Celebrate Mary Shelley’s Birthday: Watch Frankenstein!

Posted on August 30, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Mary Shelley, daughter of two leading intellectuals and wife of a brilliant poet, was a teenager when she was challenged to write a ghost story and came up with one of the most enduring and often-filmed scary stories of all time, now considered the first true science fiction novel as well. She called it Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. And, as we all now know, it is the story of a scientist who tries to triumph over death by creating life. On screen, Frankenstein and his creation have co-starred with everyone from Abbott and Costello to Alvin the Chipmunk. The monster has been played by Boris Karloff, Robert DeNiro, Randy Quaid, David Warner, Tom Noonan, Peter Boyle, Michael Sarrazin, Lon Chaney, Jr., David Prowse (the actor who played Darth Vader) and John Cleese and inspired the character of Herman Munster, played by Fred Gwynne.

We Belong Dead: Frankenstein On Film is a good resource for the movie versions of Mary Shelley’s story. Some of the best Frankensteins include:

Frankenstein (1931) The James Whale-directed classic starring Boris Karloff is an unquestioned masterpiece of mood and filled with iconic moments.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Whale and Karloff returned with this sequel, which many consider even scarier. Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Shelley and the title character. Whale’s skill at making the story not just horror but tragedy makes this a compelling film that transcends genre.

Gods and Monsters (1998) This is not the story of Frankenstein but the story of James Whale (brilliantly played by Ian McKellan), whose depiction of Shelley’s story would be as influential in the 20th century as her book was in the 19th. The re-creations of the scenes from Whale’s films are meticulous and illuminating.

Young Frankenstein (1974) This loving spoof of Shelley and Whales has a hilarious script by Mel Brooks (who directed) and Gene Wilder (who starred as Dr. Fronk-en-STEEN). As influenced by Whales as by Shelley, this wildly funny film used some of Whale’s original sets and props.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) Brook and Wilder were not the first to see the comic possibilities in a monster film. Abbott and Costello run into a whole bunch of movie monsters with a lot of silly, Scooby-Doo-style scares.

And be sure to check out the Frankensteinia blog, which is a tribute to all things Frankenstein.

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4 Replies to “Celebrate Mary Shelley’s Birthday: Watch Frankenstein!”

  1. I was once told of a Lenten spirituality program that was based on “Frankenstein”. Though I am totally intrigued by the prospect, the person who told me about it could never find the resources used. So once in a while I sit and ponder how Lenten themes can be attached to this simple but amazing novel, and all the adaptations ever since. So far, nothing has worked. So if anyone knows of such a program, I would be very interested to learn about it.
    “Gods and Monsters” is an excellent inclusion in this list!
    When I was a kid Karloff was considered in the same hushed tones of reverence and awe as JFK and Mickey Mantle.

  2. “Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein” is a very funny movie. All the movies on this list are great.
    (It’s too bad that the film version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” cast Raymond Massey in the role that should have gone to Karloff!)

  3. You’re right, Droon! The book is far more complex and provocative. But as is always the case, you have to think of the book and movie as if they came from separate planets, which in a way they do.

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