Frankenstein: Making of a Modern Myth

In his new book, Christopher Frayling examines how Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818 brought about one of the most enduring characters in literature and film – and created a visual language all its own

Image shown above of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in 1931, courtesy of Rex Features 

There’s an indication of the longevity of one of literature’s most enduring stories in the title of Christopher Frayling’s new book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, published by Reel Art Press. There’s also the belief that it is a story that will be told for centuries more.

Since its publication on New Year’s Day 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel has continued to transfix readers, but her story has also continued to evolve a second and third life in the theatre and on film where the image of the creature – ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ – has been defined by a handful of actors and skilled make-up artists and become an icon of the horror canon.

The image of the creature and the elements of his formation, from his mad scientist creator and laboratory, to the thunder and lightning, is deeply embedded within our visual culture and, as Halloween descends, is arguably most visible at this time each year.

On left: The powerful image of Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) lying across her bed was featured on much of the American publicity for Frankenstein (1931). Original American three-sheet poster R|A|P Archive. On right: Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare (1782 version)

The monster is in fact the third most adapted literary character in cinematic history (behind Sherlock Holmes and Dracula) and continues to act as a symbol for scientific ambition, alienation and social rejection, while seeming equally at home in the 20th and 21st-centuries across a spectrum of musicals, cartoons, advertising and merchandise.

Before revealing a host of artistic treasures that form part of the visual evolution of Frankenstein, Frayling’s book also details the story’s fascinating genesis – an origin story that is almost as mythic as the novel itself. 

In 1816, the 18 year-old Mary Godwin was staying at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, having eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (they were married later that year). The poet Lord Byron and his physician, John Polidori, were also guests. During their stay a challenge was laid down to concoct a ghost story and, over the night of June 17th, Godwin got the chance to tell her tale and shared the startling ‘creation scene’ from what would later become her first novel, published two years later in an edition of 500 copies.

Frayling tells the story of Frankenstein as it was unleashed into the world and how its unique visual imagery has taken shape in its transformation from novel, to stage plays and into cinema, over the course two hundred years. He also writes of what the story taps into in our own time – and why it seems we still refuse to let the monster alone.

Original French billboard poster by artist Jacques Faria (1931). Mary Evans Picture Library

Creative Review: What was your first introduction to Frankenstein?

Christopher Frayling: I was eleven years old, much too young! The manager let me into the Plaza [cinema] in Piccadilly where they were showing The Revenge of Frankenstein [in 1958], which scared the pants off me and sowed the seed. And funnily enough, it was the films that came first with me. I then started reading Frankenstein and indeed Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was 12 or 13 years old.

The poster for The Revenge of Frankenstein said ‘We dare you to forget it!’ and I never did. In some ways, the whole of my life has been exorcising the demon of that afternoon in the cinema…. Of course, the great thing about Hammer [Films] was that it was in colour for the first time, whereas we tend to associate these old horror films with Hollywood black and white. Gore was very Technicolor! But it scared the shit out of me, so there we are.

Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

CR: In the book you cover Mary’s background extensively. Writers at this time were interested in philosophy and new ideas, but it seems that there was a strong connection to science at the time as well?

CF: Yes, the kind of specialisms that we associate with art and science is very much a Victorian invention, putting things in separate boxes. And if you look at the people involved in the famous ghost story session – there’s Shelley, who experimented with chemistry when he was at Oxford; there’s Mary, who sat at the dinner table with her father, William Godwin, with the most distinguished scientists of the day – that was her university almost – and Doctor Polidori [Lord Byron’s physician], who’d just graduated at a very young age from Edinburgh University. These people, although they were artists they were also scientists and they didn’t see a distinction between the two.

The thing about the novel is that it operates at two different levels…. Yes, there’s the science, all the debates about contemporary science, whether it’s ‘where does the spark of life come from?’, [to] amputation, galvanism (‘Can you electrify someone into life?’) and so on. But at the same time, it’s quite deeply autobiographical, because Mary’s mother [Mary Wollstonecraft] died shortly after [giving birth to her] and Frankenstein is the great story of the motherless child. What happens if there’s only a [father]? Then what happens if the father rejects you the moment he sees you?

On left: TP Cooke in the third act of Le Monstre et le Magicien in 1826, from a drawing by Platel. On right: O Smith in Henry Milner’s The Man and the Monster from the same year (stipple and etching from a drawing by J Duncombe)

In fact, in contemporary psychology there’s something called the ‘Frankenstein Syndrome’ where a mother rejects a new born baby, as sometimes happens. There’s that moment in the book – the [section] she told that night [in Geneva] and the pivot of the whole story – [where Frankenstein] creates this creature, takes one look at it and runs out of the room.

So in some ways the creature is looking for love, looking to belong, looking for some sort of relationship and, eventually, if he can’t have a family, he’s jolly well going to kill Frankenstein’s family one by one. Biographies of Mary Shelley tend to look for the biographical elements. And within pop culture and science fiction, people have looked for the scientific elements. But they’re both there. And I don’t think Mary Godwin was the most experienced of writers – remember she was 18 when she wrote it, 19 when it was going through the press and 20 when it was published.

On left: The Rosicrucian Cavern engraved in 1805 by Henry Fuseli for The Spectator. The figure on the left is a mechanical armoured man activated when Rosicrucius’ tomb is opened. On right: William Blake illustration for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories, second edition (1788/1791)

CR: Is the way that the science plays out in the novel different from how we have been used to seeing it depicted on screen?

CF: Her treatment of science is quite vague, in a way, even though we know that she listened to quite detailed discussions about science. For the ‘operation’ scene, for example, all she says is “I gathered the instruments of life around me”, full stop. That’s it. Well, that’s a whole reel in a Hollywood movie! Igor rushing around throwing the switches, lightning, generators – I mean, you have to be literal when you make a movie, you have to explain to the audience what’s going on, but she wasn’t awfully interested in that.

And she doesn’t describe the stitches, for example. When you piece someone together on screen, you’ve got to show the stitches! So although she knew a lot about the science, actually the science in it is clearly vague – and deliberately [so]. In fact, at the beginning, Frankenstein says, I’m not going to tell you how I did it, because then other people will want to do it. That’s quite a clever alibi for not explaining anything, really.

The first ever illustration to Frankenstein, the engraved frontispiece by Theodor von Holst in the 1831 Standard Novels edition. Rex/Shutterstock

It’s a poignant story. What the films never capture is … this theme of belonging, this theme of the creature actually being. And all the spare parts that have been sewn together are selected for their beauty, says Frankenstein, and also for their proportion.

So in some ways, the creature is very beautiful, but if you look into his eyes there’s something odd about him. And the eyes are the giveaway, he’s dead behind the eyes so people run away from him. And slowly he becomes monstrous because he’s treated as monstrous – [but] of course in the movies, he’s a monster from the word go. He just grunts.

One thing that interested me about this was that the review that [Mary] liked best was the one written by [Sir] Walter Scott. [He says] about the book that most horror stories are highly improbable – headless horses, monks, Henry VIII’s wives wandering around the battlements – but that [hers] is based on possibilities in science and their human consequences.

And he says, [while] we haven’t got a word for it, she’s invented a new form of literature. What he was basically saying was she’s invented science fiction. And that really pleased her…. He really got there. It was a cut above the rest, because she knew that this science was in the ether, it’s possible, you just push it a little bit and look at its human consequences. And in a way that’s a great definition of science fiction. Although they didn’t have the phrase yet.

Mary Godwin’s manuscript draft of the ‘creation’ chapter of Frankenstein, written in a notebook purchased in Geneva, and copied from the story she told on the night of 17th/18th 1816, the earliest surviving version, dating from that same summer. The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Abinger c.56, fol. 21v

CR: The story of the novel’s conception – the challenge to come up with a ghost story during a dramatic storm – is now also the stuff of legend. Was it an element that Shelley or her publishers would have used to sell the book?

CF: Not immediately. It came out on New Year’s Day 1818 – [it was] anonymous, in three volumes, very expensive, 16 shillings and sixpence [in an edition of 500]. It was [a] very limited circulation to start with and so it was the plays, the spin-offs – because intellectual property hadn’t been invented yet – that carried the story into the cultural bloodstream. There were eight versions of Frankenstein by 1825 on the West End stage.

Then, on the rebound from the plays, Mary brings out a new edition in 1831, adds the introduction where she describes the circumstances of its genesis – Geneva, thunderstorms, Lord Byron, all of that – and also puts her name on the title page, proudly saying ‘by Mary W Shelley’.

Sketch by Richard Wynn Keene – later known as the designer Dykwynkyn – of the actor O. Smith as the Monster in the first revival of Presumption! or the Fate of Frankenstein, at the English Opera House, Lyceum, in summer 1828, published in Frayling’s book for the first time. © Jennie Bisset Collection

At that point, the story of its origin becomes completely confused with the story itself and becomes just as notorious, if not more so. It’s not really until 1831 [though] – no-one was quite sure who wrote it to start with. In fact, Walter Scott in this wonderful review says it was written by Shelley – so she wrote to him saying, I loved the review but hang on a minute, he didn’t write it, I did.

So it took a bit of time. But once the two are associated it becomes a myth in itself, the creation of it. And [as with] a lot of horror stories in the 19th century, the circumstances of their creation become as famous as the stories: [with] Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, [there’s] the story of Robert Louis Stephenson burning the first draft because it was too extreme and then producing the second draft; or Bram Stoker having this terrible nightmare – having eaten a bad crab salad one night and then going straight to bed – and out of that comes Dracula. So they each have their own sort of creation myth which is quite interesting.

One of Lynd Kendall Ward’s classic woodcut illustrations to the 1934 New York edition of Frankenstein. The Lynd Ward Collection

CR: It’s like the story that Coleridge put out around the writing of his poem, Kubla Khan. He begins to set it down having conceived of it in a dream, but someone allegedly interrupts him as he writes – and the rest of it is lost.

CF: Exactly. And I think by 1831 Mary Shelley had a modest allowance from the Shelley family – Shelley was by now dead, they all were, the men of the party – she lived on her journalism and writing and the Kubla Khan reference is a good one because I think she’s quite deliberately pumping the circumstances out of which it was born to increase sales.

She needed the royalties by then. And the whole introduction is the most fantastic piece of branding. It was great to get permission from the Bodleian to publish the entire manuscript of the creation scene [in the new book] – I was really pleased with that. That’s never been published like that before.

The other very thrilling thing was there’s a couple of pictures of the 1820s [theatrical] versions of Frankenstein, a colour one of the creature, which has never been seen by anybody before. It’s from a little pad of watercolour sketches that a theatre historian bought at auction – and realised that this [was made by] a guy who sat in the stalls in the 1820s and did watercolours of what he saw on stage. It’s fabulous.

Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster in the 1964-66 TV comedy series, The Munsters. Yvonne De Carlo as Lily is also shown, on right

CR: As the story moves on from book form to the theatre and into film, how does Frankenstein mutate into the set of distinctive visual images we know today?

CF: Part of my story is that what got Frankenstein into the cultural bloodstream wasn’t so much the book; it was the adaptations, which made it much cruder. The ‘mad’ scientist, grunting monster, comic research assistant called Igor or Fritz, the laboratory at the top of the stairs, all these things were set by the mid-1820s and then Hollywood, a century later, picks up on all of them because it’s a shortcut, it’s a great way of adapting it, really. But in the process it becomes the archetypal ‘mad scientist’ movie. And one thing Frankenstein isn’t is mad. He’s ambitious, he’s obsessed, he over-reaches, but he’s a brilliant scientist.

And in fact the first draft of Frankenstein is much more pro-science than any of the adaptations. It’s the first novel about the education of a young scientist ever to be written. Off he goes to Ingolstadt to begin his whole curriculum – he goes through medieval science and modern science and finds it a bit unambitious, too detailed, too specialised – he wants to ask the big questions that the medieval people asked, but in a modern context.

Paperback book covers from Pyramid Books (on left, 1957) and Signet Classics (right, 1965). The Pyramid cover is by Richard Smith

And I think there’s an element here of Mary Shelley saying, I love all this but I’m frightened if they go too far. And there she is surrounded by Byron who’s escaped England because he fell in love with his half sister – and probably his servant as well – and Shelley, who’s run away from his responsibilities, Harriet his wife is back at home with the children. And Shelley is an atheist and pushes things as far as they can go.

There’s an element in the novel, I think, of ‘careful … you’re pushing it a bit further than I would’, both in the arts and in the sciences. Off they go to the Alps, and Shelley writes in the visitor’s book, ‘Destination: Hell’ and ‘Profession: Atheist’! I mean, that was a scary thing to do in 1816. And I think Mary would have thought, OK, this is all very well but where’s this leading?

Original American poster for I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), illustrated by Reynold Brown. R|A|P Archive

So I think the great myth is that this is a novel about a mad scientist – and it isn’t, actually. [Mary’s] quite sympathetic about Frankenstein, it’s just that he over does it.

And then you read at the very end, and I don’t think this is noticed nearly enough, Frankenstein’s last words. There he is in the Arctic, dying in the arms of Robert Walton the polar explorer – and he says, ‘Others will come later and complete my work’. And those are his last words.

So he’s not saying oh forget it, it’s a no-no, it’ll end in tears, no-one should ever do research – he’s saying, look, it went wrong for me but the whole nature of science is that next time they get it right. And that’s a wonderful thing – in the era of three-parent families, robotics, artificial intelligence, in vitro-fertilisation, they certainly have stood on Frankenstein’s shoulders.

Playbill from Palace Theatre’s 1981 production of Frankenstein

CR: You can see how the themes in the story still connect to that sense today.

CF: Very much so. And I have that long quote at the beginning [of the book] that chemistry and physics make us anxious, but biology makes us really anxious. Because it’s about the core of our being in a way, the roadmap of our lives.

So anything to do with biological development, genomes, in vitro, all that, makes us very anxious, always. And here’s this ‘F’ word, on the shelf as a metaphor for our anxieties. I don’t know of any other example in pop culture, or in any culture, of a metaphor that’s invented 200 hundred years ago that we will still use every time there’s a piece of science that makes us anxious. Genetically modified crops? Oh they’re ‘Frankenstein foods’ – and there it is on the shelf, it still lives.

The cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and (on right) Tim Curry as the sweet transvestite from the planet Transylvania, Dr. Frank N. Furter, about to launch his new creation. © John Jay/mptvimages.com

CR: And as you say in the title of the book, this is just the first 200 years.

CF: Yes, you wait until 200 years’ time, it’ll still be in the culture! It’s extraordinary really. The other thing [is], I looked in detail at the two versions – the 1818 version, the triple-decker, and the 1831 [edition] – and they are quite different books in way.

Mary rewrote it, cut out a lot of the science, cut out a lot of the radicalism, added the word ‘mad’, added the word ‘presumption’, which she got from the play – and she’s sort of recasting her novel to cash in on the plays.

CR: So the plays were influencing the ongoing creation of her own text?

CF: Yes, definitely. And it’s a commercial decision by them; she needs the money. The Shelley family were horrible to her and they wanted custody of the children … and gave her a very meagre allowance on condition that she never write a biography of Shelley. She wanted to write a biography of him and they flatly refused to let her – if she did they’d cut off the allowance the following day.

Anxiety about technological change: the monster of the railroad tramples on the rights of the little people in its way, with the cloak of ‘justice’, a cartoon by Frank Bellew entitled The American Frankenstein (c.1874). Getty Images

CR: What was so attractive to filmmakers about the Frankenstein story?

CF: I think early horror films were slightly ashamed – horror, as a genre, hadn’t been invented yet, the rules were still being worked out. But they were slightly ashamed of telling nasty stories, so they covered themselves in the silent period in literary credentials.

So the horror films tend to say ‘this is based on the well known poem by Edgar Allen Poe’ or ‘this is based on the classic novel by Mary Shelley’ – it’s as if they’re apologising, you can’t just do a horror film for the sake of a horror film, as it were, you’ve got to say ‘this is classy, what we’re doing is simply adapting a novel’. And the other thing was that it was in the public domain, so it was free, there was no copyright, Mary having died in 1851, it was well out of copyright by the time cinema was invented.

And there’s this theatrical tradition – the Edison [Studio]’s 1910 film which has turned up and you can get on DVD now … you watch it and it’s like the experience of watching one of those plays in the 1820s, it’s an absolute hotline to that style of acting. So it’s got more to do with the 19th century than with cinema.

I think the creature looks like he did on the stage, it’s very melodramatic, he’s turned into an alchemist with a bubbling cauldron, rather than modern science – all the things that happened on the stage in the 1820s. It’s not really until [Boris] Karloff in 1931 that it comes into its own as a cinematic myth. Everybody who has made a Frankenstein film since 1931 has to take into account that moment [and] the make up.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) featuring make-up by Jack Pierce. Rex Features

CR: Yes, you write that the make-up Boris Karloff wore was trademarked by Universal – and it has now become the definitive 20th-century version of the creature.

CF: And poor old Hammer, they had to work out a new way of making Christopher Lee [look different] – because they would have been sued if they’d made it look like Karloff. Until they did a deal with Universal and then suddenly it looks like Karloff.

Studio Portrait of Peter Boyle as the increasingly debonair Monster in Young Frankenstein (1974). TCD

CR: And since then, what about some of the other productions in film and theatre that moved this look on and even moved away from it – were they successful?

CF: I’m not too much of a fan of the Kenneth Branagh one to be honest – although it tried very hard to be a serious adaptation, with Robert Walton the explorer going off to the polar region, you get that very complicated structure of three autobiographies – of Walton, of the scientist and of the creature, and they tried to keep all that, it made it … not very frightening and unwieldy and turned it into costume drama.

The thing I remember most was Benedict Cumberbatch on the stage of the National Theatre, in the Danny Boyle production of a few years ago. And it began with this large womb hanging on the stage and inside it you could see the silhouette of a grown up baby.

It was Cumberbatch inside the womb, he was in there as the audience was coming in for about 20 minutes. He lies down and cuts his way out, all the amniotic fluid pours onto the stage and he’s completely naked. And for the first five minutes, in mime, he is the creature trying to come to terms with the world around him: sound, taste, touch, all the senses.

Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster in Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London

It was quite brilliant. Like a grown up baby trying to understand the world around him, it took my breath away. It said so much. There’s a scene in the novel when the creature looks at the moon and has to work out why has it got dark. Or he looks at his own reflection in a pool and can’t cope with who is that out there? And all of that was in that first five minutes. And he didn’t look anything like Karloff – he looked like a sort of overgrown baby with scars.

CR: And there have been other science fiction films that take on this visual currency – I’m thinking of the replicant emerging from the womb-like sac in the new Blade Runner 2049 film. These seem to originate with Frankenstein.

CF: Again, if you look at that illustration of 1831 – the only one we know Mary Shelley approved of, by Theodor von Holst, he’s built like a Chippendale! He’s beautiful, very muscular, his skin is very taught, he has lustrous black hair – she describes [him as having] pearly white teeth; [Frankenstein] has chosen all the parts with great care so he’ll look like the ideal man, like Leonardo’s Vitruvian man, with the arms out, exactly proportioned.

On left: Nikola Tesla demonstrating the safety of ‘alternating current’ in 1899. On right: Rotwang, the evil scientist from Metropolis (1926)

But there’s something odd about him. And it scares him. It is extraordinary that the Karloff image should have caught on, as it’s the polar opposite of that; he’s a bug-eyed monster from the word go, a bloody great cranium, bolts in his neck, huge eyelids, giant boots as he stumbles around – yet it’s become more powerful than the original.

I was in New York [last week] and was going past all these shop windows … the witches hat and the Frankenstein’s monster, usually painted green, are the two key images of Halloween. Every shop window in New York has Karloff looking at you and a witch’s hat. It’s incredible really, it’s just so deep in the culture.

The Curse of Frankenstein poster (1957) for Hammer Films

CR: The monster is clearly still alive and well today, but do you get a sense of what he represents as having changed in that time?

CF: In [the] 1931 [film], the thing was that instead of this subtle allegory of social rejection, he has a dysfunctional brain sewn into his head, because ‘Fritz’ is dyslexic and picks the wrong brain at the University of Goldstadt. He had this bad brain sewn into his head – he’s going to be a monster even before he gets up.

So the whole of the central volume of Frankenstein, which is this social rejection, gets completely lost in ‘monster-has-bad-brain-sewn-into-his-head’. But then, post-1950s when you’ve had The Munsters, endless cartoon versions, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – which has just opened in London – he’s become sort of cuddly, and that’s a new development again…. You get model kits and soft toys, he’s on serial packets and so he’s kind of lost the scariness of the Karloff film to become a companion for children.

Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years by Christopher Frayling is published by Reel Art Press; £29.95. See reelartpress.com

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