Similar visual codes of the ‘Sublime’ and the terrifying are revisited in James Whale’s 1931 film version of Frankenstein. On encountering the monster on her wedding day, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) swoons in the same way as the previously discussed scenes onto the bridal bed. She is like Fuseli’s victim, conspicuously dressed in flowing white. She is innocence overpowered or at least shadowed by evil, using an identical formula of chiaroscuro, the white against the black, or the light against the dark. The monster (Boris Karloff) enters through the window which is placed beyond some steps and so he is shot effectively from below, thereby rendering his monstrous height more threatening. He is also clad in a tattered and vaguely sleazy looking suit which is not dark but black, which completes the age old good versus evil signifier.
This is, however, largely where the similarities between Shelley and Whale (or more accurately Universal Studios’ make up artist Jack Pierce) end. It can be clearly witnessed that Karloff in his role as the monster looks almost nothing like what Shelley described. There is a decidedly more mechanical essence to Pierce’s vision with an interesting emphasis on two steel bolts on either side of the neck pointing strongly towards the mechanical aspects of Victor’s work. Karloff already looks completely unlike his literary predecessor and Pierce’s vision seems more an echo of the machine age aesthetic than of the hybridised animal – human fusion described by Shelley. Visually it can be argued, we are dealing with Darwin versus Le Corbusier. Why go so far away from Shelley in her design specifications? The simple answer to this is that Whale’s adaptation is appropriate to the period. Shelley’s monster is etched out of the aesthetic paradigm of the Sublime, with its contours surrounding worries about scientific progress. Is a man still a ‘man’ if he is part beast? Does science have the power not only to understand nature but to create it? Jack Pierce draws his monster according to what was aesthetically relevant to America in the nineteen thirties. We can thus expect the monster and his image to reflect certain social fears such as the Great Depression and threats of a working class revolution. Whale’s direction could even be seen to reflect racial fears as the monster enters in possible preparation of the rape of the ‘white’ woman. Leaving these interpretations aside the inspiration was clearly not all from Shelley in the design of the monster: Pierce was first influenced by the design of a lunatic in a series of prints by Goya called Los Caprichos. Coming from this image are doubtless the iconic flat-topped head, along with the pallor, which was typical of Goya’s figures. The black suit is also familiar. It is then grafted onto the contemporary preference for the mechanical image (bolstered by the Bauhaus and its maxim ‘Form follows Function’) which is enhanced by the steel bolts on the neck and the consciously smooth, almost metallic facial surface. The finished product here in fact bears a striking resemblance to the image on a 1923 postcard for the Bauhaus. Shelley moulded her own fiend in the shape of nineteenth century thought, whereas Universal Studios in the words of Max Ernst “displaced, suppressed, and reshaped humans to conform with the machine world”. Another important revision in designing the monster is the use by Whale of the ‘abnormal brain’ that goes directly against Shelley. The evil in her monster is organically created by means of man’s prejudice. Her monster started off unambiguously good. Whale’s vision on the other hand points to an inherently bad seed (made difficult by Karloff’s sensitive performance) prone to criminal behaviour. This not only changes the image of the monster but arguably much of the point of Shelley’s narrative. The story itself has changed. Also interesting is the fact that despite the advent of sound in movies, Whale’s monster does not speak. Notwithstanding Karloff’s sensitive performance, narratively speaking he is placed firmly in the realms of the bestial. It is our ability to speak that separates humanity from lower beasts. The audience is once again pulled into a moral tension. This is beautifully illustrated in the scene where the monster mistakes the young village girl for the flowers she is showing him. After attempting to make her float in the lake, she drowns and the monster is back where he should be – hunted by torch-wielding villagers.
These two Frankensteins are worlds apart for many reasons. What was it that gave the producers of Universal Studios the right to tamper with Shelley’s bestial prescription? James Whale’s version was in fact, intended as an adaptation of Shelley’s novel thus rendering her firmly as the source of the film narrative. How then can these deviations claim to be faithful to the original author’s intent? The answer is simple. Neither Whale nor Pierce are obliged to be faithful simply because Mary Shelley in the strictest sense cannot be credited with the original narrative, nor with the idea of reanimated corpses. Shelley has in fact borrowed heavily not only from the great tradition of illustrating monsters, but also from the ‘Overreacher’ plot in mythology. Frankenstein was conceived in the fusion of two separate Promethean myths. Using both Ovid and Aeschylus as sources, her protagonist is already heavily mediated within an age-old narrative paradigm which is ‘What happens when progress goes too far?’ Shelley does not hold authority over the story and this is evidenced even in the earliest stage adaptation of the story by Richard Brinsley Peake, who carries still further the suggestion of the Promethean source in his production Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein of 1823. Shelley herself attended the play, and was astonished at her “hideous progeny” winning fame through an adaptation. Indeed, in her own revisions to her novel in the 1831 edition, she describes the monster as a “living monument of presumption”, reflecting once again that the narrative and its monster are part of a continuously self-correcting myth, each new version being infected by the last. This is Similarly witnessed in Peggy Webling’s play Frankenstein, an Adventure in The Macabre. Premiered in 1927, her own adaptation of S
helley is again deviant, the most important revision being the prominence of psychoanalysis. She names her monster Frankenstein, deliberately confusing the creation with its creator, and emphasizes the point by dressing them in identical costumes. This is no accident given the fairly recent birth of psychoanalysis and the theories of Freud in the early twentieth century. The beast is in the man and vice versa. Where Shelley combines the human with the supernatural, Webling pits the Id against the Ego. And so the Promethean myth along with all those varying personal narrative choices is but a part in a wonderful historical mess of storytelling. The only definite in all of these adaptations, is that the monster is a plastic, malleable entity adaptable for any occasion.
We must here come to the inevitable problem surrounding our discussion of monstrous representation: what exactly is a monster, and how do we recognize one? At the risk of descending into further abstraction, it is necessary to confront the nature of the beast itself. This is fundamental, especially when it comes to design choices for author, make up artist and producer alike. The problem of narrative origin is therefore further confused by the problem of the bestial source. Who or what was the quintessential monster from which all others were adapted or modified to suit whichever story was in creation? Just as in Whale and in Pierce, there must necessarily be an infinite license offered to the said creators, owing to the fact that the ‘monster’ itself is essentially abstract. This is most certainly true of its actualization into an image. Pan illustrates this most ‘clearly’ (for want of a better term). Son of the nymph Penelope, Pan was the shepherd god who exacted terror on any who would interrupt his nap during the day. He, or it was then incorporated largely into the figure of the Devil in Christian doctrine. Mythologically speaking, he has evolved into the personification of fear itself, spanning both Pagan and Christian cultures, becoming more and more abstract until, finally he is ‘recognized’ only in an allegorical sense. Pan is not a physical ‘thing’ from which we can modify our own image adaptations. He, like the Christian Devil became the sum of all fears to be appropriated wherever terror struck: he was “that invisible agent who makes cattle and sheep scatter without warning”. He is “the horned face peering between the leaves”. The advent of monotheism refined this a little into the figure of the Devil. Not, however, refined enough to govern exactly how we should see this personification of evil. The Devil is not just called the Devil. He is referred to by numerous names including Satan, Pan, and of course Lucifer. The same ambiguity in the identity of this figure is further elaborated in the disagreement regarding how he is visually presented. Take for example Albrecht Durer’s sixteenth century engraving of Knight, Death and the Devil (1513). The Devil, or Satan is realised in the guise of a ram (recalling a popular incarnation of Pan). If we contrast this with an earlier medieval depiction of the same figure in Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, we come up against a wholly different image: “Oh, how amazed I was when I looked up/ and saw a head wearing three faces!” . Added to this, are six bat -like wings.
The divergences in the representation of evil and its monsters are endless. Suffice it to say that, with the lack of any original design template for the representation of the beast, a beast or any beast, artists and writers alike have taken advantage of the essentially nebulous state of evil. Monsters are at their core allegorical. They function in their physical image as the actualisation of our fears be they particular (as in the case in Whale’s Frankenstein with the insistence on the image of the windmill as a burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan) or general. Frankenstein’s monster threatens not so much because he ugly. He must cross the line in more ways than just visual jarring, and so transgresses in several vital ways threatening our very moral make up. As Noel Carroll points out:”‘monsters are not only physically threatening, they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge”. They are between states, be they states of life and death, human and animal, or between good and evil. Horror fiction monsters are particularly successful in their impact because they play on our cognitive codes, often by confusing these boundaries. Frankenstein’s monster is typical of this. He is both dead and alive, animal and human, ugly and beautiful. He is also suggested by Shelley to have been essentially good, only to be corrupted by the evils of man in their prejudice. The malignancy of the criminally brained monster in Whale’s film is confused in the same way by Karloff’s delicate and ambiguous performance, placing the audience (as Shelley places her reader) in a state of moral confusion. Part of what makes the monster so compelling is the fact that we are often unsure as to how they should be received on the moral frontier of our imagination. He is also in possession of a refined sensibility. How is it possible to make these subtle contradictions apparent in any physical or indeed textual image if they are determined through history by their very abstractness? This I would argue is what creates the interest in the making of monsters. We create them for various reasons which renders their design available as opposed to determined. This is perhaps why the popularity of Frankenstein in all of his permutations has endured for so many hundreds of years both before and after Mary Shelley. How we write or more especially how we see monsters will always change.