Thoughts: Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram

79986Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 34

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Gods and Monsters, originally published under the title Father of Frankenstein is a creative retelling of the life of Hollywood director James Whale, who is responsible for films such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, and The Man in the Iron Mask.  The story focuses specifically on the last two weeks of Whale’s life, after he has suffered from stroke, but also includes many flashbacks which give the reader insight into Whale’s boyhood in England, his rise to fame and glory in theater and Hollywood, and his sad decline following the studio butchering of what may have been his crowning achievement, The Road Back.  Whale was an open homosexual in a time when homosexuality in the industry was both accepted but also ignored.  Later in his life, after retiring from Hollywood and after the industry had become much more conservative following the war, Whale separated from his long-time partner and attempted to find himself as a secluded painter.  Bram tells his story by introducing a gardener, Clayton Boone, whom Whale admires physically and whom sits for Whale, as a life model.  Their unlikely friendship is both sad and touching, one which, perhaps, gives Whale the courage he needs to exit life on his own terms, and which gives Boone the human connection, mentorship, and guidance he had been lacking all his life.  Although this relationship is fictional and Clayton Boone, as far as anyone can tell, is a figment of the author’s imagination, still it provides for a gut-wrenching and heartwarming inside-look at Classic Hollywood and the sad realities that touched even its greatest icons.  

Characterization:
4– Characters very well-developed.

As one who knows very little about cinema, film studies, or “insider” Hollywood during the 1930s, it is impossible for me to judge how realistic the story and its characters are; however, as a story in itself, with fictional characters (based on real ones), it is at the top of the class.  James Whale is a fascinating man – his decision to create a sequel to Frankenstein (the film that became Bride of Frankenstein) was a difficult one for him to come to, as he was not, by nature, a “horror” director.  He was, however, gay man in a powerful position and with powerful gay and lesbian friends, all of whom (Whale included) were nonetheless marginalized –tolerated only as long as their private lives and actions were kept quiet.  With Bride of Frankenstein, Whale’s personality truly comes through, and Bram does an exception job of showing that personality in Gods and Monsters.  Jimmy Whale was charismatic, clever, quick-witted, and extremely playful.  Bride was a true subversion, cloaked in a campy horror film.  The addition of Clayton Boone, an all-American heterosexual man, allows for the character Whale to be fully flushed by giving someone to oppose him but also by giving him someone to talk to.  The other characters, such as Whale’s maid, Maria; and a young film student, Edmund; or his first romantic love interest and other Hollywood contemporaries (David Lewis, Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, etc.)  provide wonderful context, both in the book’s present setting and in flashbacks to Whale’s Hollywood and pre-Hollywood days.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

This is the first Christopher Bram novel that I have read, but it will not be the last (The Notorious Dr. August and Lives of the Circus Animals, in particular, look fascinating).  He is a wonderful storyteller and his artistic choices are nearly perfect in every instance.  The book read almost as if it was intended for the screen, which would be appropriate considering the book is about the director of one of Hollywood’s most iconic films of all-time.  Bram’s language and prose are almost spellbinding – complicated enough to match the intricate and emotional plot, and distinct enough to raise the text above that of standard popular fiction. His choices in point of view, alternating chapters from Whale to Boone, to flashbacks or intermediaries (such as present third-person), allows the story much more depth and opportunity than it would have had, were it to be told from any one person’s narrative perspective.  There were some moments, particularly with Boone, that seemed a bit weaker, and there were a few proofing errors (very few and very minor) which should have been cleaned up, particularly considering this edition was in its third printing; but these were small flaws to an otherwise gripping narrative.  

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Few stories match the power of a dying man’s and even fewer can match the poignancy of a story-teller’s final production.  Gods and Monsters is about a man, at the end of his days, experiencing life all over again.  Whale, notorious for embellishing his past, is given, in this fictionalized account, the opportunity to come to terms with who he truly is and with where he really came from – including the lovers he had and lost along the way, the successes and failures that made and broke his career, and the friends and monsters he surrounded himself with, throughout it all.  How many of us bury the more painful parts of our own histories?  How many of us ignore what we can’t or won’t acknowledge?  Gods and Monsters is much more than a story about a Hollywood director, though much of its fascination is absolutely in imagining what Whale’s life in 1930s Hollywood would have been like; still, the true tale is of life and death – of honesty and illusion.  The friendship between an old “fairy” and a young, “man’s man” is strained, confusing, uncomfortable, kind of horrible, but incredibly beautiful.   Bram gives us a glimpse of what the reality of Hollywood, if there is such a thing, might be like – but he also drives home the point that we are all directors of our own lives, making editing choices and casting decisions which, in the end, might come back to haunt us.     

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  16+
Interest:  Film History, Classic Hollywood, Fictional Biography, Gay Fiction, Friendship, Death and Dying.

Notable Quotes:

“Imitation is a form of understanding” (11).

“Sex is as bad as drink for the way it consumes energy . . . it squanders the passion he needs to climb out of the common life into the greater world” (24).

“It hangs on him like a suit of clothes he’s too thin to wear anymore. The truth stands closer to him now, peering over his shoulder” (33).

“He wants to burn his soul clean by being part of something terrible and real, an intense experience that would prove he’d been somewhere” (128).

“We should never let the opinions of others stand between us and what we want” (188).

 

Gods and Monsters is Book #9 completed for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

4 thoughts on “Thoughts: Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram

  1. I enjoyed this review very much. I want to read the book and watch the movie now. I had only recently become aware that the movie, Gods and Monsters, was based on a book.

    1. It’s actually one of the best book-to-film adapatations that I’ve seen. The book is better, of course, but Ian McKellen plays James Whale, and he does an incredible job! The overall tone (despondent humor?) was captured very well, too.

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