Curators' Blog

Frankenstein on Stage and Screen

To accompany our summer exhibition, Frankenstein: 200 Years of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece, I thought I would write a short piece about the book’s legacy in the form of adaptations.

There have been an enormous number of adaptations of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus only some of which are represented in the exhibition. The earliest stage versions of the story began only a handful of years after the novel was initially published.

Shortly after Mary returned from Italy after Percy Shelley’s death she saw a stage production of Frankenstein, titled Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, which opened on 28th July 1823. Mary heard in a letter from her acquaintance Horace Smith that, in the premiere the Monster “caused the ladies to faint away”. The play was so successful that it ran for several months, and whilst it was running a further two versions opened, along with three burlesque versions.

Cover illustration for Richard Brinsley Peake’s adaptation, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, 1823.

In 1825 a production called Frank-n-stein, or the Modern Promise to Pay opened in New York. The following year it toured to London, Edinburgh, Paris and Vienna.  Such was the success that William Godwin, ever in need of money, tried to get a reprint published. One of the major impacts of these stage adaptations was the introduction of an assistant to Victor. The character of Fritz began to appear in the 1820s versions of the story, and later became Igor, who is familiar to modern audiences.

The front page of an 1825 version of Mary Shelley’s tale published in the cheap weekly magazine Endless Entertainment.

The first film version of Frankenstein arrived in 1910, very early in the development of cinema. The silent film, produced by Edison’s film company, is a very liberal adaptation. Large-scale changes were necessary to condense the film into a 12 minute run time, but the most significant alteration is the addition of a happy ending for Victor and Elizabeth.

The cover of the March 1910 issue of The Edison Kinetogram, a publication that the company used to promote their work.

The most iconic adaptation of Mary’s novel is the 1931 film directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the Monster. The 1931 film drew upon Peggy Webley’s 1927 stage version of Frankenstein, rather than directly on the novel. Enormously popular, the film spawned numerous sequels, including Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, and is considered to be one of the most influential horror films of all time.

Whale’s film even inspired an invention that would save the lives of millions of people. A young boy called Earl Bakken from Minnesota, USA was entranced by the film. “What intrigued me the most, as I sat through the movie again and again,” Bakken said, “It was the creative spark of Dr. Frankenstein’s electricity. Through the power of his wildly flashing laboratory apparatus, the doctor restored life to the unliving.” This young man was inspired to conduct his own electrical experiments. One day, after meeting with a local cardiologist, Bakken began to test electrical mechanisms for correcting faulty heart rhythms. His prototype worked, and the first internally fitted pacemaker was created. Bakken’s invention, inspired by Shelley and Whale’s creative vision, has gone on to improve and save the lives of people across the world. This is the power of a good story.

Victor Frankenstein’s monster has featured in many subsequent films and television programmes from Herman Munster in the 1960s TV show The Munsters, to Mel Brook’s 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein, in Kenneth Brannagh’s 1994 dramatic retelling, Tim Burton’s animated feature Frankenweenie, along with many more examples. A new film, telling Mary Shelley’s life story was released in July this year.

The stage and screen versions of the Monster differ substantially from Mary Shelley’s original description:

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the web of muscles and arteries beneath;  his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing;  his teeth of a pearly whiteness;  but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

This description is a long way from the green-skinned figure with a bolt through his neck that most people think of when describing Frankenstein’s monster. One of the most important ways in which the adaptations of the novel Frankenstein have differed from the original text is in their treatment of the monster. In the novel he is eloquent, intelligent and articulate. In the vast majority of film and television adaptations, Frankenstein’s monster is barely able to complete a sentence. Whatever one thinks about the artistic changes subsequent people have made to Mary’s story, the huge range of adaptations and alterations to her original tale reflect the ongoing relevance and appeal of the novel.

Frankenstein: 200 Years of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece will be open until 6th October 2018 at Horsham Museum and Art Gallery.


Leave a Reply