"The Modern Prometheus" was the subtitle Mary Wolls tonecraft Shelley gave her shocking 1818 novel about a man who played God, which was an apt move: Like the defiant Greek deity who fashioned man out of clay, Shelley's hero -- Victor Frankenstein -- generated not only outrage, but a myth, one that's been revisited regularly for nearly 200 years. And seldom without a spin.
Just how pliable the old story remains may be tested Friday when the fantasy-action-thriller "I, Frankenstein" opens, and moves the Frankenstein monster -- here named Adam and played by Aaron Eckhart -- into an ancient city of warring forces. One, led by Naberius (Bill Nighy), one of Lucifer's original fallen angels, is a legion of demons; the other is populated by gargoyles that were created by archangels to look out for humanity. Adam, according to Eckhart, is "a man -- or creation or monster -- trying to find his purpose in life."
The tale reimagined
Directed by Stuart Beattie, best known for all the "Pirates of the Caribbean" scripts, the film is based on a reimagining of the Shelley tale by actor and comic-book writer Kevin Grevioux -- who wrote the original story beneath "Underworld," the 2003 horror film starring Kate Beckinsale that has since been spun into three sequels and a video game.
"Lord willing," Grevioux said, "this will be the second franchise I've created."
Getting there, though, has been a kind of case study in how movies often get unmade before they get made.
When Grevioux first approached producers about "I, Frankenstein," what he had in mind was a noir-flavored film about a man-made hero -- Frank Stein, who, 200 years after the Shelley novel ended, is a private detective in a world inhabited by Dracula, the Mummy and other great monsters, all of whom are about to engage in global war.
Grevioux's hero, he said, "wanted no part in the war but got dragged into it because Dracula wanted to use the Frankenstein formula to create an army of the dead." To help make his case to the production company, Grevioux said, he created a 28-page graphic-novel version of the story. The result: "They were blown away."
And then they weren't. The project was dropped and eventually moved to Lionsgate.
"That's where Stuart came in," Grevioux said. "He changed my vampires into demons and changed Dracula into a demon lord who had the same goal: ruling the world through an army of the dead.
"I had gargoyles in mine, too," Grevioux said, "but a lot more monsters. But Stuart said, 'Let's get rid of the monsters and keep the gargoyles.' All these different things. There was a lot of collaboration. And then it went through some more changes."
Grevioux is a realist. "It's hard to get movies made," he said.
'A long journey'
Beattie, who has a raft of writing credits but wanted to do more directing, said "I, Frankenstein" had been "a long journey," one that began three years ago with the writing of the script, then preproduction in January 2012; the postproduction digital effects work that began in December 2012; and the 3-D conversion that began last summer.
During all that time, he said, he would get calls about what he intended the movie to be. "I'd said, 'It's about a monster who becomes a man.' Then, they'd call back later and I'd say, 'It's about a monster who becomes a man.' Then, they'd ask, 'But it's an action movie?' I said, 'Yeah.' " The mandate, he said, was to make something with a flavor similar to the "Underworld" films (in which both Nighy and Grevioux have appeared).
"They did want vampires and werewolves to begin with," Beattie said, laughing at the circularity of it all. "But I think 'I, Frankenstein' has more to do with 'Casablanca' than 'Underworld.' How else would you get Aaron Eckhart to play a monster?"
Eckhart, who was in Milan doing press for the film, said the Frankenstein monster -- or Adam -- has had so many incarnations he's become a caricature, something he sought to undo.
"You know, the lumbering, cumbersome, square-headed, bolt-necked character," he said, describing the Boris Karloff interpretation. "I like him. But in the book you realize that the character is very sensitive, he's very introspective, a quick learner, adept, skillful. He has all these feelings that all of us have -- when I read it, I thought, 'This is how I felt as a teenager.' And that's one of the reasons I wanted to do the film. It's about our inner monsters and our courage in conquering them.
"I'm an actor. I like to try different things, and I went along for the ride," Eckhart added. "Plus, I like Stuart very much. With this movie, he made what he wanted to make."
Unlike, say, a certain Dr. Frankenstein.
Beyond Karloff: Frankenstein Monsters
Thomas Edison made the first "Frankenstein" film in 1910, a 16-minute silent starring the largely forgotten Charles Stanton Ogle as the Monster, a role that has fallen to many, many actors since -- most famously Boris Karloff, who in the early days was billed as simply Karloff, or, in James Whale's 1931 Universal picture, ". . .?" It was Karloff's performance that defined the Creature, or Monster, as many think of him -- lumbering, dead-eyed, bolt-necked -- which he reprised for Whale in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and did again in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) with Basil Rathbone. Since then, a lot of actors have put their own spin on Dr. Frankenstein's misbegotten project, not all of them strictly serious:
Lon Chaney Jr. The son of the legendary silent-film star, Chaney was best known for his several performances as Lawrence Talbot -- aka the Wolf Man -- but he also was the utility infielder for Universal Pictures during its horror heyday of the 1940s. He played the Mummy a couple of times; he played Count Alucard (read it backward) in Robert Siodmak's "Son of Dracula" in 1943, and he played the Monster in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), sharing the screen with an unlikely cast that included Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy.
Christopher Lee The veteran actor, now 91, played the Creature in "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957), the first of the British Hammer Films monster series, which included Frankenstein movies (with Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein) and Dracula flicks (which starred Lee as the master vampire). The Hammer films hold their own special place in the hearts of horror fans.
Srdjan Zelenovic "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein" (1973) -- directed, as were all the "Warhol" films, by Paul Morrissey -- starred the little known Zelenovic as the Male Monster (the Female was Italian model Dalila Di Lazzaro, who had appeared in 1972's equally disreputable "Frankenstein 80"). Years before its time, sort of, "AWF" displayed all its gruesome violence in glorious 3-D, which no doubt helped it get that X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America.
Peter Boyle Our favorite Monster, Boyle delivered a surprisingly urbane Creature for director Mel Brooks in "Young Frankenstein" (1974), replete with a memorable performance of "Puttin' on the Ritz" with Gene Wilder (Dr. Fraahnkenshteen). Marty Feldman played Eyegor.
Robert De Niro In the Kenneth Branagh-directed "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994), Branagh played the creator and De Niro played The Creation, a role much closer to what Mary Shelley had imagined, a tortured, rejected and more sympathetic character -- even though he kills Frankenstein's bride (Helena Bonham Carter) by ripping out her heart, and then setting her on fire. She took a lot of abuse. So did we.