So there are adaptations that stay faithful to their source, and there are adaptations that take liberties with their source. And then there are adaptations that pole-vault over the source like ‘roided-up Russian athletes.
To be fair, Bride of Frankenstein was not meant to be based on Mary Shelley’s novel as such. Universal Pictures was simply reacting to the success of Frankenstein. Producer Carl Laemmie was down with the idea – but Boris Karloff and director James Whale both had to be convinced; Whale thought that he’d said all he wanted to say with his original work, and Karloff was skeptical about the notion that his Monster would now be able to talk a little. Shelley’s Monster became quite articulate, but Karloff’s conception of the Monster was of an innocent, naïve, and mute creature. Still, after a few years, both eventually came around. To everyone’s surprise, Bride of Frankenstein was another smash hit, and several scholars consider it to be Whale’s masterpiece, outdoing even the original Frankenstein.
I….am conflicted about that.
In my defense: I had Shelley’s original work on the brain and was still thinking about where the previous adaptation differed. And Bride even starts out with a prologue scene featuring Mary Shelley, alluding to how she wrote the original work – and the movie version of Shelley even says some of the same things I was thinking in the end of my last review. “Ah-ha!” said I, as the movie Shelley started to tell Lord Byron “what happened next” to her characters, “Whale must be re-directing and re-emphasizing what was lost in the original film.”
Whale was not doing that, however; he assumed that there was no way that the sequel would outdo the original, so he may as well go full-on wacky. And that’s how kindly blind hermits, comic-relief busybody maids, skunk-striped fright wigs, and a scientist with living Barbie dolls he kept sealed up in mason jars got introduced to Shelley’s work.
The historical anachronisms alone were glaring. That prologue suggests that this whole story is the same story that Shelley is telling in 1814 – but at one point, a pair of graverobbers unearth someone buried in 1899. There are a lot of pistols and rifles throughout that look more like 1914 weapons than 1814 ones. And Frankenstein even talks to his wife Elizabeth by telephone at one point.…I realize this is some serious nitpicking. But clearly everyone involved wanted to tell a different story than the one from Shelley’s novel, though, so why even bother with the prologue?
Actually, the script went through a few versions first, by three or four different screenwriters, that presumably were even wackier; I haven’t been able to find copies, but I’ve learned that Whale said of one treatment that “it stinks to high heaven”. It wasn’t until draft/screenwriter number Four that anyone even thought to include anything from the source material; screenwriter John Balderston had the idea of making the sequel be about getting the Monster a wife. Balderston also added the prologue with Shelley telling the story. Whale seemed to like the ideas, but gave the script itself to yet more screenwriters, William Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson, for some polishing work. Hurlbut and Pearson actually wove in bits and pieces from the earlier drafts as well. Whale didn’t seem to mind.
Whale also had a hand in the casting; he decided that the actress cast to play the Bride should also play Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue, to symbolize how “horror comes from the dark side of imagination” or something. It’s not really anything I noticed, however, until after the fact. But the reason why I didn’t notice speaks well of Elsa Lanchester, who plays both roles. Her version of Shelley is a little bit of a pampered and simpering genteel lady (which didn’t really seem much like Shelley to me). Her Bride, though, is profoundly different – and not just because of the costuming and that hair. She moves entirely in birdlike jerks, and her lines are all shrieks and hisses, which reportedly she based on the noise made by frightened swans. I didn’t get “swan hiss” off it either, but I didn’t really need to; she was just trying to be freakishly different, and succeeded.
I think the biggest reason why I was taken so aback by this film is solely because it tried to remind me of the source material in the first place. It’s more of a Personal Statement for Whale at the end of the day; it’s a creature of Whale’s own making. It’s why Bride probably surpasses Frankenstein in the minds of many, and is probably why we have the flat-top bolt-neck image of the Monster in our heads, as opposed to Shelley’s creation.
In fact, I think seeing this as a double-feature with the original Frankenstein is a mistake; they’re very different. Instead, if you’re looking for an even better double-feature idea, I’d pair this with the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, a biopic which covers the last few months of Whale’s life. Whale was an openly gay man at a time when living as an openly gay man didn’t win you any friends or favor, and some even point to Bride of Frankenstein as a story about Whale’s attempts to find a sense of belonging. Gods and Monsters imagines a friendship between Whale – beautifully played by Ian McKellen – and a young gardener (Brendan Fraser), a very straight former Marine and horror fan. It’s a beautifully sensitive story that complements Bride of Frankenstein perfectly.
And to bring everything around back full circle – it seems that Gods and Monsters’ screenwriter, Bill Condon, is currently under contract to direct a remake of: The Bride of Frankenstein.