Boris Karloff turned him into a lumbering giant. Britain's Hammer studios added heaping helpings of Technicolor gore. Mel Brooks made him a song-and-dance man. And now, for a November release, Kenneth Branagh is rebuilding Frankenstein's monster and its story according to the original plans.
It was producer Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from his success with Bram Stoker's Dracula, who asked Branagh if he'd take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The actor-director (Dead Again, Much Ado About Nothing) had never read the 1818 novel, but when he did, ''I thought, Christ, it's utterly contemporary in feel. Nowadays genetic science is so close to all of that, for the first time nothing in Frankenstein is mad.''
Not even Robert De Niro as the Creature, his naked body crisscrossed with massive scars. But it's De Niro's voice that may prove the most elaborate construction. Shelley's born-again hulk goes beyond grunts, pouring out his tortured heart to his creator. ''We worked with speech-impaired people to come up with the sound that would be made by someone learning to speak in their mature years,'' says Branagh, who plays a rather buff Victor Frankenstein, stripped to the waist in hellish candlelight as he brings the Creature to life by warming him in a bathtublike sarcophagus. ''It's a very hot lab, very primal,'' says Branagh. Adds production designer Tim Harvey, ''We wanted a very low-tech laboratory that might have been created out of the technology available.''
Only with Victor's love interest, his adopted sister, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), does Branagh admit to departing from the text. ''Elizabeth was subject to the literary conventions of the time,'' he says. ''In the film, she's inextricably linked to the fate of both Victor and the Creature. I hope Mary Shelley would approve.''