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Posts Tagged ‘James Whale’

I forget precisely where it was that I first read the suggestion that the cultural influence of gothic literature has been greater than one would expect, given how little-read some of the actual books involved are. I’ve recently started a new role-playing game, with a group of people who are all pretty literate, especially when it comes to the SF, fantasy and horror genres: one of the major reference points for the new game is the original novel of Dracula, and people admitting that they haven’t actually read it has become something of a running joke – one person admitted to attempting it on more than one occasion, and simply ‘bouncing off’ what’s an imposingly big and dense text. (I ploughed through it when I was thirteen, but then I’ve always been quite weird.)

Nevertheless, everyone knows Dracula, or thinks they do, and the same is true for gothic horror’s other big hitter, Frankenstein, as written by Mary Shelley in fairly celebrated circumstances. The storm-enshrouded castle! The obsessive baron! The hideous monstrosity, stitched together from purloined cadaver parts! The mob of angry villagers wielding their blazing torches!

We’re at a point where I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that all of these are not now part of the common conception of Frankenstein – they have become mythemes, to adopt a neologism invented by structuralists – but this tells us much more about the power of the mass media than anything connected to Shelley or her novel, because (of course) the castle, the baron, the patchwork man and the angry mob are all completely absent from the book. We only associate them with Frankenstein because they’re in James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, and this film has achieved an extraordinary prominence, largely eclipsing the source text. When someone announces they are doing a ‘faithful’ adaptation of Shelley – as was somewhat the case with the Kenneth Branagh-directed Frankenstein of the mid-1990s – this is basically code, warning the audience they are going to see something that won’t necessarily meet their expectations of the story.

It’s startling how little of the novel actually makes it into Whale’s film. It opens, ominously, with a funeral in progress somewhere that looks bleak and would probably be windswept were it not a studio soundstage. Not far off, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are taking a professional interest… sure enough, once the funeral party leaves, the duo help themselves to the coffin and drag it back to the tower where Frankenstein is about his experiments. It’s not quite that he’s a self-made man, of course, but he does seem to enjoy making men himself.

Yes, Frankenstein has become obsessed with the twin mysteries of life and death, and – apparently in an attempt to comprehend the power of God – has assembled his own constructed person, whom he intends to animate, not with lightning but with a ray from beyond the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum (or something). Basically, don’t try this at home, kids. There is the slight problem that the creature’s brain is not the perfect speciment Frankenstein stipulated, but that of a diseased criminal (Fritz got a bit flustered), but nobody’s perfect…

Anyway, despite the concerns of Frankenstein’s sweetheart, Elizabeth, his father the old Baron, and his friend Victor (yeah, there’s something a bit you-what? about that, this being the main character’s name in the novel), his experiments come to a successful conclusion – for a given value of successful, anyway. The result is a towering, flat-topped creature, of seemingly limited mental capacity, but with an utterly human sensitivity. Boris Karloff plays the Creature, obviously. Bela Lugosi, who’d just played Dracula for the same company, turned the part down – apparently because at that point, the script had Frankenstein’s creation be just a frenzied monster driven to kill. Karloff, naturally, finds immensely more to do with the part, despite having no actual dialogue: this is a justly celebrated performance.

Before too long, Frankenstein’s desire to repent of his hubristic, sacrilegious offences comes to naught, as the Creature rebels against his cruel treatment at the hands of his creator’s associates and runs loose, crashing Frankenstein’s wedding preparations and inspiring that angry, torch-wielding mob to rise up. Which of them will get the justice they deserve?

As noted, it’s kind of fatuous to judge Frankenstein as an adaptation of the novel, because virtually none of the original story beyond the most basic premise makes it to the screen. Viewed solely as a piece of visual entertainment, however, it still stands up astonishingly well for a film now entering its tenth decade – it’s far better than Dracula, made in the same year by the same studio. It’s a piece about image and sensation above all else – characterisation is minimal, handled with the broadest of brushes – there’s none of the delving into Frankenstein’s personality and motivation that the Branagh version takes pains over. But the images themselves are fantastic: extraordinary, towering sets, and fluid direction by Whale. This is before we even get to the iconic realisation of the Creature himself.

On the other hand – and there really has to be another hand, no matter how legendary and influential the movie may be – one has to wonder about the extent to which this actually qualifies as an adaptation of Frankenstein, for it seems to me that the soul of the novel is absent. This is due to one key decision: rendering the Creature mute. Admittedly, Shelley’s handling of the Creature’s self-realisation and education is rather corny and implausible, but it does enable the central discourse of the story to take place: the discussion between Frankenstein and the Creature of what their responsibilities towards each other are. Frankenstein assumes the power of God, but is reluctant to take on the duties that go with it; the Creature’s resentment of what he sees as Frankenstein’s neglect is really justified. Karloff does a lot to make the Creature sympathetic, but in the second half of the movie Clive goes from being an imposingly unhinged presence (I think his performance in the opening section of the film is really underrated) to a much blander and more anonymous romantic lead. The climax of the film makes it initially seem quite ambiguous as to whether Frankenstein lives or dies: and, oddly, the scene which ends the film on a (supposedly) upbeat note barely features him. Perhaps the makers had already clocked that there was only one real star of this film, and it was the British guy in all the make-up.

The thing about Frankenstein the movie being such a massive popular success, and so iconic, is that the result is that there are essentially two rival versions of this story fighting for dominance in the public eye: Shelley’s and Whale’s. Every subsequent version of this story has riffed on or derived from one or the other of them – and, the vast majority of the time, it is Whale’s which has won out. You may find this regrettable (and it certainly means that a wholly satisfying film version of this story arguably doesn’t exist). Whale’s movie may be assembled out of images and ideas from many different sources, few of them having much real connection to Shelley, but this shouldn’t detract from the artistic success of the venture.

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