The Bride of Frankenstein: Adaptation and Mutability

by criticalhit009

The Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester

“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

In which I quote a lot of scholars and find some cool cross connections between texts.

The Bride of Frankenstein: Adaptation and Mutability

Adaptation is a tricky beast. Giving a story to a different creator of another medium often has tremendous effect on the finished product, whether intentional or not. Perhaps no text may serve a better example than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. David Pirie explains this well, noting that there may be “no way in which the kind of ‘noble savage’ monster which Mary Shelly envisaged, reading Paradise Lost and expounding moral principles to its creator, could be presented in the cinema without immediately becoming ludicrous” (278). As a novel written within multiple framing narratives, a literal adaptation is elusive, but a faithful one may be possible. Director James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein takes up this challenge and succeeds as a somewhat faithful adaptation by illustrating Shelley’s ideas through its implication of parental influence, societal critique, and motif of doubling.

Through the character of Dr. Pretorius, Bride reflects Mary Shelley’s concern with familial relationships in shaping one’s identity, perhaps unintentionally adapting this theme in the film. As Mary Poovey notes, “personal identity for [Mary Shelley] entails defining oneself in terms of relationships (not one but many)” (350). It is the failure of Frankenstein’s father to firmly dissuade him from occult texts that Victor points to as the origin of his downfall; Poovey asserts this as well, noting that  “[Shelley] sees imagination as an appetite that can and must be regulated—specifically, by the give-and-take of domestic relationships” (346). Parental figures are then vitally important in correctly guiding their children (and preventing their desires from consuming themselves and others.) Shelley illustrates a lack of parenting through the monster, who “is denied the luxury of an original domestic harmony. The monster is ‘made’ not born, and, as the product of the unnatural coupling of nature and the imagination” (Poovey 351). The creature embodies both the lack of domestic harmony and its devastating by-product.

Thus we return to Bride of Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius, former professor of philosophy and mentor to Henry Frankenstein, “serving as a thoroughly queer surrogate for the eliminated patriarch” (Phelan, 176). Dr. Pretorius coerces Henry (renamed from Victor) to create a mate, trying first to persuade him by displaying Dr. Pretorius’ own creations, seeking to rekindle the desire to create again. Henry resists however, causing Dr. Pretorius to persuade through force by enlisting the help of Frankenstein’s monster to hold Elizabeth hostage. Instead of inhibiting his desires, Dr. Pretorius encourages Frankenstein to explore them, and soon when at work again, Henry descends into a state of manic glee. Though more didactic and explicit than the novel, Bride of Frankenstein does emphasis the influence of Henry’s perceived father figure in shaping him, reiterating Shelley’s emphasis on the importance of domestic relationships and parental authority to inhibit unwelcome desires.

Dr. Pretorius’ presence illustrates the importance of parental guidance, but he also signals the underlying queerness of the film, including homosexual tensions. Throughout the film, several scenes deal with a triangulation of relationships between two males and one female. Lyn Phelan describes each scene of triangulation in detail, first consisting of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley; then Henry, Elizabeth, and Dr. Pretorius; and finally the Bride, Dr. Pretorius, and Frankenstein’s creature. Taking Eve Sedgwick’s model of homosociality, she summarizes that these “triangulated structure[s…] privilege homoeroticism” and attack the “binary structure that relies on utterly polarized and fixed sex/gender positions” (Phelan 173). The film thus critiques structured gender roles, mirroring Shelley’s own critique of patriarchy and structured gender roles in the novel.

Anne Mellor notes that Shelley’s novel “specifically portrays the consequence of a social construction of gender that values the male above the female […] Mary Shelley underlines the mutual deprivation inherent in a family and social structure based on rigid and hierarchical gender divisions” (356-357). Mary Poovey further explicates this, illustrating that the creature is “doubly like a woman in patriarchal society—forced to be a symbol of (and vehicle for) someone else’s desire, yet exposed (and exiled) as the deadly essence of passion itself” (352). Poovey concludes by stating that “the narrative strategy of Frankenstein, like the symbolic presence of the monster, enables Shelley to express and efface herself at the same time and thus, at least partially, to satisfy her conflicting desires for self-assertion and social acceptance” (355). In essence part of the creature’s symbolic function in the novel is thus the critique of patriarchy. More importantly however, Poovey’s concluding remarks mirror what scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar call the “madwomen in the attic.” They write that “[e]ven the most apparently conservative and decorous women writers [specifically of the 19th century] obsessively create fiercely independent characters who seek to destroy all the patriarchal structures which both their authors and their authors’ submissive heroines seem to accept as inevitable” (qtd. in Adams 410). As they note, these outcast figures are “usually in some sense the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage” (qtd. in Adams 410, emphasis in original). They further their argument by asserting quite convincingly that Frankenstein’s monster is Mary Shelley’s double – critiquing patriarchy through her darkened double – a theme carried over into Whale’s film adaptation as well.

Returning to Bride of Frankenstein again, the film critiques patriarchal roles in society, but it also carries the motif of Shelley and her creature as doubles as well. Actress Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Shelley in the opening scene and the Bride creature in the end of the film. Whale reveals this doubling even further through multiple shots of the Bride’s face after her unveiling. Both characters also wear white dresses in the film, visually doubling each other as well. This doubling deeply resonates with notion of the “madwoman in the attic” as well, with the Bride’s rejection of the patriarchal norms. When presented to Frankenstein’s creature as her mate, the Bride screams, representing with what Phelan identifies as “both [a] refusal of the terms of homosocial exchange proposed by the wedding scenario and recognition of their inevitability” (180). Elizabeth Young explicates this scream further, emphasizing that “her rejection is significantly specially an act of speech – one whose authority is implicitly twinned, via the double casting of Else Lanchester, with the authority of Mary Shelley (135, emphasis added).  Thus, Bride of Frankenstein not only carries the motif embedded in the original text, but its meaning as well, as “the bride’s scream and Mary’s speech offer a rejection of the systems of circulation that would disembody, dismember, exchange, and erase them” (Young 135).

Bride of Frankenstein picks up the doubling of the author and her “hideous progeny,” and also expands upon it, adding more doubles to the mix. Aside from the narrative inheritance of Frankenstein and his creature, the film also casts Elizabeth in a white dress, furthering the visual tripling of the film of the three women. Indeed, Dr. Pretorius highlights this when he exclaims “the bride of Frankenstein” after the Bride’s unwrapping, playfully indicating the newly formed creature as Henry’s bride, interchangeable with Elizabeth. Phelan illustrates that through the creation of the Bride, they enact “a parodic wedding ceremony [mimicking Henry’s own wedding occurring earlier in the film,] with Henry and Pretorius, the unnatural couple who together built this marvelous creature, flanking the Bride” (174). As with the triangulation of characters mentioned earlier, “Bride of Frankenstein confuses an otherwise straightforward process by producing too many brides and grooms . . . [with] a variety of alternative and queer couples [as well]” (Phelan 179). These constructions question rigid heterosexuality and societal norms, and though the film ends with the “elimination of homoerotic desire and the banishment of the fantastic forms of (re)production, . . . far from endorsing this operation, Bride represents the outcome as oppressive, uncertain and, as [Judith] Butler suggests, always ‘haunted’ by the sexual possibilities and identities so annulled” (Phelan 180). Thus the doubling of characters not only continues an original motif from Mary Shelley’s work, but (at least part of) the meaning intended as well.

Bride of Frankenstein goes beyond mere replication and (intentionally or not) successfully adapts Shelley’s motif of doubling to part of Shelley’s intended effect, the critique of patriarchal society. The film accuracy to Shelley’ themes and tropes is remarkable given the large number of films who do not even come close. But more importantly, by privileging Mary Shelley as the author of her own creation, Bride of Frankenstein did much more than other adaptations could imagine. As Adams asserts, “the striking connection between the film’s authorial vision and later attempts [by scholars] to recuperate Shelley’s authority over her tale should not be dismissed as mere coincidence […] Whale and his scriptwriters were the first ‘interpreters’ of Frankenstein to establish Mary Shelley’s literary authority” (413). Bride of Frankenstein proves that a film does not need to be a literal adaptation to be a faithful one, but perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates respect for Shelley’s work while resurrecting it anew.

Works Cited

Adams, Ann Marie. “What’s in a Frame?: The Authorizing Presence in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.” The Journal of Pop Culture 42.3 (2009):403-18. Print.

Mellor, Anne K. “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein.” Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 355-368.

Phelan, Lyn. “Artificial women and male subjectivity in 42nd Street and Bride of Frankenstein.” Screen 41.2 (2000): 161-82. Print.

Pirie, David. “Approaches to Frankenstein [in Film].” Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 276-287.

Poovey, Mary. ““My Hideous Progeny”: The Lady and the Monster.” Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 344-355.

Young, Elizabeth. “Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in Bride of  Frankenstein.” The Horror Reader. Ed. Ken Gelder. New York: Routledge, 2000. 128-42.