Anyone who has read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and seen James Whale’s 1931 film version knows that the similarities between the two are minuscule at best, while the differences abound. Similarities include character, mood, and plot, though even within these there are numerous differences. The plot follows the basic skeletal structure of a scientist obsessed with animating a lifeless body, stopping at nothing to achieve his goal, and in the end the creature he brings to life is his ultimate downfall.
Yet in the novel, Frankenstein is alone in his obsessed endeavor to animate life, shutting himself away and alone in his laboratory. In the movie, he has an audience to witness how he brings his creature to life. Again, in the novel, Frankenstein makes it clear to the captain to whom he is telling his story that he does not wish to make known his methods for animating life, so the reader never knows how the creature is brought to life.
In the movie, Frankenstein “experimented only with dead animals,” “a human heart…kept beating for three weeks,” “bodies took from graves, the gallows” (Frankenstein). Whale may have made these changes as a way of speculating, after all the advancements in science, how it might be possible to create life and to satisfy his own curiosity concerning the macabre novel. Such a significant change from the book may have actually fueled the imaginations of Whale’s 1931 audience and made the film more chilling than it would have been if it kept closer to the novel.
The film version of Frankenstein switches the names of the characters Victor and Henry from the book, so that Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel becomes Henry Frankenstein in Whale’s film, and Henry Clerval in the novel becomes Victor Moritz onscreen. Why Whale would make such a seemingly insignificant change can only be speculated, and again it may have been due to his concerns about his audience.
The mood is evident throughout both the novel and the film from the start. Lightning and storms abound in each, and the audience, whether reading or viewing, knows that the end will not be a happy one. It would have been difficult for Whale to detract from this element of the novel in his film, as it is a cornerstone of what made the novel itself so horrifying.
The most significant difference between the novel and the film is the character development of the creature/monster. In the novel, after being rejected by his creator, the creature stumbles about trying to make sense of his existence and eventually develops mentally; he learns to read and communicate, and eventually realizes why he is, which is what leads him to take revenge on his creator. In the film, the creature remains a slobbering, albeit physically strong, monster that easily loses his temper. Whale may have omitted the creature’s side of the story for pacing reasons since most of the film centers around how Frankenstein brought the creature to life, while the novel takes a more philosophical bent on the consequences of playing God through allowing the reader to see the creature’s side of the story.
James Whale’s film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may have irrevocably influenced how following generations arrive at the story, namely with preconceived notions about how the story will unfold. Rather than hurting Shelley’s original story, I believe it makes for a wonderful surprise to the reader to discover the multifaceted and complex character known as the monster, and to realize that the monster may not so much have been the creature but rather Frankenstein the creator himself.
Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Writ. Peggy Webling, John Balderston, et al. Film. Universal Pictures. 1931.
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