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The critics’ view: ‘Frankenstein’ adaptations

Show business is rife with reboots and sequels. We dug through archives for these excerpts from reviews of  “Frankenstein” adaptations:

“Frankenstein” (1931)

This review from The Hollywood Reporter is headlined: “Frankenstein 100% Shocker – Old Horror Tale Full of Thrills:

“We venture the opinion that this production of Frankenstein will cause more talk, no matter how that talk points, than any picture that has been made in years. … Will Frankenstein be another Dracula? … Colin Clive as the doctor and Boris Karloff as the monster give tremendous performances. No matter what you think of the picture, you can take nothing from these players for the performances they have turned in. They are magnificent. This is not an easy thing to direct — just how far to go in playing upon an audience’s credulity, it’s sympathy, it’s nerves. [Director James] Whale seems to have gone far enough, but not too far. … The adaptation to the screen of such a story was obviously a task of extreme difficulty, and it speaks volumes for the ability of Garrett Fort and Francis Edwards Faragoh that they were able to turn out such a finished piece of work as is this screen play. … As a story Frankenstein dates back to 1831 — for one hundred years it has remained alive in the interest of those book readers who go in for ghost stories. Now we’ll see if these same people go to motion picture theatres.”


“Young Frankenstein” (1974)

This Mel Brooks comedy is considered a classic. How did critics feel when it was released? The New York Times says:

“As played by Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’s funniest, most cohesive comedy to date, this Dr. Frankenstein is a marvelous addled mixture of young Tom Edison, Winnie-the-Pooh, and your average Playboy reader with a keen appreciation of beautiful bosoms. At this point in time it isn’t easy to make fun of Mary Shelley’s durable old chestnut about the visionary doctor and the monster to whom he gave life. All of the jokes would seem to have been told. … Young Frankenstein, which opened yesterday at the Sutton, was photographed in black and white with fastidious attention to the kind of slightly fake details you’ll find only in a studio-made movie over which tremendous care has been taken. It has an affectionate look to it, especially in the laboratory equipment that is said to be a reproduction of the stuff used in the Whale film.”


“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994)

This straight-laced adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh (who also directed), Robert De Niro and Helena Bonham Carter, wasn’t a critical favorite. The Washington Post says:

“All too faithfully adapted by Kenneth Branagh, the film is the last thing that one would expect of a contemporary highbrow version of this ageless horror classic. It is, in a word, dullsville. Perhaps wisely, Branagh has chosen to avoid any reference to the memorable Boris Karloff “Frankenstein,” but he hasn’t come up with a vivid counterpart for it either. The production, which stars Branagh as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Robert De Niro as his dastardly creation, is handsomely designed and sumptuously costumed. And accomplished actors — including Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Ian Holm and Tom Hulce — fill every role. Even the makeup — when it needs to be — is satisfyingly horrific. What’s missing, though, are the fundamentals — a grasp of the story’s subtext and a genuine sense of terror — and without these, the rest is essentially meaningless.”


“Frankenstein” (2011)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature in this acclaimed National Theatre production. Both received the Olivier Award (the British equivalent of the Tony) for best lead actor. Who played the Creature and Frankenstein better? You can decide for yourself — the film of the play is still occasionally screened in theaters (check your local cinema or The Guardian has this to say:

“Forget Boris Karloff with a bolt through his neck. Forget even Peter Boyle as the new, improved monster singing Puttin’ On The Ritz in the Mel Brooks pastiche. What you get in Danny Boyle’s production and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s mythic fable, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating as Victor Frankenstein and the Creature, is neither shlock nor satire. Instead it’s a humane, intelligent retelling of the original story in which much of the focus is on the plight of the obsessive scientist’s sad creation, who becomes his alter ego and his nemesis: it’s rather like seeing The Tempest rewritten from Caliban’s point of view. … a piece of staging, it is brilliant. But, before listing its virtues, one has to concede that Boyle and Dear, in focusing more on the victim than on Victor, downplay some of Shelley’s themes. Because Victor himself hardly figures until halfway through the action, his initial hubris in animating lifeless matter is minimised. Mary Shelley’s story also throbs with a fierce sense of injustice. The echoes are still there in Dear’s two-hour version but Shelley’s rage against existing social structures is muted. … In performance, it is also fascinating to compare the two actors. Cumberbatch’s Creature is unforgettable. ‘Tall as a pine tree,’ as the text insists, he has humour as well as pathos: his naked entry into the world is marked by a totter on splayed feet and, when he moves, it is with a forward-thrusting, angular, almost Hulotesque curiosity. … Miller’s strength, in contrast, lies in his menace. Stockier than Cumberbatch, his Creature … makes you believe in the character’s Satanic impulse and in his capacity for murder.”


“Victor Frankenstein” (2015)

This film centers on Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and his friendship with Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) — who isn’t even a character from Shelley’s novel. Indiewire says:

“Modern reboots don’t get more monstrous than ‘Victor Frankenstein,’ a wretched creation constructed in the image of various other distorted Hollywood do-overs. Playing by a pitiful contemporary revisionism playbook, Paul McGuigan’s film adds numerous elements to its classic tale that are neither necessary nor desired, be it assuming a supposedly novel perspective on Mary Shelley’s 1818-penned tale, concocting a superfluous new romantic subplot, or adding some Psychology 101 backstory motivation for its main character’s behavior. Worse still, it does away with the very empathy for its iconic behemoth that made its source material such a unique work of genre art, and replaces it with … cacophonous sound, fury, and CGI hideousness. … Aside from a few woeful jump scares, the film is too consumed with showcasing dreary digital effects, and photographing its players amidst gears and gadgets and funhouse-mirror glass, to bother crafting suspense. Deformed from the start, it confirms the very thing argued by its narrative – namely, the folly of unwarranted resurrections.”

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