"It's Alive!" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press
Written by Julian David Stone
2022, 234 pages, Fiction
Released on 17th May 2022
In 20th-century pop culture, there are few more famous cinematic phrases than Dr Henry (Victor in the original Mary Shelley novel) Frankenstein uttering the immortal “It’s alive!” in reference to his monstrous creation coming to life. Although most Frankenstein adaptations feature this iconic quote, it is undoubtedly the 1931 version of the film directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the monster and Colin Clive as the mad scientist, which made it the stuff of movie legend. Julian David Stone builds his novel around this classic Universal Pictures film and what went on behind the scenes in the month before filming began.
It's Alive! may be fiction, but it is scattered with facts and loosely based on true events, so would be best enjoyed most by readers who have an interest in the golden era of Hollywood or old black-and-white horror flicks. It is unlikely that those who know little of the subject will be grabbed by a novel about the trials and tribulations of a film producer in the countdown leading up to the first day of shooting Frankenstein. This is a novel for movie buffs, but at a relatively brief 234-pages, it also lacks the extensive detail which might be required to get the pulses racing of true Hollywood history geeks. I raced through this story and found myself turning to Wikipedia to verify various facts or connections, which was a good sign my interest was piqued, particularly those regarding one of the main characters, Carl Laemmle Jr.
The story of the ‘battle’ (probably much too strong a word!) to film Frankenstein revolves around movie producer Carl Laemmle Jr., who has his heart set on producing the flick and is buoyed by the success of Dracula the previous year. In this period, horror was becoming big news and Hollywood studios were all seeking the next box office hit. It’s Alive details the conflict Carl has with his father Carl Laemmle Sr., who is the big boss who hates horror flicks and can’t understand why Dracula was so successful the previous year. In some ways, Carl Sr. is stuck in the old days of silent films and still sees actors such as Lon Chaney Sr. as big names. This family squabble (will or won’t Jr. be made Vice President?) is entertaining enough but hardly the stuff to get pulses racing and casual readers may find it all rather underwhelming.
The two other character threads might have a wider appeal, as they concern the actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Again, these sequences will be enjoyed much more if you have some prior knowledge of these two screen greats and for the fact that when Frankenstein was filmed, the two were at very different stages of their prospective careers. Lugosi was already a star after his breakout hit Dracula the previous year and a long stint touring the stage version across the states. Karloff, on the other hand, was a down-on-his-luck nobody who until Frankenstein had been living on scraps and walk-on parts since arriving from England. It’s Alive portrays Lugosi as a slightly pompous character who dreams of his homeland back in Hungary, but his lust for fame and adoration in the USA is much greater. Karloff is much more down to earth and due to his lack of cash, is eager to grab any role which might come his way, including a monster which does little more than grunt.
The novel is built around the well-known film trivia fact that Lugosi turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein. He was already a star, did not want a largely non-speaking role and be (crucially unrecognisably) caked in makeup whilst stomping around. He saw this as a step down and the novel lightly explores the inner turmoil Lugosi faces when it comes to accepting the role of the monster. He expects to be wooed and have his ego seriously massaged! Interestingly, James Whale has a surprisingly small role in the book and is portrayed as little more than a director for hire, who is equally conflicted about who should play the monster: the star Lugosi, or the unknown actor Karloff. Was this enough material to build an entire novel around? I was not convinced and, even though it is enjoyable, the whole thing could have done with more meat on its bones. Coincidently, Karloff also pops up as a character in Kim Newman’s excellent recent Something More Than Night, which, although is set a few years later, is rich with atmosphere and period detail It’s Alive sometimes lacks.
Details are crucial to the success of this type of novel, as the folks who are most likely to pick it up will invariably already be very knowledgeable in the subject matter. For example, Boris Karloff was a stage name for William Henry Pratt, but in this book, even his wife calls him Boris, which I found hard to believe. One would have thought if anybody used his real name, it would have been his wife! However, in regard to period detail, there are lots of other nice touches; Lugosi has a nude painting of actress Clara Bow in his house (true), who successfully made the transition from silent to talkie films with the two genuinely dating briefly. Clara has a nice part in the book when she muses over how she once thought talkie films were nothing more than a fad!
With It’s Alive!, it is tricky to figure out what is fact and fiction, but that should not be seen as a criticism, as it is a fun read and a light and quirky dive into the Hollywood system and the back-and-forth that went into deciding who played the monster in a truly iconic film. Turning down the role (after changing his mind a few times) was undoubtedly a decision poor old Bela Lugosi later regretted, however, if his career had gone with Frankenstein, he might never have made the Ed Wood trash masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space, which would have been a great loss!
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