As a kid, I knew the Frankenstein Monster (let’s refer to him as the FM from here on) to be Mr. Herman Munster from the 1965 TV show, “The Munsters.” On that show he lived with his family in a charmingly spooky Victorian house, in an ordinary suburb, of an ordinary small town. This FM (portrayed by Fred Gwynne) was a devoted family man, a touch socially awkward, adorably naive and absolutely hilarious. That’s the FM that I’ve loved. So, since I’d never seen the original 1931 “Frankenstein” movie, I thought why not watch it and see how the two compare.
What these two depictions have in common is that they share a similar aesthetic for the FM. You’d have to have been living under a rock to be unfamiliar with the iconic image of this FM (portrayed by Boris Karloff). The Karloff FM looked amazingly odd: He was huge (think NBA proportions), had the characteristic scarred gaunt face, neck bolts, flat wide cranium, ill fitting plain clothing and clunky black boots. He set the bar high and this FM clearly inspired the look of the FM decades later in “The Munsters.”
Unfortunately, this is where the similarities end. After watching the movie, I think it should have been called, “The Tragic life of the Frankenstein Monster.” In the film version, the FM isn’t the cheery guy I remember from my childhood but a person who suffers a series of indignities before he is finally murdered. Sorry to sound so doom and gloom, but this movie gave me a bad case of it.
Here are three reasons why “Frankenstein” should have been called “The Tragic life of the Frankenstein Monster”:
Henry Frankenstein’s ego = bad news for the FM.
The first sign of disaster for the FM is Henry Frankenstein’s ego (self centered people tend to be pretty bad at altruism). Henry F. was so consumed with the thrill of manufacturing the spark of life from death that he completely devalues everything else in his life (ie: his wedding, fiancé, family and friends). One of my first hints that Henry F. was a jerk happens early on in the movie, when he sends a note to his devoted fiancé Elizabeth, telling her that she’d better get comfy on the back burner because his work is his the only priority in his life. First off, who says something like that?! Then if you can believe it, after Elizabeth reads this note, she decides to stick by him (even though Henry’s best friend is clearly enamoured with her and would have happily snatched her up should she ever show him the time of day.) How could a man who is this self centered possibly be capable of caring for his charge – the FM?
The FM + Humanity.
Let’s start with the point in the movie where Henry F. shouts: “It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God now I know what it feels like to be God!” Again, who says something like that?! The fact that Henry F. calls him an “It” and not a “He,” makes it clear that he has little regard for the life that he has just created. Shouldn’t the FM be addressed as a “He”? Have you ever really thought about why all we have to call the FM is the FM? As a person, he deserved to have a proper name; however Henry F. the determined scientist, the creator, the new God, never even bothered to give his great success a real name to call his own. Then, once Henry F. realized that his creation was reanimated using the brain of a known criminal, then the life that created became disposable.
Also, based on the unnatural way that the FM was, reborn it was easy for everyone (expect little Maria) to mistreat him. The FM had to endure Fritz’s torturing him with fire, Dr. Waldman’s drugging him (then later on attempting to kill him by performing a live dissection on him), Henry F.’s ignoring him, not protecting him from Fritz’s harassment, abandoning him for death, then hunting him with the angry mob and then finally being burned to death by said angry mob.
The FM + the Murders.
This is a pretty complex topic for me because there are a lot of reasons why I think the deaths happened. First, when the FM kills Fritz and Dr. Waldman it is because they tormented him. Fritz repeatedly terrorized him with the torch and Dr. Waldman repeatedly dosed him with sedatives and later attempted to murder him.
Then we have the drowning of sweet little Maria, which happened out of pure naiveté. The FM was never nurtured, or taught the most basic things in life. We never see Henry F. try to teach him to talk or what everyday items are or even how to manage his extraordinary physical strength. When he encounters Maria he is amazed by her, by the flowers that she hands to him to toss into the lake and by the water they both made a game of tossing the flowers into. As they play together it is clear that they are experiencing the same sense of joy from this little game and in this moment it’s obvious that the FM is on the same level as little Maria. So what happens when you have someone who doesn’t know how to gauge their own size or strength and has the smarts of a child? Someone eventually gets hurt. The FM gets so carried away by the game of tossing small objects into the lake that he tosses Maria in too. Right after she goes into the water, he realizes his mistake but like most children, he panics and doesn’t know how to correct the situation.
The Frankenstein Monster was a tragic figure for me in this film because he was abused and neglected from the moment of his rebirth. Like the rest of us we had no say in the matter of our being born, but our parents/creators are entrusted with the duty of caring for our emotional, physical and intellectual well-being. Henry Frankenstein failed dismally at this. Once he had succeeded in reanimating the Frankenstein Monster, he had created a life, so he had in essence taken on the mantle of fatherhood. The Frankenstein Monster was his responsibility and everyone knows that once you have that job, your life changes forever. The only one who didn’t seem to know this simple fact was Henry Frankenstein, the obvious genius.