Two hundred years after its publication, Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” has been spun off into hundreds of plays, television shows, books and films, from direct adaptations to loose interpretations. Perhaps the most famous of these, actor Boris Karloff’s green, zombified monster in the classic 1931 film, was followed by a resurgence of popularity in the horror story that has lasted all the way to the present.
Over the years, Frankenstein’s creature has been played by Robert De Niro in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994), been reinterpreted as a female robot in “Ex Machina” (2014), and has made appearances in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948), in the 1960s TV show “The Addams Family” (as Lurch) and the ‘90s show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (as Adam). More recently, the monster has been restyled to look steampunk, glam rock, and sci-fi.
“Frankenstein” is “the piece of Romantic culture that has most caught the eye and imagination of the public,” said Elizabeth Denlinger, guest curator of a new exhibition, “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200,” opening at the Morgan Library and Museum in October 2018.
“I think what I really love about [‘Frankenstein’] is the way it makes the moral dilemma of who is considered a person and what constitutes being a human being… [and] that the creature in some senses has a higher ethical stance than [the monster’s creator] Victor does, but at the same time, he’s a multiple murderer.”
Denlinger shares five of the best modern adaptations of “Frankenstein,” in her words:
1. Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” 1974
I love this for its genuine affection and respect for the 1931 James Whale version, for the truly 1970s attitude to the creature (he’s misunderstood and underloved), and for the humor, of course.
2. “Bride of Frankenstein,” 1935
This is even better than the 1931 film “Frankenstein”, and the campy introductory scene portraying the Shelleys and Lord Byron is hilarious. (Editor’s note: The novel “Frankenstein was originally conceived by Shelley after a challenge from Lord Byron.) As originally written, “The Bride of Frankenstein” was more daring than what was released — actor Elsa Lanchester, playing Mary Shelley, refers to having been united with Percy Bysshe Shelley before they were married, among other things.
3. “The Eyes of Frankenstein,” comic series by Steve Niles, 2014
I find this interpretation very endearing — the creature is going blind and dreads losing his favorite activity, reading. He gives himself a name in the miniseries, Adam, and after he and his alcoholic detective friend restore his vision (by robbing an eye bank, of course), he is incorporated into the circle of detectives and ceases to be so scary.
4. “Gods and Monsters” directed by Bill Condon, 1998
It’s a sad and evocative movie in which actor Ian McKellen plays [the famed British film and theatre director] James Whale toward the end of his life, and Brendan Fraser plays his beautiful gardener who appears in Whale’s dreams as a memory of World War I and as an avatar of Frankenstein’s creature.
5. “Penny Dreadful” television show, 2014-2016
My favorite scene was British poet John Clare (as the creature in this adaptation names himself) reciting one of the real Clare’s sonnets to actress Eva Green in season two. Also, I like that Clare is a truly complex character, neither fully innocent nor guilty.
Worst Adaptation: “Flesh for Frankenstein,” a.k.a. Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, a truly terrible movie.
This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.