Horror's 20 Best Book to Film Adaptations Series 11-by T.C. McKeever
Let’s hear it for the boys, the five greatest monsters ever created. Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolfman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, and we can’t forget the enigmatic Dracula. These iconic monsters have been torn from the pages of their respective novels and adapted, rebooted, reimagined, and recreated into hundreds of mediums
This section of The Best Horror Novel adaptions concentrates on films inspired by these monsters and their original literary works. What’s fascinating about these creatures is that their literary worlds are so in-depth and rich that they can realistically be used as source material to pop out a couple of movies each every year.
So let’s get to it...
Series Two: The Monster Mash
Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus
Mary Shelley’s literary nightmare is a classic amongst gothic novel enthusiasts and is a staple of the horror movement. Frankenstein’s Monster, a horrifying hodgepodge of multiple parts and the living personification of Victor’s loneliness stands impossibly tall as one of the undisputed kings of the movie monsters.
The novel, first published in 1818, is drastically different than typical retellings and frankly, it’s a daunting read swinging between journal entry format and narrative. In the novel we see the youth of Victor Frankenstein, his obsession with science, and how various personal elements led to him creating his monster.
Frankenstein has been adapted no less than one hundred times into film, television, and stage production, most recently with the ill-conceived I, Frankenstein. The world Shelley created is rich for interpretation and continues to be one of the most adapted literary works to date.
My favorite adaptation of this novel is an independent movie named May. May follows the exploits of May Dove, a veterinary technician who is desperate for human contact. May is an odd girl, having a fascination with the macabre and an intense love of body parts.
May is my favorite adaption of Frankenstein for the tone of the film. Here, it’s not the same story of a young “mad” scientists with a god complex, but of a lonely young woman desperate to fit into the world. In many ways, I see key character similarities between May and Victor Frankenstein. My issue with many Frankenstein adaptions is the use of the standardized depiction of The Monster. A tall, towering man with little intellect, green skin, and bolts through his neck. My other issue is the poor characterization of Victor Frankenstein. He is not a loon with wild hair and a crazy glint in his eyes. He is intelligent, a scientists, and more importantly a man struggling with his own mortality and trying frantically to find his place in the world.
May is a powerful adaption because it concentrates less on literal monsters and more on the true monster—the creator, one so selfish they would manipulate natural law to suit their purposes. In May, I see the psychological portrait of madness trapped behind the dead eyes of a twisted young lady.
Other adaptions worth viewing are James Whale’s Frankenstein, his sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is considered to be the most accurate and one of the best adaptions ever made.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most recognized works in literary history, and the basic plot has become a widely used and parodied theme in modern culture. The mild-mannered Jekyll creates a serum to turn himself into the beastly Hyde, but eventually has issues switching back from the “evil” persona.
The original novella is a fine work, but one major plot point tends to be omitted from the majority of adaptions. Jekyll was not a nice man. Normally the good doctor is a mild mannered man that suffers from an impossible weakness, he has an over-cooked noodle as a backbone and is… well, a wuss. The original Jekyll, created by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a friendly and social man that has certain dark perversions he wishes to explore without marring his elite social status. Thus Hyde was born, created from his alter-persona’s wish to be a part of the seedy underbelly of society without anyone knowing. It’s the dualistic relationship between good and evil, between Jekyll and Hyde, that makes this novella such an entertaining read.
The Jekyll/Hyde storyline takes many forms; comically like in The Nutty Professor, thematically in the case of Marvel’s Hulk (This is a loose adaptation, I don’t care what anyone says), and symbolically as a case for the novella being an taught as an allegorical work of the eternal struggle between God and Satan. My favorite adaption of this storyline is Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Mamoulian’s 1931 film is held as a marvel for its time, employing special effects that shocked and horrified audiences during Jekyll’s transformations. This film is one of the more accurate adaptions, but features a twist ending that strays from the original work. The ending, dubbed “Sullivan’s Plot” is derived from playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan’s reworking of the plot to create a twisted love triangle between Jekyll, Hyde, and the beautiful lounge singer Ivy Pearson.
The Wolfman, or werewolf is a special case entirely. There is no essential source work for this creature, and yet this monster has infiltrated horror and gothic literature like none other. The werewolf like the vampire can be traced back to Greek mythology as the accursed Arcadian king that was transformed into a half-man half-wolf for trying to trick Zeus by serving him spoiled offerings. The wolf-man has roots in every major culture, most notably the in medieval Christian lore as a satanic beast that gnaws on pretty young woman and wayward children who do not listen to warnings of their parents.
There are several key works that aided in the development of the modern werewolf, The Phantom Ship (1839) by Marryrat, The Man-Wolf (1831) by Leitch Ritchie, and The Werewolf of Paris (1933) by Guy Endore which established the idea that werewolves will always murder the one the love.
There are so many great werewolf films, but I’ve chosen my favorite two films that I think embody the lore and literary tradition of the werewolf.
The Howling (1981)
Some of the best creature special effects coupled with an incredible plot line has made this my favorite adaption of werewolf lore. A precocious news anchor is confronted by a serial killer that happens to be a werewolf. The plot is full of twist and turns, and has—in my opinion, a masterful narrative and a satisfying conclusion. I particularly like how this film paints the werewolf as a beast and a truly terrifying creature. The special effects are incredible, and it’s no wonder with special effects artist Rob Bottin on the payroll whom we can thank for epics like The Thing, Robocop, and Total Recall.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
1981 was a great year for werewolf films. An American Werewolf in London is one of my favorite horror films of all time. This werewolf tale follows David Kessler through his infection of lycanthropy to his eventually and tragic demise. What’s great about this film is the spooky atmosphere present in the film. Equal parts ghost story and paranoia, An American Werewolf in London aptly adapts werewolf lore into a substantial modern package. There are classic tropes here; the beast’s blood lust, the harbinger, and of course a romance between beauty and beast that doesn’t detract from the storyline.
Other werewolf films to check out Silver Bullet, Ginger Snaps, and Wolfen.
The Mummy! Or the Tale of the Twenty Second Century
Ahhh, The Mummy, a shambling corpse of magically reanimated body parts wrapped in filthy cloth. Everyone from Scooby-Doo to Elvis and Costello to Brenden Frasier has done battle with The Mummy? The Mummy! Written by Jane C Loudon, was first published in 1827 and is a beautifully written, almost poetic fantasy and science-fiction novel, originally published in three volumes. Research conducted for this article states that author Loudon read Frankenstein and used it as inspiration for her own work. I agree. There are many similarities in style between The Mummy and Frankenstein, but The Mommy in my opinion is a much more pleasurable read. The Mummy is also not a true horror novel; instead the mummy (Cheops) befriends those that seek him and imparts wisdom freely.
The why discuss this novel?
The Mummy is easily one of the most recognized horror movie monsters of all time. Though he has swayed from his original literary roots as an undead philosopher he continues to remain a staple of the genre and has inspired as many adaptions, movies, and films as his more violent counterparts.
My favorite mummy is Terence Fisher’s 1959 epic The Mummy. It’s a fabulous cult-horror film that features just the right amount of campiness and genre tropes to make it a fun view. This film in no way follows the storyline in The Mummy, but I believe this movie helped make mummies into one of the most popular the horror movie icons.
Dracula, the caped and debonair Master of the Dark, has an ever changing lore, range of abilities, and power. A case could be made for vampires being the most popular creatures in mythology. They’ve been tragic teens (Yuck), and fallen angels, and even those cursed by Kali Ma’s blood (if you haven’t read Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire series, put it on your summer reading list). The vampire owes much of his modern lore the pages of Dracula.
I’m not going to bother to summarize Bram Stoker’s masterful work, but I will encourage everyone to give it a read. This novel, like many of the gothic novels of the 1800s is written in epistolary fashion—that is, written in a series of letters or journal entries. What’s great about Dracula is that the rules for vampires are set by this work, which are inspired primarily by European fable and superstition. Still, I’ve always enjoyed how various authors have been able to retell the lore or twist it for modern audiences. Although it’s hard to choose, my favorite adaption of Dracula is Nosferatu.
Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaption of Stoker’s work, and because of such had to change several key details to avoid outright plagiarism. The largest change of course is Count Orlok’s distinct appearance; his long spiny fangs, bald skin, and generally more “monstery” appearance. Another key difference is Nosferatu’s allergy to sunlight, this movie being the first depiction of vampires that had sunlight being intolerable to them. The last major different is Count Orlok lacking Dracula’s charisma, charm, and elegance.
Nosferatu, in addition to being a great film of the silent area, is responsible for just as many vampire tropes as Dracula. All in all, Nosferatu is a film that all horror, literature, and film buffs should see because it really is a masterpiece of storytelling.
SERIES III - COMING SOON
In part three of Best Horror Novel Adaptions, I’ll be taking a look at my favorite ghost stories and the spooky films lifted from their pages...
- T.C. McKeever