More than ever we live in an age of images, pictures and videos in particular. Television and the movies reign supreme. But the written word is still of huge importance to us. Without an ability to read, write and speak clearly you would be lost and incapable of success in today’s complex societies. In this class we have talked about some of the greatest mysteries and mystery stories of our western (or euro-American) culture. In many cases the best of these mysteries have been made into movies of one kind or another, haven’t they? And no doubt some of you may only know of these stories from their film adaptations. You may never have read the original novel or short story. To wrap up our course today I thought I’d take you on a magical mystery tour “from fact to fiction to film”.
Everyone’s favorite vampire is Count Dracula of Transylvania. And everyone knows the character personified by the actor Bela Lugosi with the slicked-back hair, piercing eyes, majestic sweeping cape and blah-blah-blah foreign accent. But where does the story come from? Who wrote it and upon what was it based?
Eastern Europe is a place of mystery and legend. The gypsies, for example, call the land of Transylvania home. The Carpathian and Dolomite Mountains are some of the world’s most remote and dramatic. The land now divided into Bosnia and Serbia and other Slavic communities, formally Yugoslavia, is a place of war, bloodshed and tragedy. A particularly gruesome figure from the dark ages of this land was known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century prince from Hungary. Vlad was a great warrior, a Christian hero, who repeatedly repelled the Islamic Turkish invaders who threatened central Europe. But he is remembered most for his brutality. His nickname was The Impaler because he used to execute his captured enemies by impaling them upon tall lances around his castle. He was also known as Vla-cula, or Dracula, the son of the dragon.
The Irish writer Bram Stoker was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard and other popular writers of the late 19th century. In the years leading up to Word War 1 the theme of invasion from Europe was a popular one and many of these writers wrote of monsters, spies and other threats from abroad. Bram Stoker also had a great interest in the folk tales and superstitions from Eastern Europe, places like Hungary, Turkey and of course Transylvania. Other writers had written about vampires before him but Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was to be the supreme invader-monster, a blood-drinking, night-stalking beast who flees the destruction of his homeland and seeks further life (and blood) in England. In Stoker’s novel Count Dracula’s plans are challenged -and he is ultimately defeated- by the powers of good represented by Professor Van Helsing and a brave team of “extraordinary gentlemen”.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897 and one thing that makes it such a powerful story- besides the captivating imagery of abandoned castles, moonlit murders and graveyard bones- is that it is written as a series of letters giving it the feel of a true account of horror and madness. It is considered a classic of Gothic Literature.
At the end of the 19th century moviemaking was in its infancy and Dracula’s fantastic imagery seemed particularly well suited to the silver screen. The most interesting early version of the Dracula story is Nosferatu, which means “the undead”. This German Expressionist, black & white, silent movie was directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922 and starred the bizarre-looking Max Schrek as Count Orlok.
The most famous actor to play the part of Dracula was of course Bela Lugosi, a Romanian actor chosen by Universal Studios in Hollywood to play the part in the 1931 film directed by Todd Browning, already known for his 1927 film London After Midnight and later for a film called Freaks made in 1932. Originally Universal had wanted the super-star Lon Chaney to be Dracula. Chaney was famous for his starring roles in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However the great actor, known as “the man of a thousand faces”, had died of throat cancer in 1928 and Universal had to look elsewhere for a new star. In New York they found Bela Lugosi playing the leading role of Dracula in a stage version on Broadway.
Dracula made Lugosi famous and though he appeared in numerous other films-usually horror films- he was forever condemned to be recognized and associated with his role as Dracula and was rarely given larger film roles in non-horror films. Basil Rathbone suffered the same fate of typecasting for his iconic role as Sherlock Holmes. Boris Karloff, on the other hand- because of the extreme makeup necessary for the parts of Frankenstein and The Mummy- avoided this sad fate.
Other important versions of Dracula include the 1979 film with Frank Langella and the more recent production in 1992 by Francis Ford Coppola which mixes the dramatic history of Vlad the Impaler with the narrative story as created Bram Stoker.
One of the most famous gatherings in the history of Romantic and Gothic Literature took place in a castle in Switzerland above legendary Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816. Present were John Polidori, Lord Bryon, Percy Blythe Shelley and Mary Wollstencraft (later Mrs. Shelley). For entertainment during stormy evenings the group held a competition to write horror stories for each other. Shelley and Byron’s contributions are largely forgotten today. Polidori’s contribution, a story called The Vampyre, is now considered the first English language tale written about the blood-sucking undead. What Mary Shelley wrote that summer eventually became the sensational novel, Frankenstein, written when she was only 19 years old.
One thing that people always get wrong is the name of the monster in the novel. It is not named Frankenstein. Doctor Frankenstein is the scientist who creates a new man from parts collected in graveyards and put together in his laboratory. In the novel his creation is referred to as "creature", "monster", "fiend", "wretch", "vile insect", "demon", and even "it". Tellingly the monster refers to himself as “Adam” and “the fallen angel” and pleads with his creator for an explanation of his origins and reason for his being.
The novel is also an early example of science fiction. Science takes center stage in the story after all. Besides the experiments of Doctor Frankenstein there are scenes involving the use of kites and electricity, dissections in medical schools, and of expeditions sent to the Arctic in the name of scientific discovery. The opening and final scenes of Shelley’s novel, and Capolla’s film, are of Doctor Frankenstein pursuing his creation across the polar ice intent upon destroying it. At this point the monster is only seeking peace and a refuge away from the rejections and deceptions of Mankind. Above all his maker, Doctor Frankenstein, has forsaken him for his ugliness and brutish nature. This betrayal is the reason for his violence against Doctor Frankenstein.
The most famous Frankenstein monster is the one portrayed by tall Boris Karloff with a square head, bolts in his neck, visible stitching from his attached limbs and massive miner’s boots. This first 1931 film was based upon a stage play in turn based upon Shelley’s novel. Its sequel Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 featured the bizarre “electrocuted” hair-doo of actress Elsa Lancaster. Both films were directed by James Whale. The monster’s makeup was by Jack Pierce who also did Karloff’s makeup for The Mummy and Lon Chaney Jr.’s for The Wolfman. Bride of Frankenstein is arguably the better of the two Whale films if for no other reason than it begins with a charming scene of Mary Shelley, Byron and Polidori in the Swiss castle planning their entertainment of stories.
These early Frankenstein films inspired all sorts of spin-offs including comedies by Abbott & Costello and Mel Brooks, and the 1960’s television series The Munsters which features the Frankenstein monster married to Dracula’s daughter. As he did in Dracula Francis Ford Coppola’s blends the best elements of the books and classic films with superb acting, drama, action and costumes in his 1994 Frankenstein film starring Kenneth Branagh as the doctor and Robert de Niro as the monster. The newest Frankenstein-inspired film is Tim Burton’s soon-to-be-released Frankenweenie about a boy (with Johnny Depp’s voice) who brings his dead dog back to life and then suffers the consequences of his vanity.
The classic 1932 film The Mummy also featured the superb “monster” actor Boris Karloff and the makeup talents of Jack Pierce. And though not based upon any specific 19th century novel it was certainly inspired by the discovery of King Tutankamen’s crypt by Howard Carter in 1922 and the supposed curse associated with that discovery. It may also have been inspired by a little known story by Arthur Conan Doyle called The Ring of Thoth written in 1890. In 1999 The Mummy was made into an action film starring Brendan Fraser of which there have been two further sequels. And I recently heard that Universal is planning a new remake of the classic original…though I’m not sure about Coppola’s participation as director or producer
The classic Wolfman film was made in 1941 and starred Lon Chaney Jr., son of Lon Chaney of Phantom and Hunchback fame. Like The Mummy The Wolf Man is another classic Universal Studios monster movie without a direct literary source. Nevertheless the film surely takes inspiration from the same Eastern European legends about vampires and full moons that inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula. As well there is a long association between the sickness rabies and the condition of being a werewolf. A fascinating tale from 17th century France describes The Beast of Gevaudan, a wolf-like monster that terrorized the French countryside for years. The beast was never killed or captured and some theorize that it was a murderer suffering from rabies and not a wolf at all. Today medical science recognizes a condition called Lycanthropic Disorder, a mental illness which causes the victim to believe that they are actually a werewolf. The story of the beast of Gevaudan was made into a fantastic action film called The Brotherhood of the Wolf in 2001.
As we have seen, in the world of popular culture every generation reinterprets the classics. The finest tales of horror, mystery, romance and science fiction were mostly written in the 19th century long before the age of movies and television. The medium of the day back then was the weekly newspaper where Defoe, Dickens and Doyle all marked their first successes. The turn of the century brought with it a new sensation, the moving pictures. The first classic films were silent productions. Between the wars sound was added to film and bigger, bolder versions of the classics were presented to the public. The first sound movie was Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, which introduced Mickey Mouse.
The 1933 film King Kong was a monster movie like no one had ever seen before. It featured a monster of truly monstrous proportions, a gigantic gorilla. It was one of the first films to use stop motion animation. And it was a true story of sorts. Though King Kong has no specific literary roots the film has several interesting sources.
King Kong was written and directed by the adventurer and filmmaker Merian C. Cooper, known for his documentary films set in exotic locations and featuring action shots of wild animals and a study of local indigenous peoples. The main character of the King Kong film, Carl Denham, is Cooper himself, an obsessed filmmaker always on the lookout for something sensational to film and show the public. A remote island, a damsel in distress and a monster-villain unlike any ever see before provide the thrilling elements of a film that is still today an exciting movie to watch.
King Kong was also inspired by the great explorers of Africa such as Livingstone, Burton and in particular a Frenchmen named Paul du Chaillu who was the first European to see a Mountain Gorilla. Cooper had always been fascinated by primitive tribes and wild animals and it didn’t take much for him to combine the two into a memorable Hollywood version of Beauty of the Beast.
A second version of King Kong was made in 1976 starring Beau Bridges, and Jessica Lange in her first film role. In this film the objective was not to find and capture Kong but to discover oil on a remote island. Only when the oil turns out to be worthless is the existence of Kong revealed and the struggle between Kong and Jack Prescott for Beauty’s love reenacted once again.
In 2005 Peter Jackson (who made the Lord of the Rings trilogy) produced the most ambitious version of King Kong to date. And like the Dracula and Frankenstein films of the 1990s this King Kong follows the original source, the 1933 film, almost scene for scene. Acknowledged for its impressive computerized animation it is also noteworthy for presenting Kong at last as a real animal, an oversized Mountain Gorilla. The original King Kong film suffers today for the incorrect anatomy and jerky, bigfoot-type movements of its Kong. Jackson’s version brings a believable Kong to the screen and this sets it apart from all other versions.
As Carl Denham’s assistant, Preston, says in the 2005 version of King Kong.
There is still some mystery left in this world, and we can all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.