its own. During the two years the monster spent alone, he slowly became more and more bitter and evil from being met with violence and fear at every turn. When he encounters his creator again, the monster vows to kill everyone Victor has ever loved so that he can feel the same pain and loneliness. 

The film making the monster evil by giving it a corrupt brain takes away all of the story’s complexity and strips the novel’s theme of the potential dangers of irresponsible scientific progress. Instead of the monster slowly becoming more violent and vengeful as a result of the constant abuse and neglect it suffered since birth, the monster is just naturally evil in the film. Meanwhile, film Henry/Victor is responsible with his creation. He keeps it away from society and tries to educate it and when he sees that it is too dangerous to exist, he decides to kill it. The monster still escapes, but the escape is not directly because of Henry. However, in the novel, it is because of Victor’s irresponsibility that the monster becomes loose in the world, and it is because of his irresponsibility that his loved ones are murdered by the monster. Victor’s isolation and paranoia is a direct result of his blind pursuit of knowledge without considering the consequences. 

Overall, while “Frankenstein” (1931) is an entertaining monster film, it does not hold a candle to the 1818 novel. The major story changes result in the film losing the original novel’s complexity and themes.