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Frankenstein’s Monster’s Physical Appearance

Updated on December 3, 2019
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Mary Shelley created one of the most famous monsters in her book Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. While this book is required reading in many high-schools, sold over 40 million copies and after 200 years is still considered by many to be one of the greatest horror stories ever told, there are still many inaccurate thoughts about the book. People calling The Monster Frankenstein instead of Frankenstein’s Monster is probably the most well known, but there are many more parts of the book that get lost in translation thanks to the endless use of the character in television and film. The biggest confusion is in what Frankenstein’s Creature actually looks like.

Mary Shelley Frankenstein Monster Description

Shelly didn’t give us a lot of information on his appearance in her book. Like many stories, it is left to the imagination of the reader. However, there are some details that we do know.

Chapter 4

In chapter 4, Dr. Frankenstein says, “I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.” From this, we can assume that he made his creation to be about 8ft or 2.4m tall. Since the average man in the UK is only 5’10”, we can be more lenient with this physical attribute.

Chapter 5

The beginning of chapter 5, Dr. Frankenstein goes into further detail on the creatures appearance. He tells us, “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley | Source

Although Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818, it was the 1831 edition that would feature an illustration of the creature. (See above image). However, Frankenstein’s Monster’s image was dependent on the individual illustrator’s interpretation.

Stage productions would have the actor playing the monster in pale blue make-up and wearing a toga. Which makes sense, since humans turn blue when the body lacks oxygen.

Frankenstein Comes To The Silver Screen

It would not be until 1931, when Universal Studios released Frankenstein with Boris Karloff as the monster, that a single image of the monster’s appearance became cemented in pop culture and history.

Universal would quickly copyright the makeup format used on Karloff and make this public domain character their intellectual property. However, Karloff's face is owned by his daughter's company, Karloff Enterprises. Karloff played the monster in the first 3 Frankenstein films, but many actors have played the monster since. Glenn Strange would have the honor of wearing the makeup for the last three classic films and since his face wasn’t owned by another company his would be the image used by universal for their merchandise and marketing.

Boris Karloff Frankenstein's Monster
Boris Karloff Frankenstein's Monster
Glenn Strange Frankenstein's Monster
Glenn Strange Frankenstein's Monster

Universal would quickly copyright the makeup format used on Karloff and make this public domain character their intellectual property. However, Karloff's face is owned by his daughter's company, Karloff Enterprises. Karloff played the monster in the first 3 Frankenstein films, but many actors have played the monster since. Glenn Strange would have the honor of wearing the makeup for the last three classic Universal films and since his face wasn’t owned by another company his would be the image used by universal for their merchandise and marketing.

The Universal Monster appeared in black and white films, so there has been a lot of flexibility in his skin color. Usually a green or grey skin tone is used. It is interesting that an actual green color is used so often for his skin in modern times, because the reason they used a green greasepaint for Karloff’s make up was to create a “deathly white” effect on the old black and white footage. The flattened head and stiffened eyelids helped make this undead monster come to life. The black fingernails translate equally from color or black and white films. They were able to give him the “straight black lips” in Shelley’s description. One of the most iconic parts of Universal’s creation was the metal bolts sticking out of his neck from where the electricity was sent into his body and the stitching over his joints and body to help visually show how his body was assembled from cadavers.

To turn the 5’11” Karloff into an 8 foot monster, the costume department made him platform boots that weighed about 13 pounds each. He was also given a jacket with extremely short sleeves and two pairs of pants. The cameras then helped accentuate his large build by filming the monster at low angles. While all this helped created an abnormally large creature, it also made him very stiff, which goes against Shelley’s description of the creature as more flexible than a normal man.

While Shelly’s creation came to print in 1818, Universal’s 1931 version would be equally as powerful in creating the monsters future look for adaptations of this classic story.

Over 60 films and television shows have featured Frankenstein Monster and many more like The Munsters have characters based on Shelly’s work. More recent films like Victor Frankenstein and FRANK3N5T31N try to re-imagine the books from either different character’s perspectives or putting it in a new time period. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the shows that attempted to closely adapt her book and/or had a significant cultural impact for the rest of the character’s appearances.

Frankenstein (1910 Short Film)

Charles Ogle as The Monster in 1910 Frankenstein
Charles Ogle as The Monster in 1910 Frankenstein

Well before Universal’s classic Frankenstein movie, Edison Studios produced a 14 minute short film called Frankenstein. This would be the first film adaptation of the novel and had The Monster played by the 6’2” Charles Ogle. This version was filmed for a 1910 audience and it wanted to avoid “repulsive” situations. Instead it moved away from horror and toward the mystical and psychological elements of the story. Charles Ogles character is more deformed and monstrous in appearance than Shelly’s description. The hands look like a decaying corpses, the mask shows a twisted face of pain and he is dressed like a homeless mummy.

Early Adaptations

There would only be two more film adaptations of Shelly’s book before Karloff immortalized the role on screen in 1931. In 1915 Ocean Film Corporation released Life Without Soul, starring Percy Darrell Standing and in 1920 the Italian film company, Albertini Film, released Il mostro di Frankenstein. The translated title for English speakers is The Monster of Frankenstein. These are both considered lost film and not many picture references exist. By looking at the few images that exist, it does not appear to implement any heavy makeup. Instead they just cast large actors to play the role.

Made For TV Movies

Bo Svenson as Frankenstein's Monster
Bo Svenson as Frankenstein's Monster

In 1973 Frankenstein was made into an American Television Movie and played over two nights on ABC’ Wide World of Mysteries. This time The Monster would be played by 6’6” Bo Svenson. Being a made for T.V. movie we can expect a lower budget than a theatrical release. Here the Monster looks very human, but is covered in stitches. It might be worth noting that they kept Svenson’s blond hair, making him the first blond version of The Monster. Which goes against Shelly’s description of black hair. They also left out the straight black lips.

Michael Sarrazin as Frankenstein's Monster
Michael Sarrazin as Frankenstein's Monster

The same year that Frankenstein came to ABC, NBC releases it’s version Frankenstein: The True Story for both Briitch and Amercian viewers. This was not as close of an adaptation as the ABC version, but was given a lot more attention during its run. In this version the Creature is played by the 6’2” Michael Sarrazin. Rather than creating a “monster”, Sarrazin first comes to life as an extremely attractive man. However, a flaw in the process causes him to slowly transform into a hideous monster and start looking more and more like the walking corpse he is.

While Frankenstein inspired movies like Young Frankenstein and Frankenhooker (Yes, that is a legitimate movie) would be produced, it would be over 20 years before another adaptation of the book would hit theaters.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Robert De Niro as Frankenstein's Monster
Robert De Niro as Frankenstein's Monster

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would come out in 1994. At the time, it was considered the most faithful adaptation to her book. This film directed and starring Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein would cast the 5’10” Robert De Niro as The Creature. Great lengths were taken to create what appeared to be at first glance a simple design. This version makes the creature look like a human who has been in a horrible accident and stitched back together. Full-body prosthetics were created to transform De Niro into The Creature and completely change the well known actors physiology on screen. The makeup artist, Daniel Parker, studied medical procedures and stitching work to make the incisions look medically accurate. Despite the lengths gone to create a realistic looking monster, it ignored Shelly’s intent of the doctor making sure to “selected his features as beautiful” for The Creature in her book.

Hallmark Channel Presents Frankenstien

Luke Goss as Frankenstein's Monster
Luke Goss as Frankenstein's Monster

In 2004 the Hallmark Channel put our their interpretation of Frankenstein. This time critics were impressed with how faithful the movie was to the book. This was particulary true for The Creature, who was played by 6’1” Luke Goss. Audiences would finally be treated to a monster with lustrous black hair. The stitching on the face was noticeable, but not over done. Most impressive was how the skin was not firmly attached to the body that was pieced together. While the straight black lips are once again missed, the hints of yellow in the skin was nicely implemented.

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