- Ben Pivoz
The Birth of the Creature
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
In a film or work of literature, oftentimes there is one scene early on in the story that sets the tone for the entire piece. This one scene encompasses all of the works’ most important themes and sets up all of the important elements of the story. When adapting something, making changes to that pivotal scene can change the meaning of the events that unfold because of it. In the novel and various film versions of Frankenstein, that crucial scene is the birth of Frankenstein’s monster.
In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, the creation scene is short and not very descriptive. However, in the subsequent film adaptations, it is a very elaborate sequence. In each case, this one scene has been changed depending on what the author or filmmaker thinks the story is really about. This essay will compare the creation scene in Shelley’s novel with three different filmed versions of that scene to show how varied approaches to the monster’s birth changed certain elements of the overall story that follows it.
The Novel and the Silent Film
In the novel, the description of the monster’s birth takes up about two sentences in chapter five of Frankenstein’s tale. Shelley is extremely vague about how Victor Frankenstein actually brings the monster to life. There is a line where Frankenstein talks about “infusing a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” Then, the monster is alive. Shelley does not linger on any details. How Frankenstein creates life out of dead limbs is left to the imagination of the reader. What Shelley is more interested in is how Frankenstein reacts to the monster becoming animated.
In this version of the story, the act of creation is far less important than the fact that Frankenstein has created life. His sudden crises of conscience and subsequent abandonment of the monster set-up the central questions of her story: Is what Frankenstein has done inherently wrong? Or is it only wrong because of what his creation becomes? Is the monster to blame for what it does? Or is it Frankenstein’s fault for failing to care for his creation? Which of them is the real monster? By treating the actual creation so casually, Shelley takes the focus away from the “science” of the story and puts it all on the emotional and moral implications of what Victor Frankenstein has accomplished. Due to this, the horror in her story becomes more psychological than physical.
The very first filmed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel was the thirteen minute silent film Frankenstein (1910) written and directed by James Searle Dawley and produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company. The title screen for the film describes it as “A liberal adaptation from Mrs. Shelley’s famous story.” Before the film has even begun, the filmmaker is letting viewers know that they should expect some deviations from the source material.
The creation scene begins about two-and-a-half minutes in with Frankenstein preparing what appears to be some kind of powder in his laboratory. He dumps some ingredients in a cauldron and then seals the room the cauldron is in, with him on the outside. Smoke begins to issue from the cauldron while Frankenstein watches excitedly through a window in the door. Something begins to rise out of the cauldron and the creature’s body begins to form. As the flames grow higher, the creature gradually becomes whole. Suddenly, Frankenstein grows appalled at what he has done and, as the creature moves toward him, he flees the room, abandoning his creation. The scene takes one minute and forty-five seconds or a little over thirteen percent of the film.
Despite the warning at the start of the film, this is a pretty faithful adaptation. Frankenstein wants to create life. However, once he sees the creature, he immediately regrets what he has done. The creation is shown (which it must be since film is a visual medium), but not lingered upon. The showing of the birth is the only real difference from Shelley’s version of this scene. It gives viewers a clearer idea of where the monster came from. It also establishes the idea of Frankenstein playing God by showing the creature appearing from nothing. Upon the film’s release on DVD, Stephen R Bissette wrote “As in Shelley's novel, the monster's creation seems more the work of "magick"' or alchemy than medical science: it is "stewed" into being in a cauldron within an iron-doored kiln.” The important thing is that Frankenstein has done what no man should; in the novel and this film version, the how remains irrelevant.
Additionally, the film elicits sympathy for the monster right away because it looks so helpless after its “father” flees from it. This brings a couple of Shelley’s themes into play early on (Is what Frankenstein has done inherently wrong? Are the monster’s actions Frankenstein’s fault for failing to take responsibility for his creation?) The other themes are not touched on. That is probably explained by the need to fit the entire story into the short run-time of films from that era. However, for the most part, this version stays true to Shelley’s ideas with the horror remaining mostly psychological. That is not the case with the next adaptation.
The Enduring Adaptation
The most popular filmed version of Mary Shelley’s story is James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. As Susan Tyler Hitchcock wrote, “It had so wide and powerful an influence that ever since, renditions of the story have either depended on, ricocheted off, or actively defended against associations with it.” The most famous scene in the film, its version of the birth of the creature, has inspired many imitations and parodies.
The scene begins with Frankenstein explaining his experiment to his fiancée, his friend and a former professor. He tells them that he is not reanimating life, he is creating life where it has never been before. After this brief conversation, Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, raise an operating table containing the body of the creature up to a hole in the top of the laboratory. There is a roar of thunder and Frankenstein’s machines crackle loudly. He lowers the operating table back down to the floor where he sees the monster’s hand begin to move. The scene ends on the famous lines “It’s alive!” and “I know what it feels like to be God!” The whole scene takes about four minutes in the seventy-one minute film.
The way this scene is presented in this version of the story does the opposite of what Shelley’s version of the scene does. It puts most of the focus on the science of the creature’s birth and makes the horror physical. The film seems far more interested in what causes the creature to come to life. The moral implications of Frankenstein’s experiment are put in the background. His line about being God is never really followed up on. In fact, the blame for the monster’s later murders is never even considered by the film. The explanation seems to be that the monster turned out bad because Fritz gave Frankenstein a criminal brain to put inside his creation. Hitchcock quotes director James Whale as saying “’I see Frankenstein as an intensely sane person, at times rather fanatical and in one or two scenes a little hysterical, [but] never unsympathetic, even to the monster.’” In his mind, Frankenstein was absolutely the hero which takes a lot of the ambiguity out of Shelley’s story.
Whereas the novel considers nature versus nurture and whether the creature or the creator is really the monster, the 1931 film version only wants to be an entertaining monster movie. The creation scene is intended to amaze viewers, not inspire thoughtful conversation. The rest of the film is a thriller focusing on attempts to stop the creature’s rampage. Some of Shelley’s themes are given cursory looks during the film (Is Frankenstein’s experiment wrong because of what the creature becomes? Is the monster to blame for what it does?). However, as shown in the creation scene, the film is intended to be pure entertainment; not a consideration of the morality of creating life.
An Attempt at Fidelity
In 1994, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a film intended to be a very faithful adaptation of the novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, his film eschews a lot of the subtlety of the novel. The creation scene in this version of the story starts with a shirtless Frankenstein hurrying into his laboratory. He hits a series of levers and pulls on a couple of ropes that send the monster swinging across the room and into a large tub. He covers and locks the tub and wheels it over a fire. He then connects electrodes to the monster through holes in the tub. After this, he connects a tube to the tub through which he sends an electrical pulse and some amniotic fluid. Frankenstein climbs on top of the tub and shouts “Live!” until he sees the monster open his eyes. He jumps down excitedly, then despairs when the monster stops showing signs of life. After the monster begins moving, Frankenstein cautiously walks over to the tub. The top flies off, knocking over Frankenstein. He gets back up and walks over to the tub just in time for the monster to suddenly sit up, knocking both men and the tub over. Frankenstein struggles to help the confused creature to his feet and eventually drapes him over some chains which are inadvertently pulled, lifting the monster up toward the ceiling. Frankenstein looks up at it and becomes horrified by what he has created (he calls it “pitiful”). Mistakenly believing his creation to be dead, he leaves it hanging there, with the intention of destroying it in the morning. This is the longest version of the creation scene out of all of the films being compared, running about eight minutes.
Though this film is attempting to be more faithful to the novel, its creation scene is the most elaborate. However, it mostly stays true to the themes Shelley explores in her book. This version has the most science of any of the adaptations, but it also spends the most time on the immediate aftermath. After seeing the creature, Frankenstein is disgusted with himself for playing God. The major difference from the novel is that here he abandons it only after he assumes it is dead. This brings even more sympathy toward the monster and temporarily takes the blame away from Frankenstein. Would he have left it if he had known it was still alive as he did in the novel and the 1910 film? That is unclear. Later, the monster blames both himself and Frankenstein for his crimes; however, by initially misleading him about the monster’s fate, the film makes it a little too easy for us to forgive Frankenstein for not taking care of his creation. It still successfully sets up most of the major questions (Is what Frankenstein has done inherently wrong? Or is it only wrong because of what his creation becomes? Is the monster to blame for what it does?), but fails to convincingly make Frankenstein share the blame for the monster’s crimes.
The birth of Frankenstein’s monster is the inciting incident that sets up the entire remainder of the story. The way that scene is presented informs viewers (or readers) what thematic elements will be important. It also goes a long way in determining whether our sympathies lie with Frankenstein, the monster, both or neither. The novel, despite spending the least amount of time on the birth, is the richest with ideas. It does the best job of dividing our sympathies between the monster and the creator. The 1931 film, despite being the most famous version of the story, has the least amount of ideas and tries to heavily tilt our favor toward Frankenstein. The other two version lie somewhere in between. However, the most important themes in all four versions are introduced in their attempt at this one scene.
Bissette, Stephen R. “The Edison Frankenstein: Found and Lost?” Video Watchdog. 1 October
Frankenstein. Directed by James Searle Dawley. 1910. New York City. YouTube.
Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. 1931. Universal City, CA. DVD.
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: A Cultural History. New York: W. W. Norton &
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 1994. Culver City, CA. DVD.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. London: Lackington, Hughes,
Harding, Mavor, and Jones, 1818.
 Stephen R. Bissette, “The Edison Frankenstein: Found and Lost?,” Video Watchdog 1 October 2005: 7.
 Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Frankenstein: A Cultural History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007) 138.
 Hitchcock, Cultural History, 147.