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Frankenstein Was Not a Doctor

Ron Watkins

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.6, November/December 2010

The concept many people have of Frankenstein is the story of a mad doctor who creates a monster from stolen, dead body parts but mistakenly endows it with a criminal brain. The resulting creature-called “Frankenstein”-is an uncontrollable, murdering fiend who eventually kills his own creator. Though widely recognized as the authentic telling of the classic horror tale, this concept, which stems from various film adaptations, is not the story written by Mary Shelley published in 1818. It is true that movies often differ from the books on which they are based, but critical misconceptions about Shelley's brilliant work that have become ingrained into the public consciousness over the years can be traced back to the movie versions of the story, beginning with Universal Pictures's Frankenstein in 1931. The movie has become more familiar to people than the original novel. It has a life of its own, apart from the book, and has little to do with Shelley's work itself, other than the title. In the novel there is no criminal brain; the creature does not kill his creator; and though he may have been mad, Frankenstein was not a doctor!

Most people probably realize that the name “Frankenstein” is properly applicable to the creator, Victor Frankenstein, and not his creation, which is often referred to as “the creature” in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Still, popular culture continues to identify the creation, or “the monster,” as “Frankenstein.” This corruption of the name can be directly attributed to the numerous motion pictures stemming from the extraordinary novel, in particular the eight made by Universal Pictures during the 1930s and '40s (beginning with 1931's Frankenstein and ending with 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). The latter movie and some of the others-namely The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1942)-compound this confusion because their titles refer directly to the creature, not the creator.

Although Universal's Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, are now considered classics, it is most likely in the original film that the misapplication of the name began. When the newly created and somewhat unsteady being first appeared on screen, his creator cautioned him, “Take care, Herr Frankenstein, take care!” This endearing scene is not found in the novel, in which the initial encounter between Frankenstein and his creation is quite different:

I beheld the wretch-the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. (Shelley 1991, 43)

In addition to the misuse of Victor's last name, the Universal screenwriters took the curious step of reversing the first names of Victor Frankenstein and his friend Henry Clerval; Frankenstein becomes “Henry” and his friend is “Victor.” There seems to be no motivation for, or benefit derived from, such an alteration. Shelley saw Victor Frankenstein as playing God and may have drawn his name from Paradise Lost, in which Milton refers to God as “the Victor”; thus the filmmakers violated Shelley's original intention with this unwarranted editing.

Another misconception from the movies is the belief that the creature is inarticulate, though an attempt is made in The Bride of Frankenstein to follow the novel by giving him speech. Able to communicate, the creature forces Frankenstein to create a mate for him. Although this storyline is similar to what happens in the book, the results differ sharply. In the original story, Frankenstein destroys his work on a female being before completion, thus incurring the further wrath of the creature. In the movie, Frankenstein completes his work, but the creature experiences another rejection when his intended “bride” finds him repugnant and will have nothing to do with him.

In this same film, the creature learns language from a blind hermit with whom he shares some tender moments, learns to laugh, and even sheds some tears. These appealing scenes are not found in the novel, but they do resemble a meeting therein between the creature and a blind man named De Lacey who lives with his family in the woods. Unfortunately, while The Bride of Frankenstein makes an effort to develop the creature along lines similar to the novel, later film versions return him to the role of dumb, murderous brute.

On the contrary, Mary Shelley's creature becomes an articulate, educated being who learns to speak and read French. He knows the history of prior civilizations and is familiar with great literature, such as Milton's Paradise Lost, in which he compares himself to the rejected Satan instead of the nurtured Adam. Frankenstein's creation achieves all this while hiding in a hovel next to the De Lacey family cottage, observing them for a year. At one point, while the rest of the family is away, he presents himself to the blind family patriarch in a passionate but naive appeal for friendship. He experiences initial success because his host cannot see his hideous appearance but hears only his inner suffering and need, a further indication of the creature's humble, not hostile, nature. Sadly however, the returning family, who see only the creature's outward ugliness, drive him away to continue his friendless wandering. His hatred toward his creator for abandoning him intensifies daily.

The creature becomes capable not only of logical thought and speech but also of diabolical scheming. He innocently approaches Victor's little brother William for solace but strangles him when the boy also rejects him. The creature then plants the boy's locket on Justine, Frankenstein's sleeping servant girl, in a successful attempt to have her accused of the crime and hanged. Such devious planning and forethought reveal a mind capable of complex reasoning. Thus the creature is, admittedly, quite a vengeful character in the book and does commit murder to cause suffering to Frankenstein and family. In his tormented mind, he feels justified for his crime; there is rationale and purpose to his horrific deeds, and he is not the ignorant automaton of the movies.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein tells us through his journal that his time and effort during his stay in college were devoted to the study of the human frame and, in particular, the monumental question of just where life originated. In reading the novel, we too become curious and wonder just what secret Frankenstein discovered and by what process he applied it to his creation. Because we are so engrossed in the story that we half expect a valid answer, we find Frankenstein's rather casual revelation somewhat disappointing:

After days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause and generation of life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. (Shelley 1991, 37)

After this profound understatement, Frankenstein refuses to share the secret of life on the grounds that it will lead the reader to “destruction and infallible misery” and “mankind will be happier without it.” Obviously Mary Shelley did not know the secret of restoring life to the dead. Hollywood answers the question of the life-giving process with an awesome and frightening display of lights and electricity amid showers of sparks and explosions produced by an array of electrical machines. The machines harness the lightning and feed it through the electrodes attached to the creature's neck, causing a quickening of muscles, activation, and life. The process described in the novel is not nearly as dramatic:

I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse some spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (Shelley 1991, 42)

Frankenstein's success seems to stem more from chemical or mechanical stimuli that result in a slow physiological transformation than from a sudden “shocking” into existence. Furthermore, the scientist's studies had always been devoted to natural philosophy, including fields such as chemistry and mathematics, not electricity-which would support a quieter, less spectacular event than what the movies give us. (Just what the “instruments of life” are, we're left to ponder.)

In her author's introduction to the novel, Shelley is a bit more specific when she describes her dream that inspired the frightful tale:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a Man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half-vital motion. (Shelley 1991, xxv)

Still, it is not clear exactly what transpired to quicken and give life to Frankenstein's assembly of dead tissue. “The working of some powerful engine” should not be equated with Hollywood's shocking electrical display because the phrase was used in Shelley's time and earlier as a vague catch-all referring to any mysterious or seemingly magical device, procedure, or manifestation. (See, for example, chapter 2 of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, in which Gulliver's watch, comb, and razor are called “powerful engines” by the Lilliputians.)

All the descriptions in the novel and the movies of Victor Frankenstein's obvious scientific knowledge and surgical skills lead us to assume that he must have been a doctor, and he is often referred to as such in films, television, and commentary. However, he is never referred to as such in the novel. Had Victor achieved such status, surely he would have been addressed as “Dr. Frankenstein” by Shelley. Although Frankenstein was educated in the schools of Geneva and attended the University of Ingolstadt, where he became quite successful with his studies and experiments, there is no evidence in the novel that the scientist ever graduated or received any kind of medical degree. In fact, the title character tells us that he had reached the point where he felt he could learn no more, and that his presence at Ingolstadt was no longer conducive to his improvements; thus, he considered returning home to Geneva, until his astounding discovery prompted him to delay his departure.

After his discovery, Frankenstein pushes his efforts to their eventual horrible success, but he is wracked with regret over what he has done and lapses into bouts of intense fear and fever-requiring medical attention and a return home. The rest of his life is consumed by determined but frustrating efforts to right his wrong and destroy his creation due to the death and sorrow it has inflicted upon his family. Shelley gives no account of Frankenstein returning to the university or receiving any medical award that would qualify him as a doctor.

For those who “grew up” with the Frankenstein films but have not read the novel, these movies are their first, and perhaps only, exposure to the story; people may be surprised to learn that they don't know the real version at all. Subsequent films and television shows have missed opportunities to correct this problem, and in fact they may have exacerbated it by claiming to be “the true story of Frankenstein.” Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film interpretation is entitled Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which implies that the movie is based directly on the novel. Though it is faithful to a point, there are many errant details, culminating in a silly sequence that has Victor revive his wife, Elizabeth (whom the creature has killed), only to have her die again in a fiery suicide. This drama is not taken from the book, in which Elizabeth dies just once, permanently.

Aside from plot details, there are also major thematic differences in the story between the novel and the film interpretations. The question of how far scientists should go in their quest for knowledge is a major theme of the novel but is only implied in the films. This is still an important and relevant question in this age of technological developments such as cloning. Secondly, the intense suffering resulting from the rejection and isolation of Frankenstein's creation-because he is different-forms a very important theme of the work, which Shelley clearly emphasizes but the movies fail to consider.

Richard Holmes, in his remarkable study, The Age of Wonder (2008), reveals that the corruption of Mary Shelley's novel began in stage plays soon after its publication. Holmes goes on to state that the changes in these plays have influenced almost all subsequent stage and film productions (p. 334). However, it is difficult to believe that these early stage productions, so far removed from the Universal films of the 1930s and '40s, could have had any direct influence on them, and it is not these stage plays with which most people identify when they contemplate Frankenstein. Although Holmes's work does reveal an early tendency to change Shelley's plot details, such as portraying the unfortunate creature as an inarticulate monster, these changes have been burned into the human psyche not by the stage plays but by the various movies with which most people are familiar.

Does it really matter that a work of fiction has been so misinterpreted? After all, the movies are fun to watch, the story they tell is an intriguing one, and a movie can't be expected to replicate a book in all aspects. While all this may be true, it does matter that the Hollywood versions of this story are lacking the novel's major themes and plot details. What we believe about this classic literary work is simply false, yet society has accepted it as true. It's as if the novel has been cast aside and forgotten, and that probably matters most of all.

Hollywood filmmakers have created such a vast gap between the novel and the films that what we have today is not just two types of media telling the same story, but two types of media telling completely different stories. They are both about a man who creates a man, but that is where similarities end. Other film adaptations, such as Gone with the Wind, have been much more successful in maintaining the integrity of the original work. Original books can often still be recognized in their associated films, but Frankenstein has been so overshadowed by film versions that the book is no longer relevant to most people. This is a shame because Shelley's Frankenstein is a great work of literature with multiple levels of meaning; however, contrary to popular belief, Shelley's story has never been told accurately on the screen.


Shelley, Mary. 1991. Frankenstein. New York: Bantam Books.

Holmes, Richard. 2008. The Age of Wonder. New York: Pantheon Books.

Ron Watkins

Ron Watkins, who has master’s degrees in theology and education, taught high school English for fifteen years. His previous articles have appeared in Writing Award, Discovery, and Reminisce magazines and English Journal.