Belated Halloween Follow-Up: "It's alive!"

If, as I argued last time, Mary Shelley never describes her Frankenstein (who incidentally isn't a doctor) stitching together pieces of corpses to build his monster, then how did the idea become so widely accepted, to the point that even the introduction to the scholarly edition I read repeats the idea? I think that, like the bolts and the square head, it may come from the James Whale-directed Karloff movies—but my only real evidence, aside from a DVD commentary mentioning that the 1931 Frankenstein was the first version to show the doctor robbing graves, is this YouTube clip:

That’s the 1910 silent adaptation of the story, the first film version of Frankenstein, and maybe the only one not overwhelmingly in the shadow of Karloff’s image. Whether to avoid something more graphic, or for the sake of a cool effects sequence, or for more creative reasons, this earlier adaptation offers a totally different interpretation of the monster's creation, in which the process is indeed alchemical in nature, in spite of the spooky skeleton looking on.

But what about that physicalist interpretation of the story I promised to follow up on last time? I think it tracks fascinatingly across several of the more notable versions of the story, in a gradual reinterpretation that slowly asserts ever more materialist explanations for the monster’s nature, slowly coming to explain his destiny by way of his (recycled) anatomy. In the silent film, perhaps for the sake of extreme condensation, the monster is evil from his birth, spawned from his creator’s evil thoughts. But in Shelley’s novel the creature seems to begin as a Lockean tabula rasa, an innocent so naive that he can’t even fully fathom the solidity of the walls around him. His fundamental nature is good—or at least so he claims in his extensive narration—but his rejection by the world drives him to evil.

The famous 1930s films apparently have some memory of this earlier version, in which the monster is not a revenant of the grave so much as a babe in the woods. As Colin Clive’s thrillingly stagey Frankenstein declares (at around :55), “That body is not dead, it has never lived. I made it with my own hands.” But Whale’s monster does seem to carry some emotional baggage from his physical origins: He accidentally receives a “criminal brain” as one explanation for his violent tendencies. The idea, like so many in the rather hastily written and rewritten movie, is more or less abandoned, and the creature is ultimately played as an even greater innocent than Shelley's version, killing more out of clumsiness and a tendency to startle than out of any malevolence. Yet the idea of the creature’s criminal brain would become a major motif once Whale abandoned his creation, and replacing the monster’s brain would be the central McGuffin in the many lousy b-sequels that followed.

Brannagh’s 1994 version, despite its pretentions of fidelity to the novel, actually takes this b-movie trope and runs with it, even attempting some kind of awkward organ-transplant allegory. Far from Shelley’s tabula rasa, Brannagh’s monster is apparently bad because he was made that way—a criminal because he was composed of criminal’s bodies, “evil stitched to evil” in the words of one weirdly disembodied monologue (around 9:25). Even installing the “finest brain,” snatched from Frankenstein’s revered scientific mentor, can’t change the tendencies ingrained in Robert De Niro’s scuzzy peasant body, though it does apparently provide the monster with the ability to read and speak and play the recorder, skills “less learned than remembered” (around 2:45). Originally an innocent Adam driven from Eden by the cruelty of others, the creature has gradually devolved into a stitched-up chunk of beef cursed with the original sin of “trace memories in the brain.”

Does this devolution parallel the rise of physicalist explanations of human personality? I’d have to do more research than a blog post merits to be able to make that case, but I will argue that it parallels the sad rise of literalist explanations of fictional constructs. Whale’s films conceived of the stitched-together corpse idea as an imaginative solution to the cinematic necessity of filling the lacunae in Shelley’s text; yet they also unselfconsciously decked the monster out with enough uncanny attributes and unanswerable questions (where’d they find that square skull, anyway?) that he still seems like more than the sum of his explanations. Branagh’s version, on the other hand, is so wracked with our modern lust for airtight exposition that it even gives a back story to the monster’s coat. As a result, the monster comes across less like an awe-inspiring abomination against God and more like the product of some skin grafts and a steampunk crash cart. He looks as though, if his creator had only spent a little more time practicing his sutures, the “monster” could've easily passed for Leonard Lowe.

Burdened by decades of brainless sequels, amusement-park mutilations, and parodic resurrections, Whale’s films have acquired an undeserved reputation for bastardizing and dumbing down Shelley’s malevolently intellectual creature. But in their messy, wild creativity, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are actually far closer to the spirit of Shelley’s powerfully incoherent novel than any slavish reproduction of its plot could hope to be. Those films may be responsible for turning the monster into a warmed-over corpse, but the movies themselves are closer to being the “new species” of which Shelley's Frankenstein dreamed.

Adaptation, like reanimation, may be less about the parts you stitch together and more about the lightning you jolt into them.