I saw the Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” recently—a new version that is probably not as good as its predecessor—and it dawned on me that three stories that have endured—and been borrowed upon—for many, many decades are Frankenstein, Dracula, and Phantom of the Opera. None of these three probably qualifies as a great novel per se, but their themes have captured the public imagination and nearly everyone knows the basic plots.
The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley (then living in sin with Percy Shelley, eventually to become her husband) in 1816 while she was vacationing in Switzerland with several friends, one of them being none other than Lord Byron. The group had been forced indoors that summer due to inclement weather and general discussion led to a challenge: each would write a horror story and then read it to the group. Mary’s idea eventually developed into a full-fledged novel which was published in 1818. The book got mixed reviews but sold relatively well, eventually cementing Mary’s place in literary history.
The novel is written in the form of various letters and has been over the years—I must confess—largely unreadable to me. Any similarity between its plot and the one that people are generally acquainted with from the movie versions is strictly haphazard. Yes, there is a man named Frankenstein who creates a monster, but after that most similarities end. Mary Shelley’s monster speaks, rather fluently at that, but is not chased by an angry mob at the end—as in the movie—, and actually flees to the North Pole, of all places, where he commits suicide. I do like, however, these two sentences from his parting words: “I have murdered the lovely and helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. . . . You hate me, but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself.” Good stuff there. Those of us who are steeped in self-loathing can always use this one.
The great movie that we all have seen—I HOPE you’ve seen it—is entitled “Frankenstein,” and stars Boris Karloff as the monster. This movie catapulted Karloff into film stardom, thereafter always a favorite portraying weird people and perverted monsters—taking his venerated position along with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney. There have been numerous offshoots of the Frankenstein idea over the years, the best one being “Young Frankenstein,” directed by Mel Brooks, and starring Gene Wilder as a descendent of Frankenstein, and Peter Boyle as the monster. This is a comedy.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker, is a better read. It was published in 1897 to fairly good reviews, and even Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote Stoker a letter praising its merits. However, the book made little money during the author’s lifetime, along with other novels he wrote, and he died in difficult financial straits. The book made a comeback, however, with the appearance of the great silent film, “Nosferatu,” by F. W. Murnau, and Stoker’s widow, Florence (a celebrated beauty in her youth, courted by none other than His Nibs, Oscar Wilde), sued on the basis of copyright infringement. Several interesting historical notes here: pressed for money, Florence Stoker sold her husband’s outline and notes of Dracula at auction the year after his death for a mere two pounds. Also, for many years the original manuscript of Dracula was thought to be lost, found only in the 1980’s in a barn in Pennsylvania (??). They discovered the original title of this book was “The Un-Dead.”
Two great films and a lot of bad ones have emanated from this novel. “Nosferatu,” a 1922 silent film directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck, is so eerie and powerful that it continues to fascinate viewers to this day. The “vampyre” here is simply hideous: twisted face, emaciated body, and long, claw-like fingers. The director enhances the effect with a good use of shadows, and I understand audience members in that era were prone to fainting from the experience. The film has acquired cult status. The “Dracula” we have all come to know and love is the one starring Bela Lugosi and produced in 1931. Lugosi, born in Hungary and once a Shakespearean actor, possessed the kind of foreign accent perfect for the role of a Transylvanian villain, and, unfortunately, was typecast for this kind of roll—much to his despair—for the rest of his acting career. It has been years since I viewed this film but I still remember and cherish the scene where a sanatorium attendant says to Renfield, the patient, something like, “Now I don’t want you eating any flies tonight, Mr. Renfield,” to which Renfield replies, “Flies? Flies? Why should I eat flies when I can have a nice, fat spider.”
Ah, the good old days.
Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux, was published in serial form from 1909 to 1910. The basic plot is about a masked, unknown character who lives beneath the Paris Opera and writes scathing indictments to the managers about the quality of their productions. Eventually, desperately lonely, he kidnaps the leading singer in the opera and takes her to his underground lair, hoping she will fall in love with him. Not so. When she unmasks the phantom, she discovers he possesses such a hideous face that even Mother Teresa—had she been around during this period—would have found it difficult to love him. He releases her and she promptly tells another would-be lover about her experience, and the plot thereby thickens.
The movie, produced in 1925 and starring Lon Chaney, Jr., improves on the plot considerably. The actual unmasking of the Phantom by Christine while he is playing his organ is one of the most terrifying moments ever produced on the American screen. The impact is profound even today, and most audiences know what’s coming. One of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had is viewing this film in a church to the accompaniment of live organ music. I recommend the experience to anyone who has the opportunity because you become totally immersed in the experience.
“Phantom of the Opera,” the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is the longest running show in the history of Broadway. By now I assume it has comfortably traveled throughout the world many times. I saw it in Raleigh, North Carolina, a number of years ago, a multi-million dollar production with terrific special effects, and was duly impressed. The music is first rate and the creator of this work has much to be proud of. Even the original writer of the book would be pleased. But, obviously, Gaston Leroux never imagined what he was creating when he first put pen to paper.
So that’s it. Three famous books that have been improved by the genius of those who followed. Read the books if you care, but I certainly recommend you see the films and watch the musicals. You’ll be glad you did. 🙂