It all started with a contest.
200 years ago this month, a young woman published her first novel. It was a story born when Mary and four of her friends gathered in Villa Diodati, a mansion rented by Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was summer, 1816, and the weather sucked.
The young woman’s name was Mary Godwin and together with Byron, her lover Percy Shelley, pal John William Polidori, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, they decided to ride out the dreadful weather by having a contest: Who could tell the scariest ghost story. Let’s just say Mary won.
Frankenstein was published in January, 1818. In fact, it was originally published anonymously with only an introduction from Mary’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary didn’t get her writing credit until the 1823 reprint. To this day, 200 years later, the novel remains a cornerstone of literary Horror fiction. It brought together the supernatural and the scientific, lighting the spark of our endless examination of a Creator’s responsibility to its Creation.
But what else did her story do? It gave us some darn good movies and monsters.In celebration of Mary’s work and imagination, as well as the anniversary of her immortal Monster, I felt there was no better time to take a look at five of our favorites.
Peter Boyle in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN – 1974
Using many of the props from Universal Studios original 1931 film, Director Mel Brooks delivered a hilarious spoof of Shelly’s story, complete with a Creator/Creation dance number and a Monster’s lost virginity. It’s madcap black and white fun, with a devilishly entertaining Gene Wilder as Victor Frankenstein–sorry, FrankenSTEEN.
Christopher Lee in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN – 1957
Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the seventies, British film studio Hammer Films brought classic monsters to life with vivid color and a healthy dose of sex. One of the best was Director Terrence Fisher’s take, featuring Christoper Lee as the ill-fated creature and Peter Cushing as the madman who created him. Lee’s make-up was one of the first to match Shelley’s original description, with Fisher describing it as, “We wanted a thing which looked like some wandering, forlorn mistral of monstrosity, a thing of shreds and patches.” Mission accomplished.
Rory Kinnear in PENNY DREADFUL – 2014
Showtime’s three-season series PENNY DREADFUL was an involving modern take on monsters, incorporating the very best of their gothic beginnings. British actor Rory Kinnear’s sympathetic performance would have likely been Shelly’s favorite, as he incorporated both the brutality of the beast and its never-ending torment. The show’s writers made this Creature a tortured poet who longed only for acceptance in a world lonelier than the graves he was ripped from.
Robert De Niro in MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN – 1994
Adapted for the screen by screenwriter Frank Darabont, who gave us THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Director Kenneth Branagh’s stark retelling deserves to be revisited if only for its portrayal of Shelley’s monster. Using mainly practical effects and lavishly detailed set design, the film attempts to throw a lot into it’s two hours, with much of it more frantic than fantastic. But De Niro’s scenes as the Creature do capture the quiet and brutal moments of the original story, giving life to its tragic heart. In fact, the saddening scene where his beast comes to life is almost a direct adaptation of the same scene in Shelley’s novel.
Boris Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN – 1931
Boris Karloff was a sporadically working middle-aged English actor when he was spotted in the Universal Studios canteen and given the role of a lifetime. Still regarded as the definitive version of the Monster, Karloff’s performance and Director James Whale’s moody atmosphere, kicked off a golden age of Horror films. Together, with that same year’s DRACULA, they influenced generations of movie-goers and movie-makers.
RAISE A GLASS
Storytellers of Horror have Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN to thank for its confrontation of the scientific and the supernatural. Man’s responsibility to the advances, and the horrors, technology may unleash will forever spark the dark imaginations of genre classics to come.
For that, we say thank you and Happy Anniversary, Mary.
Did your favorite version of Mary’s Monster make our list? If not, leave yours in the comments.