The Very First Film Adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a Thomas Edison Production (1910)

The sto­ry of humans cre­at­ing mon­strous beings in their image may have peren­ni­al rel­e­vance, even if it seems spe­cif­ic to our con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al moment. What, after all, is Oscar Isaac’s AI inven­tor in Ex Machi­na but a 21st cen­tu­ry update of Vic­tor Franken­stein? And what is Frankenstein’s mon­ster but a Goth­ic recre­ation of the Golem, or any num­ber of folk­loric automa­tons in cul­tures far and wide? It’s an age-old arche­typ­al sto­ry that seems to get an update every year.

Peo­ple have imag­ined mak­ing arti­fi­cial peo­ple, per­haps for as long as peo­ple have told sto­ries. But each iter­a­tion of that sto­ry emerges from a his­tor­i­cal matrix of par­tic­u­lar tech­no­log­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal, and meta­phys­i­cal anx­i­eties. In the case of Ex Machi­na, we have not only a think­ing, feel­ing humanoid, but one cre­at­ed out of mass data col­lec­tion and designed to serve the pruri­ent inter­ests of a Niet­zschean ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist engi­neer. How very 2015, no?

In the orig­i­nal Franken­stein, a nov­el writ­ten by a woman, Mary Shel­ley, we have a very dif­fer­ent kind of mon­ster, born out of a Roman­tic con­ver­gence of inter­est in alche­my and the occult—the orig­i­nal domains of ear­ly mod­ern sci­en­tists like Isaac Newton—and more mod­ern, indus­tri­al sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods (hence the novel’s sub­ti­tle, The Mod­ern Prometheus). Many crit­ics have called the nov­el the first work of sci­ence fic­tion, and many, like Mau­rice Hin­dle in the intro­duc­tion to the Pen­guin Clas­sics edi­tion, have described its main theme as “the aspi­ra­tion of mod­ern mas­culin­ist sci­en­tists to be tech­ni­cal­ly cre­ative divini­ties.”

And yet, writes Ruth Franklin at the New Repub­lic—draw­ing con­vinc­ing­ly on Shelley’s own trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences with birth, includ­ing her own—Franken­stein might “also be a sto­ry about preg­nan­cy.” Intrigu­ing as this pos­si­bil­i­ty may be, most inter­pre­ta­tions of the nov­el have seen it as “a fable of mas­cu­line repro­duc­tion, in which a man cre­ates life asex­u­al­ly.” That tra­di­tion con­tin­ues in the movies with the first film adap­ta­tion of Franken­stein, made by Edi­son stu­dios just over 100 years after the novel’s 1818 pub­li­ca­tion.

The 1910 short silent film, which you can watch above, bills itself as “a lib­er­al adap­ta­tion from Mrs. Shel­ley’s famous sto­ry,” and opens in its first scene with Vic­tor Franken­stein leav­ing home for col­lege. Two years lat­er, the Faus­t­ian mad sci­en­tist dis­cov­ers the mys­tery of life, uses the knowl­edge to make his “creature”—a sur­pris­ing­ly grotesque scene—and, appalled at the sight of it, rejects the thing in hor­ror. The rest of the sto­ry pro­ceeds along the usu­al lines, as the mon­ster, in rags and fright wig, seeks recog­ni­tion from his creator/parent and wreaks hav­oc when he does not receive it.

This first Franken­stein film, direct­ed by J. Sear­le Daw­ley, arrived two years after Edis­on’s Bronx, New York stu­dios began full and very lucra­tive oper­a­tions, and, by this time, writes Rich Drees, motion pic­tures had begun to receive unwel­come atten­tion from “moral cru­saders and reform groups, who decried the new medi­um as being dan­ger­ous and encour­ag­ing of immoral­i­ty.” Edi­son respond­ed quick­ly, fear­ing “a seri­ous threat to his bot­tom line,” and ordered that his films’ pro­duc­tion qual­i­ty and “moral tone” be improved.

Franken­stein, writes Drees, “was the per­fect choice to kick off pro­duc­tion under this new moral ban­ner. It’s a sto­ry that deals with the extremes of the human con­di­tion, life and death, and the dan­gers of tam­per­ing in God’s realm.” Edi­son released the film with the fol­low­ing dis­claimer:

To those famil­iar with Mrs. Shelly’s sto­ry it will be evi­dent that we have care­ful­ly omit­ted any­thing which might be any pos­si­bil­i­ty shock any por­tion of the audi­ence. In mak­ing the film the Edi­son Co. has care­ful­ly tried to elim­i­nate all actu­al repul­sive sit­u­a­tions and to con­cen­trate its endeav­ors upon the mys­tic and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wher­ev­er, there­fore, the film dif­fers from the orig­i­nal sto­ry it is pure­ly with the idea of elim­i­nat­ing what would be repul­sive to a mov­ing pic­ture audi­ence. 

Five years after the Edi­son stu­dio’s short, anoth­er silent adap­ta­tion, Life With­out Soul, appeared. Made by the Ocean Film Cor­po­ra­tion, this film is now lost to his­to­ry, but it qual­i­fies as the first fea­ture-length adap­ta­tion at 70 min­utes. A review of the film, writes the blog Franken­steinia, “reveals a sto­ry that hews fair­ly close to Mary Shel­ley’s nov­el,” mak­ing a “bold attempt at cap­tur­ing the world-span­ning sweep of the tale.”

Sev­er­al dozen film adap­ta­tions in the ensu­ing years have tracked more or less close­ly to Shel­ley’s narrative—giving Franken­stein’s mon­ster a bride and hav­ing Vic­tor Franken­stein rean­i­mate his dead lover with the mind of a wrong­ly-exe­cut­ed man. But none of these films, so far as I know, has drawn out the sub­text of Franken­stein as a nov­el about preg­nan­cy and child­birth. Such an adap­ta­tion remains to be made, per­haps by the first woman direc­tor to take on a Franken­stein film.

You can find Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein in our col­lec­tions of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.

The film above will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Hor­ror Film, George Méliès’ The Manor of the Dev­il (1896)

Franken­wee­nie: Tim Bur­ton Turns Franken­stein Tale into Dis­ney Kids Film (1984)

Mary Shelley’s Hand­writ­ten Man­u­scripts of Franken­stein Now Online for the First Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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