Sunday, 24 January 2010

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils

I was interested to read today - or was it yesterday - that Danny Boyle is to return to the theatre. Not only that, but he is to direct an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

I have spoken at length about my fascination with Frankenstein, but I'm going to go on about it some more. Hey - it's my blog and you can't stop me.

As I have said before, I did not become aware of Frankenstein through Mary Shelley's book. Frankenstein - or more properly Frankenstein's 'monster' - is now a firmly established myth and the image of the creature is as readily identifiable as Santa Claus or Batman.

But of course, that image has little or nothing to do with Mary Shelley's book. The image of Frankenstein we all know so well, is all down to the 1931 movie by James Whale, the performance of Boris Karloff and the skill of the great Universal make-up artist, Jack Pierce.

That image became even more fixed in the public consciousness than Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Before I ever saw James Whale's wonderful movie, I had see Fred Gwynne hamming it up as Herman Munster. The infinitely superior Addam's Family featured Lurch, the enormous growling butler who owed a large dept to Karloff.

The sequels to Frankenstein all kept the brand going, although by the time he was meeting Abbott and Costello, he had filled out a little and was now being played by Lon Chaney Jnr. Comedy spoofs, cartoons, comics - they all embraced this new ogre until he has become one of the cast of favourite Halloween characters and nothing more.

But as undeniably powerful as the Whale/Karloff creature was, it had almost nothing to do with Mary Shelley's vision of the monster:

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 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 are set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.

I think Karloff does have a beautiful face (but that might just be me) and his creature does have straight black lips, but Mary's description is of a classicly proportioned Byronic giant who should have been handsome if it wasn't for the fact the he does not look alive. The description is of an animated corpse and arguably much more chilling and disturbing.

But of course there is an even bigger difference. Mary Shelley's creature can talk. The shuffling mute of the movies is the biggest departure from the book, because it robs the creature of the opportunity to describe his feelings and attempt to explain his actions. Although Karloff does give a sympathetic performance, the creature of the book is an altogether different being.

So, Shelley's monster creature doesn't look or behave like the monster of the movies. But at least we all clear about how he was made and brought to life. . .

Or are we?

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