Frankenstein (1910)

Director: J. Searle Dawley

I’ve been mostly reading lately rather than watching anything, and once of my recent books was Mrs Shelley’s Frankenstein, a reread for the first time in probably over two decades. As such, I know exactly how “liberal” an adaptation of the book this film is… The film indeed describes itself as being liberally adapted, which is at least a pleasing admission of honesty you don’t get from certain other equally “liberal” film versions, almost as if the producers thought that by admitting its differences from the book upfront, admirers of the latter might be less appalled at just how extensive said differences are. And, to be sure, condensing a biggish book like that into a single reel—remember, this Frankenstein predates the feature film—would have inevitably required some substantial changes, so you can’t really blame the Edison team for not making the most faithful film of the book. Still, there’s something disconcertingly blunt about the storytelling, even allowing for that—Victor Frankenstein goes to college, discovers how to create life, creates Charles Ogle instead, the latter menaces him and his bride on the day of their wedding then kind of… well, vanishes for some reason. Even considering that such a short film hardly allows for the complexity of the book, the reduction of the latter to such basic melodrama is kind of brutal. I suspect Frankenstein has taken its place in film history largely by virtue of being what it is—i.e. the first film version of that book, a silent horror film, and one that was lost for decades after its initial release—rather than because of its innate quality; at the time it seems to have been actually kind of unpopular, partly because of the theme and partly because, well, it’s not really that good; it’s a hard film to really appraise, of course, cos the surviving print is in mediocre shape and the available Youtube copies mostly seem to be shit, but even so, you can see the style is stiffly theatrical and even the monster’s creation—famously never actually described in the novel, of course, so give Dawley points for pioneering—looks a bit lame once you realise how it’s done. Historical interest, yeah, but not a lot more.

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