Among many things I love are films, books, and making lists. The Great American Read is the perfect opportunity for me to combine all of those things. Literature often inspires great cinema, so I’ve decided to shed a light on some of the lesser-known film adaptations of a GAR title.
Remaining significantly popular since being published, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has birthed a number of direct and indirect adaptations. Of course, Frank Whale’s 1931 version starring Boris Karloff is well known to most. As is the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Both are preserved in the library of congress for being culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.
Other notable versions are The Curse of Frankenstein from 1957 and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1994. Curse featured Christopher Lee as the monster and came from the legendary Hammer Studios in England, directed by frequent Hammer director Terrence Fisher.
Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in the 1994 film, with Robert De Niro as the monster.
The 1910 version from Edison Studios, while heavily abridged and unremarkable, story-wise, has some extremely creepy visuals. It runs only 14 minutes, and the decayed quality of the sepia film print, lack of sound, and primitive staging gives an unintentionally disturbing effect, especially with Frank Ogle dressed garishly like the monster, slowly and animatedly moving about. It’s just begging to be used in a music video.
But the film I want to discuss at length can hardly be called an adaptation. It’s more of an homage than a proper remake. Made in 1973, Spanish director Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive is about a young girl, Ana, becoming obsessed with Frankenstein’s monster after seeing the 1931 film at a travelling picture show.
Set during the early days of Francisco Franco’s fascist regime, Spirit of the Beehive contains veiled criticisms of the Spanish government. Until Franco’s death in 1975, Spanish filmmakers had to completely disguise their anti-fascist messages with symbolism or move to another country. The dynamics between Ana’s family members, her father’s occupation as scientist and beekeeper, and the allusions to Frankenstein all represent different criticisms of the dictatorship.
In tandem with the political themes is a poignant coming-of-age tale that depicts alienation within the family unit, and the ensuing drama that occurs when people who are each going through separate life journeys isolate themselves and others instead of uniting.
Ana is naive, doe-eyed, and highly adventurous. She lives in a rustic farmhouse with her parents and sister, Isabel, in a rural village on the Castilian Plateau.
A beat up truck carrying an edited print of Frankenstein arrives in town and screens the film. The townspeople, almost exclusively children (or at least a heavier emphasis is put on them as audience members), watch the movie in fright and amazement. The scene from the film where the monster throws the little girl into the water, not knowing it will kill her, is removed. The scene where he carries her corpse into the village is shown with no context.
This causes Ana to question what happened to the girl, and why the monster ended up being killed by the townspeople. She forms an obsession with the tragic creature, and is sometimes afraid of him as well. Her sister shows her an abandoned barn and says the monster lives there. One day she finds an injured rebel from the civil war hiding in the barn, and she believes him to be the monster.
Each member of the family struggles with something different. There’s a very quiet emotional torment going on in all of the characters, even young Ana who struggles to understand why everyone walls themselves up in their doubts and troubles, her only problem being her longing to know more about the monster, to understand what he is. She also wants to know if he’s a spirit, and what a spirit is. Meanwhile, her sister, a few years her senior, starts to yearn for womanhood. Her mother sits vacant and longing in the house, unhappy in her marriage and sending letters to an unseen lover. The father tends to his bees and writes about them extensively— how their mindless patterns vex and sometimes disgust him (a reference to the worker bee life of Spain’s oppressed citizens and the disdain of the patriarchal government). He broods in his study with hexagon-patterned, yellow-tinted windows that confine him in a human honeycomb.
The use of Ana’s perspective draws these elements together exquisitely. With minimal dialogue, the drama propagates through the images and performances. We don’t know all the details of the family’s problems, and sometimes they act without explicit explanation. As children are often visual and tactile learners who must take what they see at face value, seemingly strange things simply happen and take on puzzling significance.
In terms of references to the Frankenstein canon, Ana is both afraid of and fascinated by the monster. We constantly see visual comparisons between them to emphasize their shared loneliness, in addition to other allusions that apply to the film’s political and cultural world.
A variety of empty, though sublimely shot, landscapes which are both bleak and beautiful, also point to the figurative desolation of the country and the emotional distance between the characters.
While steeped in Spanish history, Spirit of the Beehive is by no means inaccessible. Ana, the inquisitive and sensitive protagonist, recalls the more recent, popular work of Guillermo Del Toro, specifically Pan’s Labyrinth. Spanish cinema traditions are often very lyrical, considering the works of directors like del Toro, Luis Bunuel, and Pedro Almodovar. Spirit‘s director, Victor Erice, is no exception. The downside is that he only made one other narrative feature and a documentary, among various short films. If you are a fan of the Bildungsromen (coming-of-age story), surrealism, Spanish culture, or just whimsical, poetic filmmaking, then I highly recommend watching this, especially if you plan to read Frankenstein for the Great American Read!