Thursday, December 31, 2015

Adapting Frankenstein

Classic monster movies supposedly based on Gothic novels were in practice frequently adapted from stage dramatizations of those novels.

In a recent blog post, I wrote about how Tod Browning's film of Dracula with Bela Lugosi was actually based on a play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Today, I want to write about the stage adaptation's of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Richard Brinsley Peakes wrote the first stage adaptation of Shelley's novel in 1823. Presumption, or The Fate of Frankenstein premiered at the English Opera House, considered a "minor" theatre at the time, in spite of its grand-sounding name. After an initial run of 37 performances, the play remained in the repertoire until at least 1850, after which it seems to have faded and other adaptations took its place.

Peakes' Presumption is a fairly loose adaptation, famous (among other things) for the introduction of a comic servant named Fritz. It is this character who has the opening song of the three-act melodrama:

     Oh, dear me! what's the matter?
     How I shake at each clatter.
          My Marrow
          They harrow.
     Oh, dear me! what's the matter?
     If Mouse squeaks, or cat sneezes,
     Cricket chirps, or cock wheezes,
          Then I fret
          In cold sweat.
     Every noise my nerves teases;
     Bless my heart--heaven preserve us!
     I declare I'm so nervous.
          Ev'ry Knock
          Is a shock.
     I declare I'm so nervous!
     I'm so nervous.

The song both prepares the audience for the terrors to come and comically sends up the very idea of fear. Some critics, however, were unamused. Moral crusaders picketed the theatre and distributed leaflets opposing the performance.

Undeterred, audiences flocked to see the show, and by the end of the year, H.M. Milner had introduced another stage adaptation, Frankenstein; or, The Demon of Switzerland. Three years later, Milner adapted a French stage version of the play, re-titling it Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster.

Thomas Edison's company filmed the first movie version of Frankenstein in 1910, but the famous James Whale film starring Boris Karloff did not come out until 1931. That film was based on a play Hamilton Deane had starred in, Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre by Peggy Webling. This was the first adaptation to call Doctor Frankenstein Henry instead of Victor.

So when complaining that Hollywood spoiled a perfectly good book, remember that (sadly) the theatre might have spoiled it first.