With the many years for the human race to tinker with this iconic story, it’s no wonder that the common interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is radically different from the actual novel. Being slightly familiar with the myth, I never knew the depths of the novel or the deep personal nature and emotional hook of the work. Most adaptations, especially the early (and iconic) film versions, strip away everything but the horror of the creation (including both the Felix-Safie section and the outside frame story). In truth, most of today’s takes on the material follow the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as the monster. This version invented the most popular image of the monster, with short hair and bolts sticking out of his neck. These features were not described in Shelley’s novel (the monster actually has long, flowing hair by her description), but they have lived throughout the years to be the standard design for “Frankenstein’s monster.”

This version has a lot of influence, but its attempt simplifies the story and takes depth away from the two primary characters: Victor and the monster. In the novel, Victor is a singular figure in the experiments, motivated only by his obsession. In the film and many other adaptations, it’s a collaborative process (usually with a character referred to as “Igor,” who doesn’t even remotely exist in the book). More importantly, Victor experiences instant remorse at his own creation in the novel. The film, and our culture, portrays Victor as a standard mad scientist, screaming “It’s alive” with unbridled enthusiasm when his creation is animated (though, once he sees the strength of the beast, he decides to destroy it). The picture above exemplifies this reduction of his character. In most adaptations, the regret he experiences in the novel is not nearly as apparent. Yes, he regrets the creation once he sees what the monster is capable of, but most versions do not show the degree of his regret and suffering that can be easily shown from the first person perspective.

Another common change from the book to the myth damages the character of the monster. In the film, the monster is mostly silent and uneducated. Both of these decisions betray the depth found in Shelley’s novel. Changing the intelligence of the creature may make him sympathetic as a child or a puppy dog would be, but Shelley’s intelligent monster is a truly tragic character. He reaches out for love from his creator and from any other beings that could give him attention, yet he is only met with scorn. His remorse upon Frankenstein’s dead body shows the pain he has experienced while completing his mission of hatred. However, we the readers experience the horrible treatment of the monster and realize his humanity and the tragedy of his condition. The perspective shift in the middle of the novel gives the work another aspect in its criticism of human nature.

One could write thousands of words about all of the glaring differences between the myth (particularly the popular film versions) and the novel, but I must stop here. Ultimately, the myth of Frankenstein tells a version of the story that somewhat hits thematic bases at the expense of depth in the characters. The worst of these turn a treatise on humanity into a simple horror story.