Since 1818, the story of Frankenstein has been told again and again. But what do all those different versions tell us about the times in which we live? Ian Aikman explores the connections between economics, technology and perhaps the world's most famous horror story
As far as horror goes, Frankenstein is one of the most famous and flexible stories. Over the years the many different retellings say a lot about the time they were given life by their creators. So here’s my timeline of the most popular versions of Frankenstein, and what they reveal.
1. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
The original, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published anonymously in 1818, then republished under her name in 1823. I’m gonna go out on a dismembered limb here and say that this book is a total classic.
Now available for free online, the book first came out as a three-volume novel. This form was used to create demand, by splitting the story into three parts, to keep audiences waiting for the next. Nearly a decade later it came out in a one volume version which sold like hot cakes.
Any straw-grasping literature professor could tell you there are economic themes in the book, including fear, but also the possibilities, of science and progress.
2. Frankenstein (1910) by Edison Studios
Since people enjoyed reading Frankenstein so much, it was only natural that they’d also enjoy seeing it on screen. That’s what Thomas Edison was hoping when his studio produced the first silent film version. (He was also hoping that audiences would just enjoy films period, since this was actually one of the first ever.)
One of the greatest inventors of all time, Edison is a good example of the archetypal 'venture capitalist' – not just inventing things for their own sake, but inventing them for the sake of his bank account. He might even have seen a lot of himself in Victor Frankenstein, what with both of them being full-time tinkerers.
But Edison wasn't about to reinvent the wheel completely. The film set a trend for Frankenstein adaptations by playing up the creature’s physical deformity, much easier to communicate via imagery than its inner thoughts. It also started the trend of widely diverging from the novel’s original plot. This time, adding a happy ending, perhaps to appease audiences who were so shocked by the gruesome special effects. Remember, this was in an era before Donald Trump’s face was all over our screens.
3. Frankenstein (1931) by Universal Studios
It's 1931, and films have come a long way in the 20 years since Frankenstein first graced the silver screen. There's a lot more cinemas, for one thing. And gone are small studios like Edison’s, replaced by larger studios such as Universal.
The Great Depression didn't seem to hit the movie industry much. Some say audiences sought solace in cinema, hoping to escape harsh reality. Though while Frankenstein may not be realistic, it is harsh.
Though still in black and white, these films come from the early era of synchronized sound. Popular with everyone bar newly unemployed side-of-the-screen pianists, sound in movies was pioneered by the Warner Brothers (and backed by Goldman Sachs). This got the interest of engineering and manufacturing giants such as General Electric, laying the groundwork for the importance of technology to film today.
Thanks to investment in Hollywood and the increasing box office receipts from films like Frankenstein (which earned $1.4 million according to Stephen Jacobs’ biography of star Boris Karloff), color, high-tech special effects and stratospheric budgets became possible.
4. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) by Hammer Films
According to the same Boris Karloff biography, the Universal Frankenstein series made $13 million by 1953. And so the British were next to mine this fertile territory for its commercial value.
Hammer’s first take on the story, The Curse of Frankenstein, was their first color film, and proved to the world of cinema that the film industry was not confined to the 80 square kilometers of Hollywood. Audiences poured in to see the lurid red blood that became a mark of their later films, like Dracula (1958).
The Hammer pictures had lower budgets than their Californian counterparts, but often made similar amounts at the box office. Plus, they made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who both went on to feature in mega-Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars.
5. Van Helsing (2004) by Universal Studios
Okay, Van Helsing isn't strictly a 'Frankenstein movie', but the bundling together of characters in a new, action-packed way is typical of 21st century Hollywood decision-making. The studio’s faith in this ‘safe bet’ approach is displayed in the films $160 million budget, far more than any of the other films on our list, even the the 1994 version starring Robert de Niro as the creature, which cost a mere $45 million.
A large chunk of Van Helsing’s budget went on computer generated effects, as is the norm with Hollywood ‘tentpole’ films. But these effects led one Boston Globe reviewer to deem the movie “one excruciatingly loud set piece of CGI hooey after another”. Still, it managed to make nearly double its budget at the box office.
This pattern of studios making big-budget, special effects-heavy films, critics disliking them, and the movies making big bucks anyway is typical of the way Hollywood works these days. Some say that CGI-based blockbusters make money despite their actual quality because they translate across cultures so well, particularly to the all-important Chinese market.
So, it seems Frankenstein is one story that almost certainly has some more big, bad blockbuster adaptations ahead of it. While there's money to be made the story of Frankenstein will continue to be told. Here's one creature that just won't die.