You might be familiar with the story of Frankenstein, probably from one of those many, many, many adaptations or pop culture references. It’s one of the most recognizable pieces of fiction in the world: mad scientist, skulking assistant, lightning strike, big green monster…and yet, there’s quite a bit more to the original tale than most people know.
As yet another adaptation takes over the big screen this weekend with Victor Frankenstein, promising to “reinvent” the old story for the modern age (as if we haven’t heard that one before), here are 10 Facts You Need to Know About Frankenstein (And His Monster)
Universal’s Iconic Frankenstein
By far the most popular image of Frankenstein (or more specifically, his monster) is the one that jumps into your head as soon as you hear the name: big guy, flat head, possibly purple eyelids and green skin with tattered clothing. This particular version comes from the 1931 Universal movie Frankenstein, and has made quite the impression on pop culture.
Universal is also responsible for other horror movie staples, with their early repertoire including Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941). Basically, all the favorites. It doesn’t stop there either, as Universal is soon set to bring you yet another Frankenstein movie sometime in the future (this week’s Victor Frankenstein comes from Fox), this time to be part of a monster movie shared universe in the vein of the Marvel movies, and possibly titled The Bride of Frankenstein. Presumably, this will culminate in a gigantic crossover event that features Van Helsing, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Creature from the Black Lagoon teaming up to fight their way through a horde of CGI Gremlins, after which we’ll all have to stick around for both a mid-credits and post credits scene that teases whatever’s coming next.
The Name of the Monster
This one’s a murky topic, because there have been so many adaptations over the years making things complicated. Still, as purists are only too happy to point out, nowhere in Mary Shelley’s original novel is the monster referred to as “Frankenstein.” That would be the name of the creator, who is far too busy being horrified over the aberration he’s unleashed upon the Earth to give his creation a name. The monster is called various names, including “monster” (obviously), “demon” and the good old “it,” but not “Frankenstein.” If anything, it should be called “Frankenstein, Jr.,” though the namelessness of the creature is an important part of his feeling shunned and unwanted.
There Was No Igor
You know Igor. Everyone knows Igor. He’s the hunchback assistant, subservient and probably google-eyed, who helps Victor Frankenstein in his mad schemes and mysteriously disappears from the narrative afterwards. He even has his own animated movie now.
What you might now know is that there was no Igor- at least not for a good while after the novel was released. The actual origin story of the character is a fragmented mish-mash, much like a certain monster we could mention. The original Victor Frankenstein worked alone, because good helpers are hard to find when the job description includes the words “help needed to defile the laws of nature.” Interestingly enough, there WAS a hunchback assistant in the 1931 film Frankenstein who was physically the influence for the character, but under a different name. Igor would be steadily pieced together over the years, all the way to the hunchbacked assistant and easy costume idea we all know and are appropriately creeped out by.
The Original Monster
Quick, think of a generic horror movie monster. Chances are you thought of one of the stock standard version created by the aforementioned Universal movies: Dracula, a mummy, a werewolf or a big green guy with bolts sticking out of his neck and probably a whole lot of stitches.
We’re not given too much description of the monster from the novel, though from what we know (as well as a few illustrations), he looked nothing like any of that, aside from being tall. Shelley describes the creature as having flowing hair, yellow, almost-translucent skin, glowing eyes and black lips. It’s a far cry from the well-known version in the 1931 movie. Notably, the method of creating the creature is left to the reader’s imagination in the novel, while the movie most prominently shows him being animated by lightning (or at least electricity – science, everybody!). The popular version also walks with a stiff gait and limited vocabulary, very much like a zombie. The original had none of this either, with the creature being graceful, despite his size, and he became very articulate after listening to only a few conversations.
The Character of Frankenstein’s Monster
Plenty of adaptations have seen Frankenstein’s monster as a killer, shambling around with the mind of a criminal due to an unfortunate brain swap, and murdering people… just because.
While the monster from the novel did his fair share of killing, they were all calculated and done for a reason, mostly to get back at his creator for unleashing him upon a world of rejection. In fact, while the title suggests otherwise, the monster could be considered both protagonist and antagonist, rather than a villain as he’s often portrayed.
The character himself is extremely sympathetic, lost and alone as one would be after being brought into a hostile world where everyone is actively trying to kill you. The original version displays a number of positive traits, such as empathy and a full breadth of emotions alongside his eloquence, which is once again incredibly different to Universal’s version, who was depicted as childlike and unintelligent, though still sympathetic.
Those Never-ending Adaptations
As you know so very well, the story of Frankenstein has wormed its way into pop culture in a way that few other stories have, sitting right up there with Dracula at the top of the list of well-known horror monsters. Some of the details might have shifted, but that’s to be expected from a novel that’s now almost 200 years old. If the Hunger Games books are still getting movie adaptations in 2215, you can probably expect things to look a bit different. Maybe even a redheaded Katniss. Madness.
However, it still has some catching up to do, as Frankenstein’s monster has appeared in almost fifty of his own movies and has inspired many, many more. That’s also not counting all the parodies, one-off appearances, stage plays and TV shows, which number in the hundreds when added up. It helps that the original novel is now in the public domain, meaning that anyone can adapt the story, in any way they please. The monster has made his presence known in every medium, from Veggietales (Frankencelery- actually a really nice guy) to full-blown Japanese kaiju movies. And yes, there is a movie where a giant Frankenstein’s monster fights a massive Godzilla-esque dinosaur. It’s probably not as poignant as the original, but everyone has their own interpretation.
The Origin of the Novel
It might be nearly 200 years old, but most people are still aware that Frankenstein was originally a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, first published in 1818. However, the book didn’t just come about on a whim; Shelley was travelling through Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and her travelling party (which included her future husband, writer Percy Shelley) found themselves trapped inside by the intense volcanic winter that was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before. This “Year Without a Summer” already sounds like the basis for a novel in itself, but while everyone was stuck indoors, the gauntlet was laid as to who could write the best horror story. Bear in mind that one of the most famous writers of all time – Lord Byron – was present, which makes things sort of unfair on everyone else.
Shelley was only eighteen at the time, but she managed to come up with the idea of a reanimated corpse and a scientist who was horrified at what he’d made, and a short story turned into a full-fledged novel. Exactly who won the competition is unknown, but Shelley’s work is easily the most famous of the lot. As for the name, there are several conflicting stories, but Shelley did pass by a Frankenstein Castle known for its mad science; in this case, alchemy.
The Modern Prometheus
Mary Shelley’s novel, like many of the time, had a flowery subtitle: The Modern Prometheus. This has been all but forgotten in the story’s many adaptations, as simply “Frankenstein” is a lot more punchy and easy to remember, but the title still holds some significance.
Prometheus is best known as an incredibly disappointing Alien prequel, but the original figure from Greek mythology was the creator of mankind, and eventually stole fire from Olympus to give to his beloved creation. While humans rejoiced at their new discovery of crispy chicken wings and general pyromania, Prometheus received eternal punishment from Zeus.
The most obvious parallel is the creation aspect: Victor Frankenstein creates life through science, while Prometheus created humanity. The links are tenuous from then on, but in a way, Doctor Frankenstein is also punished for his acts, with his creation turning on him and making his life miserable. He’s the “Modern” Prometheus, remember.
The Very First Frankenstein Movie
Thomas Edison might not have been the brilliant inventor everyone thinks he is, but as a businessman, he had his finger in quite a few pies. One of these was Edison Studios, and this was where the very first movie adaptation of Frankenstein was made. In fact, it was one of the first horror movies ever released, though the horrific aspects were generally toned down.
The whole thing is only sixteen minutes long and it’s a very loose adaptation, starting with Doctor Frankenstein and his beloved, transitioning to his creation of the monster and then spiraling far from the original plot. The creature becomes jealous of his creator’s love affair, and the short film ends with the scientist realizing that his obsession and impurity are what keeps the monster alive; upon surrendering himself to the power of love (probably) the monster fades away, and everyone lives happily ever after. So…there was no real monster?
It’s certainly not a typical take on the tale, but it still stands as the first time Frankenstein was put to film; plus the actual monster outfit genuinely looks like a cobbled-together human animated by dark science. Thomas Edison is credited as producer, despite not contributing anything except his name to the studio.
The First True Science-Fiction Novel
After the short story became a novel, Mary Shelley was encouraged to have the book published, which she did under a pseudonym. However, this was 1818, when science fiction was in its absolute infancy and most books intended for the adult market steered clear of anything fantastical. While not the exact, identifiable first sci-fi novel, Frankenstein is often considered the first “true” science fiction novel, due to its plot being brought about by deliberate mad science.
As with that one young adult series that you hate and everybody else seems to love (your choice: pick whichever one you like), the book was beloved by the public but not quite so much by critics, who delighted in tearing it to shreds in with old-timey English insults. Despite having its defenders critics were quick to jump straight from old-timey insults to old-timey sexism once the identity of the author was revealed a few years later, with The British Critic decrying Shelley for “the gentleness of her sex” and generally dismissing the idea that a woman could write good fiction.
Still, time has shown us the novel’s true quality, with Frankenstein still in print almost two centuries later, as well as one of the most enduring and popular works of science-fiction/horror ever written.
Are there any more facts about Frankenstein we should know? Let us know in the comments!