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Lost Baggage: Or, The Hollywood Sidetrack

Harriet E. Margolis

In Approaches to Teaching Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," ed. Stephen C. Behrendt (New York: MLA, 1990), pp. 160-65

{160} As someone trained in comparative literature, I straddle various fences; for this essay I write in the guise of a "film person" teaching Frankenstein within the context of a film and literature class. While I can imagine a film class (probably a genre class focusing on horror films) that would include Frankenstein films without requiring a reading of Shelley's original, I cannot imagine a literature class including the novel without confronting the Hollywood versions of Mary Shelley's vision. Hollywood's influence over contemporary consumptions of the Frankenstein text is the topic that I wish to address here.

First, though, a word on sources. While films of Frankenstein have proliferated over the years, the locus classicus is the 1931 version adapted from Peggy Webling's play and directed by James Whale -- the film that established Boris Karloff as a star, however typecast thereafter he may have been. The Bride of Frankenstein followed in 1935, with the same director and with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff again as "Henry" Frankenstein and "The Monster," respectively. The 1931 version drifts far from the shores of Shelley's original; the 1935 version makes efforts to right the course. Surprising as it may seem, given Mel Brooks's image, Young Frankenstein (1974; written by Gene Wilder, who plays the title character, and Mel Brooks, who directs) most lovingly hugs the contours of Shelley's landscape -- and of the 1931 Frankenstein and of The Bride of Frankenstein. An {161} obviously careful parody, Young Frankenstein is also a pastiche, deriving much of its humor from its egregious revisions of familiar images from such films as King Kong and Dr. Strangelove as well as from its more direct sources. In many ways, Young Frankenstein sticks closest to the concerns of Shelley's original; it may even be read as a serious and reassuring response to those concerns, a discovery students soon make when they discuss the specific similarities and differences in setting, characters, dialogue, and episodes among the novel, the 1931 and 1935 Hollywood versions, and Brooks's parody.

What, though, of the nonfilmic sources? How aware are contemporary students of Shelley's original concerns? The controversial scene on the lakeshore in which the Creature and the little girl play together with flowers -- a scene whose unhappy conclusion usually gets censored -- originated in theatrical versions (Tropp 87); quite unlike Shelley's novel, this scene and its variant in Young Frankenstein suggest that children, at least, find the Creature acceptable rather than horrific. Admitting the fallibility of marketing research, we must nevertheless allow the suggestion since, among other products targeted at children, Frankenberry cereal has met with some commercial success (its television advertisements have included precisely the lakeshore scene between Maria and the Creature excerpted from Frankenstein [1931]). From the 1930s on, children have accepted the Creature with fascination and delight; Shelley's original Creature would no doubt be thrilled except that his modern incarnation bears little kinship to the embittered and vengeful yet noble and enlightened savage who speaks for himself in the novel.

Significantly, it is "The Monster's Story," in which the Creature does speak for himself, that gets excerpted in the second volume of the Macmillan anthology Literature of the Western World (ed. Wilkie and Hurt), a basic text for introductory literature courses at many colleges and universities. For example, in my experience teaching Frankenstein, it was for various reasons impossible to expect the whole class to have read the entire novel. However, since the students had all completed a required class that used the Macmillan anthology as textbook, I could ask them to read the excerpt. Purists may object to a study of Frankenstein based on a fragment, but pragmatists will acknowledge the working possibility of the compromise. Although I think the Macmillan excerpt would be more useful if it also included the opening letters from Robert Walton to his sister, "The Monster's Story" nevertheless persuades students that Shelley's novel differs greatly from what most of us grew up with as the Frankenstein myth.

Generally, at least one student asserts that the original text has certain rights and that films of novels (or other originals) should stick to their base texts without modifications. I respond that cinema and literature are two {162} different art forms, working with different limitations and opportunities, although often sharing a well-established narrative tradition. Each art form must be considered in its own right while individual exemplars must be considered on their own merits. I also point out that, although the 1931 Frankenstein appeared only about thirty years into the cinema's existence an art form, Shelley's Frankenstein appeared only a little more than a century after the art form of the novel came into being -- each work, that is, belongs to an evolving art form. I might digress further by observing that no art forms exist without predecessors and that most art forms have experienced vagaries in their public function and appreciation. In other words, I use the occasion to talk about art forms in their social context.

Virtually all novels adapted for the screen get simplified in the process; the more complex the novel, the greater the simplification is apt to be. Shelley's Frankenstein is no exception. Yet films like the 1931 Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Young Frankenstein exhibit complexes of their own. In teaching Shelley's Frankenstein to undergraduates who probably know the monster primarily through the movies, the trick is to help them negotiate the confusing terrain of source, variation, and, eventually, parody. Such exploration may lead to discussions of authorship (Shelley, after all, had her sources) and perhaps (depending on time and the caliber of one's students) to discussions of distinctions between high and low culture and the role of myth in popular culture. The film versions should not be seen as less interesting than Shelley's original just because they have been simplified for cinematic purposes; on the contrary, the cinematic omissions, deletions, and alterations may help students to understand Shelley's work more fully.

For example, the filmic versions eliminate Shelley's various narrative frames, entailing the loss, most significantly, of the figure of Robert Walton and the several formal shifts in point of view. Their settings are changed so that Victor Frankenstein's progressive removal from society no longer contributes to a theme of loneliness and isolation. Filmic versions also add assorted characters, such as the deformed assistant derived first from nineteenth-century melodramatic versions of the novel and ultimately from traditional stock theatrical characters. In addition, the films generally emphasize visually provocative and imaginative aspects of the technological processes involved in the novel -- at the expense of discussing the moral consequences of these processes. However, these films have not so much rejected the historical and artistic context of Shelley's time as they have responded to the demands of their own epochs. Although the undergraduate may not recognize Shelley's explicit allusions to a literary tradition that includes Milton's Paradise Lost and the Prometheus poems by Percy Shelley and Byron, the principle behind allusions remains functional: {163} these films make their own allusions to several well-known films in the cinematic tradition.

Whether students read the entire novel or just "The Monster's Story," they must immediately consider formal differences between the literary and filmic versions. A simple yet heavily discussed characteristic of the cinema is that the camera cannot long maintain a first-person point of view. Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1946) is often cited as a failed attempt to sustain throughout an entire film a first-person narrative as we know the device from literature. Even with segments of a film, though, the camera typically -- conventionally -- adopts a third-person point of view (a convention, film theory argues, related to the distinction drawn between histoire and discours in linguistics and in linguistically influenced critical theory). The filmic conversion of the De Laceys and their education of Safie into the Creature's encounter with the hermit invites a digression on this distinction when time and course concerns permit. The real issue is that the formal significance of Shelley's shifts in narrative point of view gets lost in the filmic versions.

The most important loss is probably that of the epistolary frame, which ties the novel to two narrative genres: the frame story and the epistolary novel. Yet, in the opening sequence of The Bride of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester, who of course also plays the bride) explains how she came to write the story. In the 1931 Frankenstein, the presence of a token opening frame (in all senses) might also be argued, since the movie begins with Edward Van Sloan (who plays Dr. Waldman once the film proper starts) appearing from between the curtains on a traditional stage to announce that the producer, Carl Laemmle, has asked him to issue a "friendly warning." Van Sloan's speech describes Frankenstein as "a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God" and his story as a strange tale dealing "with the two great mysteries of creation: life and death." The function of this introductory warning is roughly analogous to that of Walton's opening letters describing Frankenstein.

In other words, Van Sloan's warning simultaneously follows Shelley's original intentions and deviates from them, for it clearly serves not as a serious moral injunction to would-be explorers and Promethean challengers but as a theatrical come-on, suggesting the emotional pleasures of shock and horror to follow. Thus both the 1931 Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein are identified with the concept of genre per se (if not exactly the genre of the epistolary novel), even if Karloff objected to the term horror film, preferring instead terror film (Glut, Frankenstein Legend 146).

The extent to which individual courses address the process of filmic adaptation may determine how much time is spent considering specific {164} episodes. One difference is that Shelley's novel has a relatively lonely quality, while the filmic versions seem cluttered with people. The relation between people and nature in novel and film, of course, differs radically, necessitating some class discussion about the Romantic concept of nature, on the one hand, and the history of cinematic mise-en-scène, on the other. The 1931 Frankenstein shows the influence both of the expressionistic sets for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and of the sets and the visualization of the eponymous character of The Golem (1920), the legendary tale of a robot created by a seventeenth-century rabbi. With The Golem the notion of influence in both film and novel dovetails, since Mary Shelley is said to have known of Jewish legend, and Robert Florey, originally scheduled to direct the 1931 Frankenstein and involved in the project long enough to settle some of its characteristics, was definitely aware of Paul Wegener's performance as the Golem (Tropp 87-88). The few crowd scenes mentioned in passing in the novel become significant visual elements of the first two films: most of these scenes were filmed on a set (imitated in Young Frankenstein) of a European village from the 1930 antiwar film All Quiet on the Western Front (Glut, Frankenstein Legend 145). (For more detailed discussions of various connections between these two films and contemporary events, see pp 88-89, 97, 99-105; Tropp's most significant point is that the 1931 film responds to the sense of chaos after World War I whereas the 1935 Bride acknowledges the growing unpleasantness of Hitler's social policy, specifically his emphasis on eugenics.) Another difference between the novel and the films is that true friendship between sympathetic souls plays a major role in the novel; the 1931 Frankenstein perverts the idea by converting the sensitive Henry Clerval into Victor Moritz, who, stiffly played the matinee idol John Boles, makes unwelcome advances toward Elizabeth. Both Bride and Young Frankenstein have the Creature welcomed by a blind hermit who is grateful for the company; in each version, the Creature's nobility and undeserved mistreatment are emphasized, first by the attack of the hunters in the original film and then by the hermit's clumsiness in the parody.

The theme of friendship leads necessarily to discussion of the Creature's character. Whale's mise-en-scene strongly emphasizes religious imagery throughout the 1931 Frankenstein and in significant sequences in Bride. Whereas the novel emphasizes the comparisons between the Creature and Adam, on the one hand, and Lucifer, on the other, Whale's imagery explicitly sets up the Creature as a Christlike figure. What is the nature of the beast, and does he deserve the treatment he receives? That the Creature is a sympathetic character who has always gotten less than his due becomes comically blatant in Young Frankenstein, when young Frederick Franken- {165} stein reduces the Creature (brilliantly played by Peter Boyle) to tears simply by telling him, "You are good"; Frederick continues his soothing behavior, saying, "This is a nice boy. This is a good boy. This is a mother's angel and I want the world to know, once and for all, and without any shame, that we love you."

Young Frankenstein shows that scientist and creation are complementary; the medical exchange in which young Frankenstein risks his life to correct the Creature's cerebral imbalance conclusively demonstrates that it takes both body and brain to make up a complete man, especially one who can satisfy a woman. Yes, Young Frankenstein "sinks" to burlesque, opting in the process for a variation on Hollywood's traditionally simple solution that love will conquer all, but the film does not neglect the more serious questions raised by the notion of artificially created life. The parody shows that Frederick the scientist is also Frederick the very fallible man who would like to surmount death in godlike fashion but who also knows his limitations and can feel remorse for the potential havoc he has wrought.

These questions, as well as those about the distinctions between human life and machine "life," periodically surface in Hollywood films. Students will probably comment on some of the contemporary films that discuss these issues: Creator (1985), in which Peter O'Toole plays a genially mad scientist (unlike his evil counterpart, Dr. Pretorious, in Bride) who wishes to resurrect his wife by regrowing her; Short Circuit (1986) about the lightning-struck robot Number Five, whose name irresistibly prompted the advertising campaign to echo Frankenstein by announcing, "It's alive!"; or even Electric Dreams (1984), which queries the distinction between human and computer love.

In all four versions of Frankenstein under consideration, the same crucial philosophical questions about creation, science, and social responsibility play major, if varying, roles. However, the answers to these questions, as indicated by the fates of key characters, may differ markedly -- from Shelley's warning about hubristic self-confidence to Brooks's boisterous reassurance about human possibilities. While students may initially gain a greater appreciation for the complexities of horror films, which in itself is not bad, they must also inevitably see the continued relevance of Shelley's work for contemporary society. That reason alone amply justifies detouring, as some may see it, onto the Hollywood sidetrack.