The Birth of Monster Iconography
This poster includes SPOILERS for the novel and movie of Frankenstein.
In my post Movie Iconography and Why It Is Important, I talked about how for some franchises (for want of a better word) their story elements become iconic. The example I used last time was Superman‘s origin story. Now since Superman‘s launch in 1938 little of his origin story has changed. The same basic elements are always there. Earlier in that decade Universal Studios was defining the story elements of another character who stands across our cultural history. Frankenstein‘s Monster is one of the most recognisable characters in horror history – alongside Dracula – however, do you know how he was created? I’m willing to bet that the image appearing in your mind is more the second example than the first:
It was a deary night of November that I behold the accomplishment of my tolls. 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. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (From Chapter 5 of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
The fourth word in the above extract nicely sums up the monster’s birth in the original novel. Therefore, I believe without its adaptions, the novel Frankenstein would have gone the way of its monster and disappeared. The novel’s author Mary Shelley changed the novel between its original publication anonymously in 1818 and re-published under her own name in 1831. However, between these two dates at least 16 different theatrical productions of the book happened with the first appearing in France in 1821. Since Shelley’s publishers decided not to keep printing Frankenstein although the original run completely sold out, these plays were the only way to experience the book.
From Book to Film
This all changed with the birth of cinema. While the first adaption appeared in 1910, the film that cemented our images of Frankenstein into our head was James Whale‘ 1931 movie. Starring Boris Karloff this movie defined how Frankenstein‘s monster was created and looked and created the hunch-backed assistant character often called Igor – although he is called Fritz in the 1931 movie. Frankenstein is an excellent example of how a successful adaption ends up creating the iconic elements that are now so much a part of our cultural landscape. For example, the birth of the monster inspired the best Doctor Who regeneration sequence in the show’s history as the best Doctor turned into the second best!