Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Frankenstein: Why Do the Film Versions of the Novel Always Fail?

Boris Karloff as The Creature
twm1340 / Foter / CC BY-SA

My AP students have finished reading Frankenstein and will soon start to write their papers on that novel.  Often, at this point in the year, students ask me if I can recommend a good movie version.  Perhaps someday a really skillful director will make a film version of Frankenstein that really captures the complexity of the novel, but so far, I haven't found one...Why is it so hard to make a good movie from this novel?  Well, here's my answer to that question.

Shelley sets up a conflict between narrative and spectacle, between hearing and seeing, between the Creature’s story, which is attractive, and his body, which is repellent.  Film is an almost entirely visual medium and therefore cannot do justice to all of Shelley’s creation.  

Like Victor Frankenstein, filmmakers want to create life (or the image/illusion of it), and for them, as for him, movement is equated with life.  Historically, film comes into being—comes to life, as it were—when artists/scientists animate photography, when they make still photographs into moving pictures.  Victor likewise animates a (heavily edited) corpse.  Filmmakers fall in love with Victor’s ambition because they share it.  

Thus, the filmmakers turn the process of creating and animating the Creature into a lavish spectacle and put all their effort into exaggerating the Creature’s horrible visage and stilted movements; in so doing, they see (the Creature) first and listen (to him) later—if at all.  They encourage viewers to stare and be repulsed, rather than to listen and then understand. 

The novel, on the other hand, lets us (along with Robert Walton) see the Creature only after we have listened to him.  As we read his narrative, we see the world through his eyes; we don’t look into them.  Consequently, instead of staring at his body, our thoughts paralyzed by his horrifying appearance, we see past his body and think along with him about what it means to be human.

Young Frankenstein:  great film, but not
really about the novel...
ralphhogaboom / Foter / CC BY-SA
The mind’s eye is more sympathetic than the body’s eye.  The mind’s eye can only see when it listens, and it creates an image of the Creature based on his narrative, and so sees his spirit, while the body’s eye, like the camera, often sees only the body and fails to capture the spirit.  And all the body-language in the world, no matter how skillfully captured on film, cannot convey the depths of misery and the pains of isolation that the Creature articulates so eloquently in his narrative and which we can only perceive and understand when we read it.   

So, I'm still waiting...maybe someday...


  1. It's difficult to imagine a version of the creature whose appearance wouldn't distract or alter how his internal dialogue (still, as you noted, retold by Victor) is interpreted/understood by the audience.

    1. True, and that's why the narrative needs to be heard/read before it can be truly seen. Robert hears the story before he sees the Creature, and that's why Robert doesn't freak out when he sees him.