Turning a novel into a movie is one of the most complicated undertakings imaginable.
There are many people behind the cameras that you never see on the screen. And many of them have been in the business most of their adult lives and are members of the many guilds and trade unions that make movies possible today. But the process is guided by the adapted script.
The entertainment industry is one of the enterprises that for a long time was considered recession-proof, if you lost money you just got absorbed into another film-production company and your art continued. The Golden Age of Cinema according to most sources went from 1927-1960, and was dominated by the Big Five: MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers and RKO.
The musical comedy was King of the Hill followed by slapstick and newsreels, and, at first, live stand-up acts to “warm up the crowd”. Adventure light-drama serials ran with cliffhanger-endings stemming from the silent era -- “Perils of Pauline” tied to the railroad tracks or hanging over a cliff, hence “cliffhanger”.
This was the era of science-fiction, movie shorts, such as “Buck Rodgers” who first appeared in a novella by Philip F. Nowlan (“Armagedon, 2419 A. D.”) in 1928 and then in 1934 as a comic book hero Flash Gordon. The Flash Gordon serial was broken into 13 movies, cut into four to five movie shorts with that -- you guessed it -- “cliffhanger ending” to keep you coming to each Saturday presentation as part of the main features. The sci-fi serials started to fade away in the early ‘60s when television predicted the end of the movie-theater era.
Special effects started with a “camera trick” called “single-frame stop motion.” The name most associated with it was Ray Harryhausen for classics like the “King Kong” (1933) with Fay Wray. But Willis O’Brian is the largely forgotten genus behind the 50-foot King Kong and the art of “stop motion” from 1915 until 1962. He mentored Harryhausen who did do his own work on “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” in the ‘50s and “Jason and the Argonauts” in the ‘60s making him the “Master of Dynamation” -- an improvement in “stop motion” pioneered by O’Brian. Most notable was a battle between live actors in “Jason and the Argonauts” and Dynamation puppet skeleton combatants. So here, we have the beginnings of “special effects dominated by “CGI” today.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s TV now showed the same shorts to a new youthful audience on Saturday mornings along with Captain Kangaroo, and Tom-and-Jerry cartoons. The cat-and-mouse tales were created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for MGM, as competition for RKO’s Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies.” They tied in the number of Oscars (Academy Awards) at seven for Animated Shorts Films between 1932-1951, all now on TV. There were only three networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, and they ran 18 hours a day on average 5 a.m. to midnight or 1 a.m., then the National Anthem and then a test pattern and then static until five or 6 am.
If you have kids, you know that kids love to play with new toys. Well I guess most, if not all people, do not really grow up, and creative people, like writers, screenwriters and filmmakers, have been flooded with new toys in this “computer age” of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery.) Some in the film Industry have envisaged a threat to the live actor. If you do not get it -- rent a copy of “Simone,” starring Al Pacino as a director who loses his human leading lady and creates a CGI leading lady. “Simone” may have been prophetic, but not so popular -- the box-office was under $10 million.
Is CGI a Pandora’s Box? I for one think that it could be, and who knows the Wachowskis Brothers, directors of “The Matrix,” might be on to something after all. We seem to be tied to our cell phones and that, in itself, is a Matrix of sorts, or at best the beginnings of one. Some in the scientific world, theorist of quantum physics, theorize that we all exist in some sort of universal consciousness, a state of mind where the reality around us is not reality as we might think it is, but simply our minds making sense of some dimensional rift in time and space.
Well if those last sentences threw you for a loop, CGI is no different. What you see on the screen is no different -- not real, not really there and it robs you of the experience of reading a descriptive narrative and seeing in your mind’s eye what your own imagination generates. In the beginnings of early movies, they captured the feelings of the portrayed works. In 1931 Universal Pictures did a now famous adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus) published in 1818.
The 1800’s discoveries in the field of electricity (Galvanism) were first being explored, and the mystery of life was attached and was attributed to galvanic forces, mainly due to an experiment that applied a static charge to a frog’s detached leg to make it move. Shelly recalled this notion and in 1816 while staying with Lord Byron on Lake Geneva one summer, they challenged each other to write a ghost story.
Shelly literarily stitched together her monster by the fictional hands of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Her monster was fully alive, spoke and was a literate because of the brain that Frankenstein placed in its skull. But the monster was without identity or a soul, having different body parts from many bodies, and is the vehicle of revenge for Dr. Frankenstein seeking out the power of god-given life, like Prometheus was punished for giving man the power of fire, allowing humankind to have god-like powers.
Universal cut the story down to fit into about 90 minutes, and the monster became known as Frankenstein in the minds of the general public. To build an aura of suspense Boris Karloff’s makeup for the monster was kept a secret until the movie was first screened Nov. 21, 1931. When the monster turned and faced the audience in its first screen reveal, it was reported the women screamed and fainted or ran in terror out of the theater. This is just an example of spinning up the hype for the film. Karloff’s name was left out of the credits for the first movie and was billed only as “The Monster.”
One of Mary Shelly’s main plot points was redacted from the movie. The line Colin Clive, as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, states loudly, “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” was covered over with sound effects of thunder for future showings. A fully restored version of the original movie was not available until 1999, showing all the cut sequences and lines considered too graphic for the 1931 viewers.
Other films followed in this monster film era, and are considered classics but as classics are, they have been spoofed and turned into a comic medium, missing the big question that Shelly posed; “Should man play at being God?” The question is laced loosely into the movies of this type, but has to be pried out by actually studying Shelly’s story arc and motivational portrayals of her Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Science substituting for God) by a reading of the original novel.