Last weekend’s big addition to the movie theater marquee was a CG-heavy twist on one of cinema’s oldest and most iconic characters, Frankenstein’s monster.
Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, “I, Frankensten” features Mary Shelley’s nearly 200-year-old literary creation (here portrayed by BYU alumnus Aaron Eckhart) as a wandering action hero with chiseled abs and centuries of training in Filipino martial arts.
Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the shambling pyrophobic character most audiences are used to.
From the early days of moving pictures, though, Frankenstein’s monster has proved to be a continual source of inspiration for filmmakers, many of whom have taken pretty big liberties with the character.
As he appeared in Shelley’s classic gothic novel, which was published when she was only 20, Frankenstein’s monster was a very different creature.
Shelley describes him as standing eight feet tall, having a ghastly appearance with translucent yellow skin that “barely disguised the workings of the arteries and muscles underneath,” long black hair, black lips and watery eyes. He’s also described as being more flexible than a regular human and, far from dumb or incapable of speech, he teaches himself multiple languages, reads and quotes from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” opts to become a vegetarian and broods on philosophical questions like the purpose of an existence where even one’s creator has disavowed the creation.
In some ways, then, “I, Frankenstein” might be just as faithful to the character as the majority of the film versions that precede it, including what most movie fans still consider to be the definitive onscreen “Frankenstein,” the 1931 version directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff.
Although Whale made him a household name, the monster’s onscreen debut dates back long before to a 1910 silent film produced by Edison Studios — yes, that Edison. (For curious film buffs, the 13-minute picture is available to watch on archive.org.)
Since then, with more than 200 film and TV appearances, according to IMDB, he has become one of the most prolific movie monsters of all time.
Along with Karloff, actors as diverse as Bela Lugosi and Lon Cheney Jr. (Dracula and the Wolfman), Christopher Lee and Ian Holm (Saruman and Bilbo Baggins), Peter Boyle (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Robert De Niro, Clancy Brown (“Highlander”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”) and many more have all taken cracks at him.
Interpretations range from comedic (“Young Frankenstein”) to experimental (“The Bride”) and, likewise, run the gamut in terms of faithfulness to the source material. But what has made the character endure this long is the rich thematic material of Shelley’s novel, which resonates with 21st-century audiences as much as it did with those 200 years ago.
That includes young moviegoers, with whom Frankenstein’s monster has long held a particular fascination. Speaking with Cindy Pearlman of the Chicago Sun-Times, Eckhart said, “Frankenstein is a character that feels like most kids do — awkward, unloved and unworthy. That’s how I felt as a teenager. I was just like this character of Frankenstein asking: Why am I here? What am I going to do with this life? Nobody likes me?’ Every teen feels that way.”
If “I, Frankenstein,” with its mix of epic fantasy action and gothic horror, doesn’t seem appealing (the film has an abysmal four percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com), don’t worry — there are at least half a dozen versions of the Frankenstein story in the Hollywood pipeline, including one told from the perspective of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s assistant Igor (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and another produced by Universal Studios with Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”) set to direct.
With that many in the works, fans of Shelley’s novel can keep their fingers crossed that at least one of them might finally get the monster’s look right.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.