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The Lightning Letter

The Lightning Letter

How Modern Tellings of Frankenstein Diminish the Original Story

A deep dive into the main differences between Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein, and the 1931 Movie
How+Modern+Tellings+of+Frankenstein+Diminish+the+Original+Story

It’s safe to say that almost everyone is aware of the horror figure, Frankenstein. Most have seen at least one drawing of the iconic scene where the doctor yells, “It’s ALIVE!!” as the monster rises from the dead. However, many people do not know the original story of Frankenstein and its original meaning.

Modern pop culture tends to diminish original works in favor of entertainment. Whether it’s disrespecting Native American folklore to create a more Hollywood-friendly movie (see my previous article on the topic of Skinwalkers) or reusing the works of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing for films such as Heathers and Mean Girls, I think one of the biggest victims of this would be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, also known as The Modern Prometheus.

Prometheus is the Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to give to humanity, a gift that cost him his own life. Shelley’s novel depicts a young and noble scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who dedicated his life to trying to “play god” by creating life on his own with the power of alchemy. The story tells the story of a man who attempted to reach where no one had reached before and pays the price for it dearly. In contrast to the beautiful story, screen adaptations of Frankenstein show a completely different story to the original works by flipping characters around and demonizing the pinnacle character of the story, “the monster.” So let us jump into the main differences between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and modern adaptations, specifically the 1931 film Frankenstein

My prominent bone to pick with the 1931 film is “the monster’s” character itself. This movie was the first that led to the common misconception that the creature in the story is named Frankenstein when Frankenstein is the name of the main protagonist, Victor Frankenstein. Who, by the way, is renamed Henry Frankenstein in the movie. This change confused me and other lovers of the original book. This is because, in the original story, Victor has a best friend named Henry Clerval, a character who is renamed Victor Mortiz. I don’t know why this was changed, but I believe it helps lead to the confusion of the monster’s name.

Another problem with the character is personality. Modern TV tends to exaggerate characters to add to the scare factor. This common mistake leads to the dismissal of the writer’s original intentions. In the original book, “The Monster,” he only kills six people, three on purpose and three indirectly. In the movie, Frankenstein only kills four. Now, one might look at the different kill counts and just shrug. However, the problem is less about the number of kills and more about who killed them and why. According to Deadmeatfandom.com, There are six counted deaths in the 1931 film, only four committed by “the monster.” The first one is the character Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant. The kill was meaningless, simply out of anger. The second killing is the same, the strangulation of Dr. Waldman, a professor at the school Frankenstein attended. The 3rd death once again has no actual meaning. “The monster” threw a young girl, Maria, into a lake and she died. The last “death” is Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth. Her being knocked unconscious by “the monster” on the night of their wedding. My main problem with these deaths is the motive. “The monster” is only seen as an angry, stupid creature with violence in his eyes. In fact, people blame the creature’s actions on his brain being stolen from a hanged criminal, a plot point not originally found in Shelley’s novel.

In the original story, the opposite is true. After Frankenstein creates “the monster,” he is terrified of his creation and flees the home, abandoning the creature for two years. As told by “the monster” himself later in the story, after tracking down Frankenstein, the creation slowly taught himself how to speak, understand concepts, and eventually learn to read after living in the shed of a family. The monster is even able to realize the horror that is himself. After scaring multiple people almost to death and killing two on accident, the monster comes to the realization that he cannot and will not ever be loved. The one thing he wants more than anything. In the book, the monster is humanized in a way the movie fails to mention. At the end of the book, Frankenstein is astonished and horrified as the monster can speak to him fluently and adequately, even being able to reference the Bible.

What is also important is the second to last death in the book is Frankenstein’s wife. After the monster tracks Frankenstein down and explains his findings over the last few years, he gives him an ultimatum. He tells Frankenstein that since he was the one who cursed him with his existence, Frankenstein needs to create a wife for the creature. Something that he can finally love and be loved by. The monster tells Frankenstein that if he does his bidding, he will never kill or interact with anyone again. Frankenstein initially agrees but changes his mind because he cannot endure the pain and guilt of making another sinned creature. After the rejection, the monster tells Frankenstein that if he doesn’t make a wife for him. He shall expect to meet him one more time on his wedding night. When this night rolls around, Frankenstein is extremely paranoid about the monster killing him, pacing around the house with a gun, and abandoning his newly wedded wife. It’s not until he hears Elizabeth’s scream that he realizes the monster plans to destroy his love since he cannot have his own. A realization that destroyed Frankenstein.

The last issue is the ending. The 1931 film ends happily ever after, with the monster being killed and Frankenstein and his wife living a beautiful life. But that isn’t how it originally ended. In Shelley’s novel, after his wife’s death, Frankenstein flees, filled with guilt and fear. While running away from the monster, Frankenstein runs into a young scientist. The story actually begins with this young scientist writing a letter to his sister about the man he found on the verge of death, walking seemingly nowhere. After learning about this scientist’s dreams of fulfilling his dreams of making new creations and discoveries in the science scene, Frankenstein warns him of the dangers of trying to reach the level of a god, just as he did. He tells the man of his entire story and how it ends with him eternally running away from this monster. That night, after he tells his story, Frankenstein dies at the young scientist’s ship. As the young man looks out the window of the ship after he finds Frankenstein dead, he sees the monster. Now, the monster didn’t kill him. He wasn’t happy to see Frankenstein was dead. He was crying. He is crying now that he knows he is truly alone in his god-forsaken life.

Now, that ending is absolutely gut-wrenching. And it is completely thrown out the window in the movie. I don’t know what’s more heartbreaking. I know that people probably didn’t want to see a horror movie with such a depressing ending, but it was so important! The book wasn’t a scary story. It was a warning of what happens when you fly too high to the sun. Frankenstein is an Icarus who lost everything due to his own obsession.

Even if I have spoiled everything, I encourage you to read the book and watch the movie. They are both classics. Another recommendation would be to read Juni Ito’s manga rendition of it. The art is truly amazing and more accurately matches  Shelly’s description of the monster compared to the movie. Special thanks to Wendigoon’s video on this topic.

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About the Contributor
Lennon Freitas
Lennon Freitas, Staff Writer
Lennon Freitas is a junior at JLHS. After moving to Nashville from California and transferring out of homeschooling, Lennon is in his third year of public school. He writes on current world events and activism in America. Freitas is very active in the James Lawson theater company and is currently the co-president of the International Thespian Society. He also is a proud NHS member. Freitas enjoys Spider-Man, Paul Dano, and Dr Pepper.
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