I’m not particularly fond of the classic movie monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the classic movie version of The Werewolf. I like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but that’s an exception. I don’t consider the Invisible Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Mr. Hyde to be monsters at all. I think the original Dracula and Frankenstein movies are a terrible bore, and though I truly appreciate Mary Shelley’s novel, I much prefer the classic gothic novels The Castle Of Otranto, The Monk: A Romance, and The Mysteries of Udolpho. I don’t like Bram Stoker’s Dracula at all.
Part of my bias has to do with childhood overexposure. I took horror very seriously, even at at a young age. After you’ve seen so many satires of the classic monsters, badly animated cartoon versions, and witnessed the poor monsters’ forays into comedy with Abbot and Costello or Sonny and Cher, the “monstrous” begins to wear off the monster and with it, for me, the monster’s charm. Another problem I had with the classic monsters is that they were so stuck within their origin myths that there didn’t seem to be much I could do with them in my own imagination without battling a century worth of tradition. I dare you to read Mary Shelley’s novel now without picturing at least one of the movie versions of the monster in your head!
Many films have attempted to “revamp” these classic monster stories or have offered their own postmodern takes on them. Few have succeeded, I think, better than FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY. Rather than subverting the themes of the original novel or completely ignoring them, FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY draws its inspiration from the entire oeuvre of Frankenstein films that had been made up to that point and, with respect to the themes of the novel, made some innovative, meaningful changes.
Most notable of these was the decision to portray Frankenstein’s monster, initially, as an attractive man. This has been copied so many times now (most recently in the tv series PENNY DREADFUL) that it may not have the same effect for a contemporary audience as it did when the movie was first shown, but imagine the surprise when the monster’s body, wrapped from head to toe in gauze, is slowly unwrapped to reveal a young and handsome man instead of the expected Karloff inspired monstrosity! The original film shocked through the revelation of the grotesque, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY shocked with a revelation of beauty! This was even before THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW…there was no precedent.
This certainly makes the relationship between the monster and Dr. Frankenstein, as well as the doctor’s eventual rejection of the monster, take on an entirely different character. In fact, there is a subtle homoerotic undertone to FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY that is certainly no accident. The script for the film was written by none other than Christopher Isherwood, the famed openly gay novelist, in collaboration with his lover Don Bachardy. There is no doubt that they were sensitive to the homoerotic subtexts that many critics and scholars have also pointed out in the original novel.
There are several directions I could go from here in talking about the movie. One is to give a brief synopsis of the history of “Queer Theory” scholarship and its embrace of the Frankenstein story. Another is to make parallels between the writing of the novel and Isherwood’s own experience working on this adaptation. A third is to point out some of the gay specific references and mythological references that are scattered throughout the movie, such as the decision to animate the monster with solar energy rather than electricity. Finally, I might touch upon the accusation of misogyny that I’ve seen a few critics hurl at this adaptation.
I think I will just provide one little nugget of info about each and leave it to you to do further research should you be interested. I assure you that this film is a kind of treasure chest of associations and interesting cross-references. It unfolds in a hundred different directions with just a little investigation.
Concerning “Queer Theory,” I will skip the pain of providing definitions and clarifications about the field of criticsm. Look it up. I will say that I’m not fond of the current direction this particular strain of academic research is going, but I will leave it at that. The great majority of essays I’ve read about horror written from the perspective of Queer Theory are complete nonsense. Nonetheless, before the academic institutions regimented themselves into a Marxist version of postmodernism restricted to the theories of thinkers no more than forty years old, there were at least a few daring academics who sought to approach cultural artifacts from the unique perspective of people marginalized for their sexuality. These academics worked to uncover the hidden histories and meanings of cultural artifacts that had, up to then, been suppressed. One such academic was a young Mitchell Walker who, sitting on his couch one evening, was absent-mindedly paying attention to a movie playing on TV when he was struck by something he had never seen before: the Frankenstein monster being revealed as a beautiful man in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. This caught his attention, not the least because of the handsome fellow running around mostly naked in a medical gauze jockstrap. He went on to write one of the first major essays on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from a Jungian perspective with a special emphasis on the monster being Frankenstein’s double distorted by the taboo against homosexuality. It can be found online through the following link, and reading it may be a good introduction for viewing today’s movie:
The actual writing of Mary Shelley’s novel has some parallels with Isherwood’s writing of the adaptation. The legend concerning the writing of Frankenstein is that, during a drug fueled summer vacation at Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley and her partner Percy Bysshe Shelley, along with Lord Byron and several others, entertained each other by writing ghost stories. Mary Shelley spontaneously came up with the story of Frankenstein and the rest is history.
In reality, there is some question as to which parts of the Frankenstein story were inventions of Mary Shelley and what aspects were contributions from her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. While it is understandable that some might resist sharing the credit of one of our most famous female novelist’s novel with her already canonized writer husband, recent scholarship suggests that a great deal of it was developed between the two of them, going back and forth, as a collaboration. It feels like an attempt to rob a great female novelist of her just appreciation, but it appears to be the truth.
What is of further interest to those who study the novel and its subtext, is the nature of Mary Shelley’s relationship with Percy Shelley and, indeed, the nature of the romantic and sexual relationships of all the poets, writers and philosophers that she congregated with. By the standards of their time, all these people were “queers.” They developed unconventional and taboo sexual relationships and even went so far as to reject traditional marriage to look for new kinds of familial and relationship bonds. It is now a fairly acceptable theory that Percy Bysshe Shelley was primarily homosexual and that Mary Shelley was aware of this. Rather than seeing it as an impediment to their relationship, this is something that they attempted to work into their shared sex life and their private lifestyle while all the time having to contend with the frightening prospect that their personal choices could result in their persecution should they become exposed to the public at large.
As an openly gay writer collaborating with his partner of many years, Isherwood and Bachardy had more than a little in common with the writers of the original story. One could think of few writers better suited to capture the angst and sense of cultural oppression – as well as the strange mix of fascination and horror of the taboo – that informs the original text.
FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY remains very close to the novel in that the context of the monster’s creation is very much a hermetically sealed world of men and their secrets. They are bonded by these secrets and at the same time condemned by them. The movie goes so far as to introduce a subplot involving Dr. Frankenstein being blackmailed with the threat of having his secrets exposed. Not a part of the novel, this was a common occurrence and fear for homosexuals around the world well into the 20th century and its inclusion here is definitely a reflection of the experience of homosexuality that Isherwood would have been familiar with.
The publishing of Isherwood’s journal after his death was not good for his reputation. Mainly it revealed that, at least in his personal journal entries, he was casually anti-semitic and seemed to have a great deal of resentment toward women. The extent to which these tendencies carry into his art is debatable, but I should address the accusation that FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is a misogynistic take on the Frankenstein story. To be blunt, I completely disagree. In fact, going into the movie knowing full well what Isherwood’s private feelings were, I was expecting a fairly insensitive portrayal of Lady Frankenstein as an anchor around the doctor’s neck: a needling representation of social repression and responsibilities holding him back from his realization in his work. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Frankenstein’s dedication to his family life and his wife is, indeed, in conflict with his secret interests, the exposure of his secrets and his wife’s response to them is not in the least stereotypical.
Much has also been made of Isherwood’s portrayal of the “bride of the monster” as a kind of femme fatale. While this is true, she is also portrayed as the victim and pawn of men struggling for power. In fact, there aren’t any negative depictions of “female society” or “female traits” in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY that aren’t put into the context of patriarchal hierarchies of power and control in a manner obviously revealing the target of Isherwood’s true criticism: the complex system of social oppression limiting the personal expression, education and power of both men and women. It is surprisingly feminist in its obvious intentions at times, considering Isherwood may very well have had a strong personal disdain for women in general.
It goes to show that there is a distinction between an artist and their art. One can also make a distinction between any person’s feelings and their actions should that person have a certain amount of self-control and intellectual distance in evaluating their own motivations. It appears to me that, in spite of the sometimes inexcusable content of his private journals, Isherwood had that kind of self-awareness. On the other hand, it may have been the influence of his lover, Don Bachardy, the love of his life, that balanced out Isherwood’s negative tendencies. In any case, this adaptation of Frankenstein is among the most insightful and progressive in its examination of sexuality, gender, class and religion in the context of the well know Frankenstein mythology. By now that mythology is much more than a book by Mary Shelley and is a part of the collective unconscious of our culture. Understanding it in the light of new perspectives can tell us a lot about ourselves, our limiting biases and beliefs, and the unlimited possibilities available to us when we unleash the repressed Prometheus inside.
FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is a “miniseries” presented in two segments over two nights. You might want to split up the viewing that way yourself. It may be a bit too much for one go…depending on your tolerance for these things.
Also, this film was presented with an incredibly bizarre, unnecessary, and spoiler filled introduction during its original broadcast. Apparently the networks thought the audience needed a “preview” of the movie they were about to watch so as to be reassured there was some action forthcoming. That introduction is included on this Youtube version of the film and it is truly awful. I beg that you fast-forward through it to minute 5:46 and begin the movie proper with its beautiful opening credit sequence.