Director: James Whale
Writers: Mary Shelley (Novel), Peggy Webling (Play), John L. Balderston (Adaptation), Francis Edward Faragoh (Screenplay), Garrett Fort (Screenplay)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris
Frankenstein (1931), while not exactly what Mary Shelley had envisioned, is a wonderfully told and well made adaptation of her story. The film has in many ways become more famous than Shelley's own story of Dr. Frankenstein and the creature he created. This version created many of the story elements that we normally associate with the Frankenstein mythology including what has become the most iconic look of the creature played by Boris Karloff.
The story itself diverges greatly from that of Mary Shelley's original novel but this is not really a bad thing. The movie, for the most part, trims the fat and creates and much more lean and fast moving story. As much as I love the slow tension built by Shelley in her book I don't think it would have worked as well in this movie. The movie builds tension in its own way and has an ending that is shocking and in some ways heartbreaking.
The film manages to create a creature that we can sympathize with even though he is not as fleshed out as he is in the book. The film, in a short time, shows us that Frankenstein's creation is not the monster that we normally associate with the story. He is actually a very gentle creature and most of his crimes either come about through self defense or because he does not understand the concepts of life and death. He is in many ways a child and doesn't understand the consequences of his actions.
I really only have a couple minor problems with the way the story plays out in this film. I am not a fan of how the use of a criminal brain in the creature is used as an excuse for why he becomes evil. This is mainly because I don't see the creature as evil and I found this to be kind of a cop out explanation for why he starts killing people in the film. Also, while I do think they did a good job of making the monster a sympathetic creature I wish they had fleshed out one part of his story just a little more. I wish they had taken the time to explain how he decided to come after Dr. Frankenstein and his fiance in the film. Without a real explanation for this, the creature does just seem to come across as a monster instead of a sympathetic character.
This film version of the story created much of the iconic imagery that has become widely associated with the story of Frankenstein. For starters the look of the monster that was used in this movie has become the widely accepted version of what Frankenstein's monster should look like. So much so that almost every version of the monster that is shown in popular culture is based on Boris Karloff's version of the monster. Even though he has no lines in the film, Karloff manages to do a great job of creating a character that is both sympathetic and frightening.
The version also added the method of creating the monster that has become the accepted method in popular culture. In Shelley's original book no method is given for how the creature is created. There is no mention of using corpses to piece together a body, nor is there any mention of using electricity to reanimate the body. The only reference to the methods used in the novel are a brief mention of Dr. Frankenstein finding the secret of life through the new study of alchemy. The pieced together body and the lightning bolts have become the most iconic version of the creation of the monster though.
The film also manages to have wonderful and interesting set design through-out. Dr. Frankenstein's lab looks amazing with the combination of what appears to be more modern electrical equipment against the old stone castle walls. The corridors running through the castle also always have an interesting and almost surreal look to them. The ending sequence of the film carries through with this interesting set design with the windmill where the final confrontation takes place. The stone and timber construction of the windmill gives the wonderful creepy and stark look that really adds to the lonesome tone of the end of the film.
Overall I really do enjoy this version of the story. It takes a lot of liberties with Mary Shelley's story but it still keeps many of the themes that were present in the novel. The movie doesn't just make the creature the emotionless and mindless monster that later versions of the story would use. While he does not speak or even seem intelligent he does seem to have emotions and have a will of his own. So, while I think they could have used another 15 minutes in the middle of the story to flesh out the character of the creature a little more, I still feel that this version of the story is extremely well told and deserves its place in history for its iconic imagery and sympathetic portrayal of the creature.