During the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin took a trip to Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with her future husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their plans were to visit the infamous Lord Byron, the poet, and lover of Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont. During their stay at the Villa Diodati, they met Byron's friend, Dr. John Polidori. That summer was infamously cold and dreary, so the guests of Byron decided to entertain themselves by reading ghost stories. Byron proposed that he and his guests each write their own. It took Mary a long time to come up with something, but eventually, after a grim "waking dream," she was inspired to write the tale of Frankenstein.
The origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are almost as iconic as the tale itself. The book, first published in 1818, when she was only 20 years old, has widely been credited with creating the entire science fiction genre. Everyone, even those who have never read the novel, has a basic understanding of what Frankenstein is about and what it represents. This is the defining tale of man's hubris in the face of life-or-death situations he can never wholly comprehend. Frankenstein is the name that has become a stand-in for the mad scientist, the fool who refuses to accept that he cannot control everything. Returning to the source material, it's a surprise to find out how meticulously crafted it is and steeped in gothic horror — no real shock when you think about its origins.
Upon its original publication, many critics praised the novel, but just as many slammed it for blatantly sexist reasons. While it was originally published anonymously, many knew that Shelley was its author, and The British Critic attacks the novel's flaws as her fault: "The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall, therefore, dismiss the novel without further comment." Yikes.
However, its legacy has endured for a reason. Guillermo del Toro, a big fan of Frankenstein, described it as "the quintessential teenage book," adding, "You don't belong. You were brought to this world by people that don't care for you and you are thrown into a world of pain and suffering, and tears and hunger. It's an amazing book written by a teenage girl. It's mind-blowing."
Frankenstein, much like Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera, is a book that is seldom adapted in a straightforward or faithful manner. Rather, writers and filmmakers pick and choose the elements they like and use the iconography in ways they find intriguing. However, unlike Dracula, which is centered on a highly flexible genre metaphor, the themes of Frankenstein adaptations tend to remain specifically focused on what is at the heart of Shelley’s novel: a tale of power, playing with God, and its inevitable tragedy. With themes that prescient, why would you need to screw around with them?
Of course, plenty of adaptations have, and some of them have produced fascinating results. So, to celebrate Shelley’s birthday and Frankenstein Day, we’re going to take a look at some of the best, worst, and weirdest adaptations of her magnum opus. As always, this is not a comprehensive list of every adaptation ever (because there are a lot of them!), so if there’s one we’ve missed that you think is worth mentioning, let us know in the comments below. Prepare for a whole lot of movies where people don’t seem to know that the monster isn’t actually named Frankenstein.
Good: Thomas Edison's Frankenstein
The first-ever motion picture made of Frankenstein is also one of its most visually striking. When he wasn't electrocuting elephants, Thomas Edison was helping to produce films (and attempting to gain a total monopoly over the entire industry). The 1910 short movie of Frankenstein is a self-described liberal adaptation of the story, but one with a surprising aesthetic flair. If nothing else, it's a sharp insight into how the iconography of the story has shifted over the year and what audiences' perceptions of Frankenstein were before Universal came to define it for several generations. It's also an insight into how, even from the earliest point in cinema's history, the concept of adaptation was also handled with a loose grasp. As with all films of this era that survived — this one was thought lost for many decades — Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein is available to watch on YouTube for free!
Bad: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
In 1994, Kenneth Branagh was a very big deal who was very easy to mock. He’d made some highly successful Shakespeare adaptations, published his autobiography at 29, and was generally regarded as a being a bit of a show-off. His adaptation of Frankenstein was the first sign of a backlash against him, but it didn’t help that the film is a total mess. It’s also, shockingly, one of the more faithful adaptations of the book, and one that mostly gets the tone right. It’s a story of feverish obsession and Branagh understands that. However, good intentions and focus do not necessarily equal a good movie. A big problem with this adaptation is casting. Branagh takes on the lead role, seemingly only to show how buff he got for it (which, in fairness, is very buff, and he gets very sweaty and slimy with his shirt off in this movie if that’s your thing). The monster is played by Robert De Niro, and it is the most distracting piece of miscasting I can think of. It may very well be that the things that make the book work so well aren’t easy to translate to the big screen. What plays as all-consuming obsession and atmospheric dread on the page feels overwrought and unintentionally comical in the film. There's still a lot to be gained from watching this one. It's certainly never boring, but it's an unfortunately perfect example of how good intentions often lead to the biggest missteps.
Weird: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein
Herbert L. Strock's 1957 B-movie may win the award for the best title on this list, but alas, it's also nowhere near ridiculous enough to actually justify it. The movie is a follow-up of sorts to I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a surprise hit that was released only five months before Teenage Frankenstein, which was basically rushed into production to keep up with the trend. Using a werewolf as a broad metaphor for adolescence makes sense, but Frankenstein's monster isn't as fitting, although this one offers more opportunities for buff shirtless scenes. It's not a great movie but there's a wonderfully slapdash quality to it that feels very reminiscent of early Mystery Science Theater 3000. Check it out for the alligator.
Good: James Whale's Frankenstein
When you think of Frankenstein’s monster, chances are that the first image that comes to mind is Boris Karloff’s squared-off head with bolts in his neck. Karloff, alongside Bela Lugosi's Dracula, not only managed to save the flagging fortunes of Universal Studios in the early 1930s, but they helped to define modern horror as we know it. While Tod Browning's Dracula hasn't aged well in many ways, so much of James Whale's Frankenstein still feels fresh and suitably unnerving. Karloff's performance is one for the ages, simultaneously able to evoke pity and fear from the audience. If you love cinema, you have to watch this movie.
Bad: Victor Frankenstein
It’s tempting to just write “this movie was written by Max Landis” and leave it at that, but that would be lazy, even for me. Victor Frankenstein feels like a movie made by someone who hated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That's not far from the truth, given that Landis himself declared the book to be "dull as dishwater." The audacity. Perhaps that’s why his film is so bland, although in a way that has next to nothing in common with the source material. Victor Frankenstein’s biggest influence seems to be the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies but it lacks the stylistic verve and propulsive narrative of those sinfully underrated titles. There are sparks of life from the two leads, played by James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe, but not even their chemistry can save this wilting mess. The downside of dismissing the entirety of the source material is that you miss all the stuff that makes it both interesting and relevant.
Weird: Flesh for Frankenstein
In 1973, Paul Morrissey, a regular collaborator with Andy Warhol, set up production on two movies to be shot back-to-back with the most of the same cast: One was Blood for Dracula, and the other was Flesh for Frankenstein. The perfect double bill! If you've seen Blood for Dracula, you'll know it's a highly unorthodox but deeply fascinating take on the source material, and Flesh for Frankenstein is no different. Udo Kier plays Baron von Frankenstein, a scientist obsessed with creating the perfect Serbian race to serve his every whim. To fulfill his dreams, he tries to assemble the perfect male and female from various body parts, and also occasionally use various surgical wounds on these bodies to satisfy his own sexual needs. And also he's married to his sister. And there's a scene where someone disembowels himself. It's that kind of movie. And it was made in 3D, so there's plenty of guts flying at the screen. It may sound schlocky as all hell — and don't worry, it is — but Flesh for Frankenstein is also a fascinating and feverish take on white supremacy and the failures of the countercultural sexual revolution. See it if only for the greatest line committed to celluloid: "To know life, you have to f*** it in the gallbladder." I need that embroidered on a pillow.
Good: Bride of Frankenstein
James Whale’s Frankenstein is good, but the sequel is better. Released four years after its predecessor, Whale's follow-up takes place immediately after the supposed death of the monster, with Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester, who also portrayed the Bride) filling in the real ending of her chilling tale. Dr. Frankenstein's former mentor, the delightfully lascivious Septimus Pretorius, assists him in creating a mate for his creature. Bride of Frankenstein is overall more fantastical and dreamlike than the first and offers a more rounded portrayal of the monster himself (he actually gets to speak in this one). One of the reasons Bride of Frankenstein holds up so well is its openness to queer readings. Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood during the 1930s, and some of the actors in the cast, including Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive, were gay or bisexual. Pretorius is a wonderfully seductive camp figure who wants to create life without using the Biblical ways, and the metaphor of two individuals shunned by society marrying in the face of horror and anger is a blatant one. Many scholars reject this interpretation but Whale's work is still the epitome of early camp in a way that helped horror evolve for the better.
Bad: I, Frankenstein
Woof, this one is really awful. Many of the bad Frankenstein adaptations are bound together by their stubborn refusal to embrace the deceptively simple but endlessly potent messages of the book. A lot of them also get tied up in notions of making the source material "more exciting," as if playing gods and monsters wasn't thrilling enough. I, Frankenstein feels like a bad bet of a film, a lifeless derivative dirge of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. It baffles the mind how a story with superhuman creatures, demons, gargoyles, and reanimated corpses could be so boring. There’s not even any “so bad it’s good” fun to be had from this effort, which barely feels like an effort at all thanks to staggeringly cheap-looking CGI and performances that range from sleepy to comatose. At least Aaron Eckhart looks hot with scars.
Weird: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
To our modern eyes, it is completely bizarre that one of the most popular and terrifying pop culture and cinematic successes of its time would do a comedy crossover movie, but this was par for the course for Golden Age Universal Studios. Comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were two of the biggest stars in American for much of the 1940s and early 1950s thanks to work on radio, television, and film. They'd made Universal and MGM a lot of money during wartime, so it only seemed right to team them up with the studio's other golden goose. Abbott and Costello would later go on to meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and The Killer Boris Karloff, but it's their first horror-comedy title that remains their most famous. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is kind of a deceptive title because they spend most of the movie's running time hanging out with (or running away from) Universal's entire monsters slate. Bela Lugosi appears as Count Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr. appears as the Wolf Man, while the legendary Vincent Price makes an uncredited cameo as the voice of the Invisible Man. Boris Karloff did not reprise his role as the monster for this film, leaving the wonderfully named Glenn Strange to take over. Overall, while a lot of the humor is creaky to contemporary audiences — it's all very vaudeville centered — the movie itself is still very enjoyable and has a lot of fun with the Universal horror clichés. So why classify it as weird? Well, can you watch that movie and not spend the running time imagining how we'd pull this off in 2019? Maybe we have the Avengers cross over with Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon? Actually, I would pay to see that.
Good: Young Frankenstein
Let’s be honest here: Young Frankenstein is the best thing Mel Brooks has ever made. Yes, better than Blazing Saddles. Fight me. On top of being absolutely hysterical and endlessly quotable, Young Frankenstein is a pretty solid adaptation of Shelley's book, both a loving pastiche and a smartly executed take on the material. Shot entirely in black and white, it's easily the most beautiful movie Brooks ever made. Every frame, even the silliest of moments, looks like it could have come straight from the camera of James Whale. This is a representation of what the best parodies can do and why it matters that you love the thing you mock rather than doing so out of resentment for the topic at hand. It’s clear that Brooks and the late great Gene Wilder are enamored with horror from the Golden Age and have a deep understanding not only of what makes it work but what is ripe for hilarity. If you’re not in absolute stitches by the time they get to the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene, you’re probably dead inside and need to be revived by Dr. Fronkensteen.
Bad: Van Helsing
It’s a bit of a stretch to call this one a Frankenstein movie but it’s still worth mentioning for what it represents. This 2004 blockbuster was the freshest attempt by Universal to relaunch their iconic monsters franchise. It has a lot in common with the Universal titles of the ‘40s, where all the most famous creatures were thrown into one movie for the mutilate monster mash. If done well, or with the right level of cheese, it can be a heartily enjoyable experience. It would be a lie to say Van Helsing isn’t enjoyable in its surprising ineptitude — I’ve seen it way too many times and I always have a ball — but it’s also hard to get over the lost potential of it. The Mummy worked so well but where that movie had vibrancy and an endlessly charismatic cast, Van Helsing feels like kind of a drag, even when it’s at its most bombastic. The CGI looks like first-generation Playstation graphics and the hints of a wider mythos are ignored for most of the running time until they can be used for a sequel hook. Richard Roxburgh hamming it up to the nines as maybe the most over-the-top Dracula has its benefits. As for its Frankenstein and his monster? They’re the best part of the movie, with the monster easily functioning as the smartest character in the entire movie. If only there had been more scenes with him.
Weird: Frankenstein's Monster Monster, Frankenstein
Try saying that title three times as fast! This half-hour comedy special on Netflix is a strikingly unique venture that's as proudly weird as its tongue-twisting title. David Harbour of Stranger Things fame plays "himself" as well as his father, an eccentric actor who mounted a questionable production of Frankenstein with the overlong name. You’re either going to be on this thing’s wavelength or you’re going to be exhausted by it within two minutes. This is a proudly obtuse and esoteric comedy more interested in poking fun at the pretentious nature of both acting and documentary than being a traditional laugh-riot. The Frankenstein framing provides foundations for some wonderful hamminess, although it doesn’t have a patch on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in terms of using fake pop culture for meta-comedy. Harbour, in particular, is clearly having the time of his life being an overblown version of himself as well as his fake father, who seems inspired by latter-era Orson Welles. It’s a curiosity but not a necessity.
Good: The Curse of Frankenstein
Hammer Horror may be better known for their myriad Dracula adaptations, but they also did their fair share of Frankenstein ones. Indeed, The Curse of Frankenstein actually predates their first stab at Dracula and was the first time the studio brought its legendary stars, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, together. Professor Patricia MacCormac called it the "first really gory horror film, showing blood and guts in color." It certainly doesn't skimp on that promise, thanks to being Hammer's first horror film in color. On-screen blood is seldom as red as it is in Hammer. Said violence completely outraged critics at the time, with the Tribune declaring The Curse of Frankenstein to be "Depressing and degrading for anyone who loves the cinema." Yikes. But that didn't stop audiences turning out in droves to see it. Hell, it probably helped bolster box office sales. The Curse of Frankenstein is one of the Hammer Horror titles that best holds up to modern viewings. Peter Cushing is the perfect Frankenstein, bringing suitable weight to the role of a truly diabolical man. Even under all that creature makeup, Christopher Lee’s sheer presence as the monster is undeniably alluring, signaling just how good a Dracula he would be only a year later. If you need a good primer on the best of Hammer, this is a good place to start.
Blacula was a sleeper hit of 1972, helping to popularize blaxploitation horror, so surely a rushed out cash-in released one year later called Blackenstein would have the same success. Blacula isn't a great film but it has interesting ideas and a truly unique spin on the Dracula mythos that serves as a keen reminder of how overwhelmingly white vampire fiction was and continues to be. Blackenstein is mostly just a slog. There are moments of intrigue and it’s clear the filmmakers have a great love for the classic horror the movie is paying homage to, but it’s not enough to carry a whole movie. Great title, of course, but a movie called Blackenstein should have a touch more self-awareness and willingness to make fun of itself.
Weird: Mary Shelley's Frankenhole
Dino Stamatopoulos, a writer from various late-night TV series and Community, created this Adult Swim stop-motion comedy that stands as one of the network's more underrated shows. In this re-imagining of the story, Dr. Frankenstein is now immortal and has created an infinite number of wormholes across space and time that allow various historical and fictional figures to visit him for advice and his unorthodox medical services. Frankenstein's wife is having an affair with Count Dracula, the family servant is Mother Theresa, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde run the local pharmacy (and are voiced by Dan Harmon), the Wolf Man won't shut up about his curse, and Michael Jackson's son Blanket runs the local tavern where all the monsters hang out. It's that kind of show. Frankenstein's cynical creature trying to win over his repulsed bride is one of the show's more normal elements.
Good: Rocky Horror Picture Show
Shut up, it counts. It’s just a jump to the left…