Film buffs tend to have obsessions. We fuss and fawn over particular actors and directors while attempting to see everything they ever appeared in or produced. One of my own personal obsessions isn’t an actor or a director but it’s a tale I enjoy seeing reimagined over and over again in different languages and in various settings. That tale is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and I’ve seen it retold in many movies of varying quality but I never get tired of it.
One of my favorite adaptations of Frankenstein happens to be the 1973 telefilm FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. This lush television production runs more than 3 hours long and features a stellar cast of talented players including Michael Sarrazin, Leonard Whiting, James Mason, David McCallum, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Agnes Moorehead, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Margret Leighton. It was directed by Jack Smight (HARPER, KALEIDOSCOPE, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, DAMNATION ALLEY) and is based on a script written by the acclaimed British author Christopher Isherwood (THE BERLIN STORIES, A SINGLE MAN, CHRISTOPHER AND HIS KIND) along with his partner Don Bachardy. Isherwood and Bachardy took creative liberties with the source material but their teleplay still managed to retain many of the timeless elements that have made Shelley’s story capable of capturing the imagination of readers like myself for 200 years.
This two-part telling begins with young Dr. Frankenstein (Leonard Whitney ) witnessing the accidental drowning death of his brother. During the subsequent funeral, Frankenstein becomes so frustrated with the priest’s prayers that he storms out of the church while asking aloud, “Death, peace, God’s will! And all of us listening with pious faces. Why God’s will? Any fool with a sword or gun can give death. Why can’t we give life?”
Afterward, he commits himself to finding a scientific means of creating life and returns to the hospital where he was educated. While there he meets Dr. Clerval (David McCallum) who shares his enthusiasms and the two men begin to successfully conduct experiments that animate dead insects and severed limbs. This eventually leads them to assemble a man from the body parts of cadavers they’ve gathered but before they can reanimate the stitched-together corpse, Dr. Clerval dies leaving Frankenstein to continue without him.
In an extremely modern twist, Dr. Frankenstein uses solar power to create his new “Adam.” At first, the doctor is delighted by the attractive facade and child-like personality of the creature he’s born but things soon take a turn for the worst when it becomes apparent that the life-giving process is reversing itself. The creature’s appearance eventually begins to decay and turn monstrous. He also becomes more aggressive and violent.
There are many reasons why I find FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY to be such an impactful retelling of Shelley’s classic tale. First and foremost, this is a great looking made-for-TV movie produced by Universal and was shot on location in the U.K. while making terrific use of Pinewood Studios. The laboratory scenes, full of pulsating lights, colorful fluids, and massive man-made contraptions seething with life, are particularly impressive. It also contains several noteworthy performances.
Michael Sarrazin makes a sympathetic monster and Leonard Whiting is an interesting Frankenstein but the real scene-stealers are probably the peripheral cast members including James Mason who plays an evil Fu Manchu inspired Doctor called Polidori (named after the historic Doctor Polidori who befriended Mary Shelley and was present when she began her novel in Switzerland), David McCallum as the driven Doctor Clerval, Agnes Moorehead as Frankenstein’s nosy landlady and Jane Seymour as the monster’s would-be bride, Prima.
Seymour was just 21-years-old at the time and alongside Elsa Lanchester in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and Jennifer Beals in THE BRIDE, she’s one of the more fascinating and effective female monsters. Seymour plays Prima as cold and calculating but equally naïve and manipulable under the tutelage of the malevolent Polidori. And her natural youthful beauty masks a violent streak that is genuinely frightening to observe. FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY also boasts a soundtrack by the talented jazz musician and composer Gil Melle (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER) that manages to be both eerie and moving at the same time.
As I mentioned earlier, the script by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy takes liberties with the source material but the changes, omissions, and additions are worth noting. Both Isherwood and his longtime companion were avid film buffs so they included many references to previous Frankenstein films in their teleplay such as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN(1957), THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967).
Having the creature’s source of life come from solar power was an intelligent update to Shelley’s story and to my knowledge this was the first film that included a finale that takes place in the North Pole, which was an integral part of the original novel. This combining of opposite organic forces (the sun giving life and the icy cold that signifies death) to give the creature life and eventually take it away was a brilliant nod to the Romantic obsession with nature. The script is also littered with biblical references, which mirror passages of John Milton’s Paradise Lost as they appeared in Frankenstein.
As artistic outsiders and gay men, both Isherwood and Bachardy were keen to explore the creature’s confusion and isolation in an unaccepting world as well as the queer theories surrounding Shelley’s novel. This is evident in the way FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY emphasizes the affectionate and codependent relationships that the doctor has with the other men (and the monster) in his life. All of these elements can be found in Shelley’s original novel but they’re often underplayed or ignored in film adaptations. Queer theory was still new territory in 1973.
FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY was also exceptionally graphic and gory for a 1973 film and included amputations, animated severed limbs, a decapitation, and suggested nudity, which shocked television audiences and left an indelible impression on a generation of young horror fans. These elements were edited out of future airings and were missing from the video release but Universal finally issued an uncut version of the original broadcast on DVD in 2006. There are still some questions about scenes that may or may not have been omitted from the DVD but I believe the 2006 release is complete and intact and it even includes an introduction narrated by James Mason.
Whether you’re a Frankenstein buff or just a horror film buff I think there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. It’s also a treat for classic film fans who appreciate seeing actors like James Mason and Agnes Moorehead in later roles. Critical reaction has been mixed over the years but now FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is generally considered one of the more remarkable adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel mainly due to the unique contributions of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.
by Kimberly Lindbergs (who has been a member of the Keats-Shelley Association of America for 25 years give or take a few) and originally published at TCM.com in 2013