Frankenstein (1931)

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The 1934 Production Code was far more monstrous than anything in James Whale’s perfect recreation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The film had already been around for three years, yet in order to re-release it, the two most important scenes were cut and banned for decades leaving a confused mess, and one of those scenes was lost. Thankfully, the British Film Archives rediscovered that scene and began a restoration of the film. The other objectionable element was a quote that was easily put back into the film, so that by the 1980s Frankenstein could be seen once again as James Whale intended.

The quote cut for so many years was originally attached to the most known line of the Shelley novel: “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! I know what it feels like to be God!” A few states apparently thought this line needed to be removed because it is blasphemous, and the Production Code agreed. Of course it’s blasphemous. The whole point of the story is a man’s attempt to be God, to know what it feels like to be God. That is the nature of blasphemy; blasphemy is the point of Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein is a blasphemous character. To remove the line from the movie is to take away responsibility from Victor, even excusing him for his blasphemy, so the ridiculous censorship couldn’t have been more counterproductive. Victor needs to know what it feels like to be God in order to have any inclination that his pursuit of that feeling was arrogant, blasphemous, and evil.

The full scene that was removed in 1934 was the scene with “Little Maria.” Certainly, it is one of the most disturbing scenes of all time. The monster sees the little girl plucking flowers and throwing them into the lake. He joins her and expresses a child-like curiosity. With complete ignorance as to the matters of life and death, when the two run out of flowers, he picks up the little girl, throws her into the lake, and accidentally drowns her. He clearly doesn’t know any better. It’s not his fault. It’s not his responsibility. It is entirely the fault of Victor Frankenstein for his arrogant desire to gain power over life and death. He is Maria’s murderer, not the monster. But without this scene, the monster can be understood as nothing but a monster. Again, it removes any responsibility for Victor for the violence involved in his arrogance.

Shortly before the creature is re-animated, Victor says repeatedly “with my hands…” He makes it clear that he is not looking for a way to overcome death for the good of anybody but himself. He is seeking the glory that comes from a great scientific pursuit that gives him authority over life and death, that gives him divinity. Every violent action of his monster demonstrates Victor’s consumption by this lust for glory and power. Victor is the villain, not the monster.

The biggest problem with the Production Code’s censorship of Frankenstein is its pretension to uphold Christian values without recognizing how this movie already does that. It is a reflection of a major theme found throughout the Bible from its beginning to end. The fall of man occurs because the man eats from the forbidden tree in order to become like God. The “mark of the beast” of Revelation is based on Jewish numerology where 3 is the number of God, and 6 is the number of man. 666 is a reflection of man trying to be God. Instead of accepting the gift of being created in the image of God, fallen man rebels instead trying to live as his own creator, his own god. The results are always monstrous. Mary Shelley’s story shows this reality profoundly, and James Whale brought it film beautifully. Frankenstein is one the scariest films ever made, but not because it has a monster who kills people. It is one of the scariest films ever made because it depicts a very dark reality common within humanity.

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