Rebuilding Frankenstein’s Monster


Lecture-time is doodle-time.

I’m still alive!
This past week I have been busy doing a university, rereading and studying Mary Shelly’s classic novel, Frankenstein. It’s one of those words so embedded in Western culture that the mere title is enough to conjure up images of the lumbering brute with the bolt through the neck – even among those who haven’t read the book. Especially among those people.

The Frankenstein’s monster that most people, myself included before reading the original, imagine, and which pops up a thousand times over with a Google image search, is the one portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film version. This guy:

The part in this film version where he throws the little girl in the lake is always unintentionally hilarious to me. Does that make me a bad man?

And yet, this version, iconic and enjoyable though it is, strays heavily from the novel in terms of both plot and aesthetics. Here is the first description of Frankenstein’s creature from Mary Shelley’s 1818 original, after the hapless scientist succeeds in creating life by infusing ‘a spark of being’ into a lifeless body:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work 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.

Seems fairly different to the monster which most of us have locked away in our shared/public memory. Frankenstein is a difficult novel to adapt faithfully to the screen, due to its framing narrative device, extended internal monologues, and various convoluted plot points. The closest version to a faithful adaptation I’ve seen so far is the 1977 film ‘Terror of Frankenstein’ (dir. Calvin Floyd), an Irish/Swedish production which takes the story very literally. It’s enjoyable, but quite dense and heavy handed at times.

The various adaptations go to show, I think, that this is a novel with an incredibly enticing imaginative prospect, so enticing that curious re-writers everywhere are happy to overcome the problems with representing such a profoundly creepy being in a visual form.

Finally, here is my own attempt at this, in watercolour paint. It’s only when you try to do it yourself that you realise how difficult it is to create an image of a being that is unbearably ugly, unsettling and not quite human, despite Shelley’s seemingly specific descriptions above.

Frankenstein: 'Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form.' 'Thus I relieve thee, my creator,' he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes.' Even ungodly walking corpses have a sense of humour.

Frankenstein: ‘Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form.’
‘Thus I relieve thee, my creator,’ he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes.’
Even ungodly walking corpses have a sense of humour.