The story of Frankenstein and his monster that most people are familiar with comes from the Frankenstein series produced by Universal Pictures. But the original story, written by Mary Shelley, is significantly different. For one, all the characters in the Universal films have been renamed. Shelley’s original Frankenstein was named Victor, while Dr. Frankenstein from the films was named Henry. Over the years, the Frankenstein’s monster mythos has evolved as the film and novel versions merge into each other in our minds; below is a list of other elements of the Frankenstein myth that came from the films and an explanation of what happened in the novel.
Baron von Frankenstein
In the Universal Pictures Frankenstein series, Henry Frankenstein is a baron, whose family lives in a castle. While Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein comes from a wealthy family, they do not have any titles. In fact, Victor is never even referred to as a doctor in the novel. Victor’s family home is not a castle, but a villa in Geneva, Switzerland, and he creates his monster in his apartments in Ingolstadt, Germany. The novel’s most gothic setting in which Victor performs his experiments is in a hut on a small Scottish island, “being hardly more than rock,” where he works on the monster’s mate.
The Monster’s Creation
Most people are familiar with the imagery first seen in the 1931 film Frankenstein, of the doctor’s lab with its Tesla coils, and the monster being lifted toward the lightning that will grant him life, but in Shelley’s story, there is no such description. In the Frankenstein novel, Victor Frankenstein describes the events that ruined his life to Captain Robert Walton, but intentionally leaves out how he brought the monster to life, so that no one may repeat his experiments. All Frankenstein says about bringing his creation to life is this: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”
The monster in the movies was evil because he had an abnormal brain, but Shelley’s monster committed atrocities because he was unloved, not because it was in his nature. While the Dr. Frankenstein from the movies wished to command his creation, Victor Frankenstein flees from his creature the moment he has brought it to life. The creation then goes out into the world alone, where everyone rejects him because of the way he looks. In the novel, Frankenstein’s creation kills (or causes the death of) those closest to him, starting with his little brother William and the family servant Justine. Following these murders the creature appeals to Frankenstein for mercy: “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.” Thus begins the monster’s plea for Frankenstein to make him a mate, so that he can be loved.
The Bride of Frankenstein
In the Universal film Bride of Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein creates a mate for his creation, but she rejects the monster. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein begins to create a mate for the monster, but ends up tearing her to pieces before he can complete her. This sends the monster into a rage and he then kills Victor’s friend Henry and eventually Victor’s wife, Elizabeth.
Villagers with Pitchforks
In the films, Frankenstein’s monster is continuously set upon by mobs bearing torches and rakes. But in the novel the monster avoids large groups of people after being chased off by one group of villagers. The only other time he’s pursued by a large group is when Victor has a crowd search for Elizabeth’s murderer, but he doesn’t tell them they’re looking for a monster.
The stock character of the hunch-backed lab assistant to the mad scientist we now know as Igor is a compound character derived from the Frankenstein films. In Frankenstein, Henry had a hunchbacked assistant named Fritz, who was responsible for the monster ending up with a criminal brain. In Son of Frankenstein, Henry’s son, Wolf, is assisted by a man named Ygor, who has a broken neck. But in the novel, Victor has no assistant. No one else knows that the monster exists, save the people the monster encounters in his wanderings.
Hopefully this separated out some of the elements unique to the novel or film in your heads — after almost two centuries (the novel was published in 1818), the details do tend to get a bit fuzzy. Which do you prefer — the book or the movie(s)?