Frankenstein (1931), a Universal Studios production, was released in the United States on November 21st, 1931. It was directed by James Whales, and the screenplay was written by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh. This film marks the second time that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was adapted to film, and is the first feature length film produced by a major film company. This film is credited as being an adaptation of Peggy Webling’s play, Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre, in addition to Shelly’s original text.
The film opens with Edward Van Sloan standing in front of a curtain giving a warning to the perceived audience on behalf of producer Carl Laemmle that the following feature might be ‘shocking or even horrifying.’ The film follows the grisly work of Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz as he attempts to scientifically create life. After Frankenstein successfully animates his Creature, his work is complicated upon discovering that the creature has the brain of a criminal.
The theme of creation plays an integral role in the Frankenstein film. The film references the creation story from the Bible; God created man in his image and in the film, Henry Frankenstein creates the creature in his image. Frankenstein obsesses over creating life, and the film in a way addresses the socially unethical nineteenth century practice of body snatching. Frankenstein fits the archetype and plays the role of a resurrectionist; a man of science invested in the study of organs from dead corpses. In the film, Frankenstein inherits his character's background information from this old social stigma. However, both the film and the novel also characterize the doctor under the archetype of the evil scientist. Doctor Frankenstein's obsession with the sacred knowledge of creation fuels an important question surrounding the study of science; what happens when scientists disregard social standards for scientific progress, and what happens when man tries to play God? Frankenstein pieces together his creation by sewing the parts and pieces scavenged from the graves of the dead. The creation scene in the film enforces Frankenstein's archetype aesthetically; the lab, the lair of the evil scientist's toils and labors. The moment of Frankenstein's success, the birth of the creature, induces a sublime feeling within the viewer. Frankenstein, in this moment, shares this experience of the sublime. His grandeur reaction to his success and pompous behavior around the witnesses of his creation isolates the doctor further from society. Frankenstein equates himself to God, considering his act of creation as comparable to God's fabrication of reality. The grandiose qualities and feelings associated with the creation scene in the film later recede from Frankenstein as he begins to consider that he truly cannot control his creation's actions. In this way, Frankenstein could seem similar to God in the biblical creation story. God's creations rebel as well as disobey his commands and as a consequence they become abandoned. Frankenstein's creation also rebels against his creator, due to a matter of not socially knowing right from wrong.
Innocence also plays an important role within the film. The film raises a question of innocence in regards to who is actually responsible for the creature's actions. Sympathy for the creature exists, and a case of Nature versus Nurture could explain the creature's actions in the film; the lack of nurture could provide a reasonable explanation. Referencing a biblical ideal and generally globalized societal standpoint that the majority of the world maintains on the innocence of young children, the idea that children do not hold a certain accountability for their actions, the creature could arguably represent youth and innocence. Society within the film holds Henry Frankenstein accountable for his creation, and they punish him with time in jail. In regards to the creature maintaining his innocence, the death of Fritz by the monster could seem justified due to Fritz torturing the creature for fun. A loss of innocence occurs when the creature accidentally drowns the young girl. The literal death of the young girl pairs with the figurative death of the creature's innocence. The young child's death by the creature ignites a new chapter of the creature's progression, which incites revolt among the townspeople. The mob hunts the creature for this reason.
The use of fire within the film seems necessary to explaining fear within the creature. The fear of fire becomes exploited several times in the film. The first event includes Fritz torturing the creature with fire. This incites the monster to kill Fritz. After the young girl's death, the girl's father raises a mob that patrols to find the creature. The mob makes use of torches and this culturally extends to the well-known horror film trope of the angry mob that chases the monster. At the end of the film, the creature gets chased by the mob into a windmill. After trapping the creature, the mob razes the structure using fire.
This film was considered widely popular, and remains important to the world of Frankenstein today. Despite its success, the film was not met without controversy. Arguably, the most controversial scene is the accidental drowning of the little girl, which was initially challenged by censors. This resulted in the scene being removed until it was included in the DVD reissue. James Whale's Frankenstein was nominated for multiple awards, and in 1991, it was selected for preservation in the United States as part of the National Film Registry.
Significance of Adaptation
While this film maintains a loose continuation of the framework narrative with the warning given by Van Sloan at the film’s opening, it deviates from Shelley’s epistolary frames that open her novel in the Arctic. This deviation is a continuation of the narrative’s stage production history which typically abandoned the framework narrative en masse and concentrated on the central narrative surrounding Frankenstein’s creation of his Creature and the ensuing aftermath.
One of the stronger deviations from Shelley’s text that alters how the film is perceived is the characterization and actions of The Creature. Whale continued to follow the precedent established by earlier stage adaptations of dehumanizing The Creature by removing virtually any semblance of intelligence, thus rendering The Creature into a lumbering brute who does not have the cognitive capacity to comprehend his actions for more than a few seconds. This is seen explicitly in the Creature's inability to speak. This depiction enhances any sympathy that one might feel for The Creature. The murder of Fritz and Dr. Waldman can be considered self defense. The drowning of the girl is completely accidental given that The Creature had no idea of the consequences of his actions, nor the knowledge that the girl could not swim. The deaths of these individuals are contradictory to Shelly’s original narrative. These contradictions are the result of The Creature’s lack of intelligence. Shelly’s Creature fully understood the consequences when he killed in the novel, and the murders were premeditated as a means to punish and torment Frankenstein. Whale’s production also places Frankenstein in a more sympathetic light than the Frankenstein of Shelly’s novel, and especially Richard Brinsley Peake’s play Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823). Granted, hubristic vanity is the motivating factor that results in the creation of Frankenstein’s Creature in all three versions, but Frankenstein’s post-creation actions alter how he is perceived by the respective audiences. Shelley’s Frankenstein vows to destroy his creation out of fear of what The Creature will do to his family and society as a whole. Peake’s Frankenstein is noticeably violent towards his creature, even going so far as to stab the already wounded Creature after it has fallen at Frankenstein’s feet seeking protection. By contrast, Whale’s Frankenstein is actually proud of his creation and prevents Fritz from tormenting it. Frankenstein only agrees to euthanize The Creature after Fritz has been killed and Dr. Waldman says that The Creature must be put down like any other wild animal. It is also of note that Fritz’s actions in Whale’s adaption are more to blame for The Creature’s actions than in Shelley’s or Peake’s where the responsibility falls solely on Frankenstein.
Suggested Reading & Resources
Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perf. Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, and Boris Karloff. Universal
Pictures, 1931. Film.
"Frankenstein." Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013
Peake, Richard Brinsley. “Presumption; or the Fate of Frankenstein” Mary Wollstonecraft
Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2007. 323-
Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s
Frankenstein. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2007. 1-179. Print.