Mirror, Mirror: Monsters and Appearances

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

When you read a novel and watch its corresponding movie adaptation, there is often a disconnect. You have pictured the characters in your head and suddenly, they have acquired a physical body. Sometimes, that physical body may be very different from the literary original. How different? Check some of the classic characters of horror literature, and the way they have been portrayed in movies.


Carmilla is a hottie, both on the written page and on the screen. She is described as very young, beautiful, slender, and she has a mole on her neck. She has dark eyes and heavy, long  hair of “a rich very dark brown, with something of gold.” Actresses that have taken her role have been invariably too old as Carmilla is meant to be about 18, the same age as her friend Laura. Ingrid Pitt, the most famous Carmilla, was in her thirties when she played her. Meg Tilly, who appeared in a very good version of the story (it was transplanted to the Southern United States), was 30. Still, she is probably the one actress who looked the part best. Before you start complaining about Ingrid being pushed aside as title holder for best Carmilla: Pitt was a great Hammer beauty and a zesty performer, but Carmilla was a languid, frail, pale creature of subdued eroticism. Pitt is just too sturdy and too out there to correctly mimic the written version of Carmilla. She also looks way too old to pretend she is a teenager. At least Tilly had a face of misleading youthfulness. Whether we will ever see a book-accurate Carmilla is doubtful. I expect Hollywood would cast the likes of Megan Fox in the role, not a delicate waif. There’s a new version of Carmilla debuting in 2010, so you let me know how this new vampire looks like when you see her. Her victim is played by the baby-faced Jennifer Ellison, who appeared in The Phantom of the Opera, but I have yet to see the new Carmilla in a movie.

From left to right: Yutte Stensgaard played a fair-haired Carmilla, Ingrid Pitt also did vampire duty for Hammer and Meg Tilly portrayed the character most accurately.

Yutte Stensgaard played a fair-haired Carmilla (left), Ingrid Pitt also did vampire duty for Hammer (centre) and Meg Tilly portrayed the character most accurately (right).


It’s not like Dracula was Nosferatu-ugly in the book, but he’s one of the characters that got real pretty real fast. In the novel, Dracula is described as strong, pale, thin, with a long white moustache, hair on the palms of his hands, pointed ears, and sharp teeth. He has aquiline features, thick eyebrows meeting over the nose and bushy, curly hair that grows “scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere.” He’s an old man, although he does get younger throughout the novel. Early theatre adaptations got it right and Dracula invariably sported a moustache, looking more like Colonel Mustard than the Count. The first thing Dracula lost was the moustache and the age. He didn’t regain them, basically ever. Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella,  the essential counts, had neither pointy ears nor hair that seemed to “curl in its own profusion”. They lacked many of the count’s other characteristics and, slowly but inevitably, Dracula got hotter. A lot hotter. The count may have had three brides in the novel, but there was no indication he looked like a super model. Cue Dracula 2000 and…isn’t that Gerard Butler? Bram Stoker’s Dracula did take a page from the book with Gary Oldman playing both an aged count and a younger version of himself. However, you can bet your sparkling vampires that any future adaptations will feature some very young, and very sexy, undead nobility. Oh, and there will be new adaptations soon: Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt debuted the “official” sequel to Dracula this year and Dracula: The Un-Dead’s film rights have already been purchased.

Bela Lugosi established the iconic count's look, Frank Langella brought mroe sexy into the picture and Cristopher Lee remained clean-shaven for the most part, except in <i>Nachts, wenn

Bela Lugosi established the iconic count's look (left), Frank Langella brought more sexy into the picture but no moustache (centre), and Cristopher Lee remained clean-shaven for the most part, except in Jess Franco's version (right).

Frankenstein’s Monster

The Creature. Here’s one guy who has not gotten any cuter (for the most part) throughout the years. In the novel, the creature is described as having yellow skin, black lustrous hair, white teeth and “watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Even though Frankenstein says “his limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful” the final result is not pleasing to the eye. Frankenstein’s monster is one ugly wretch. But he’s not dumb. Abandoned by his creator, he learns to speak and read and is quite intelligent and sensitive. Most movies have depicted him as incredibly stupid and bestial. The 1931 film adaptation popularized this idea by having a gigantic, mute, dumb and ugly monster, which everyone pretty much copied decade after decade. A few adaptations strayed from this path (Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was capable of speech and intelligent thought, as was the monster in the time-travel flick Frankenstein Unbound), but most stuck close to the dumb giant idea, including The Bride, which cast Sting as the handsome, twisted Frankenstein.

From left to right: The 1931 version of the creature became de rigueur, then Cristopher Lee donned a completely different but still gross appearance. However, as Flesh for Frakenstein proves, the creature did get some cuteness injected from time to time.

The 1931 version of the creature became de rigueur (left), Cristopher Lee donned a completely different but still gross appearance (centre) to avoid lawsuits. However, as "Flesh for Frankenstein" proves, the creature did get some cuteness injected from time to time (right).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Poor Mr. Hyde. The movie adaptations of this novella have taken great pains to show him as terribly ugly. Witness the 1931 version and the horrid teeth and unibrow which had him looking more like a shaved monkey than a man. The trend has not abated. Van Helsing features Mr. Hyde as a severely ugly, Hulk-like CGI creation at the beginning of the film. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman did the same thing. Curiously, the novella never says Mr. Hyde is physically hideous, or hulkingly-big. People who meet Mr. Hyde say he is “not easy to describe” and state there is something wrong about him, “an impression of deformity,”  without being able to put their finger on what bothers them. He is pale, youthful, energetic, and short. He has a husky voice. He simply looks “wrong” for no good reason. Hardly a steroid-induced monstrosity, yet that is what we get on most occasions. Mary Reilly, which is itself an adaptation of a novel of the same name retelling the story from a maid’s point of view, has one of the more accurate portrayals of Mr. Hyde by casting John Malkovich in the dual role and aging him for the Dr. Jekyll part. Universal Pictures is developing a version of the novella with Keanu Reeves to debut in 2011, so expect Mr. Hyde to show up looking a lot more dashing than he ever has.


Mr. Hyde looked like a caveman in the 1931 version (left) and grew muscles when he joined The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (centre). John Malkovich's approach was more subdued (right).

The Phantom of the Opera

Erik, the titular character in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, is deformed and insane. Yet time has slowly turned him a lot more handsome and a lot less crazy, pushing him from monster status to romantic hero. What a change a century makes! The silent adaptation of the novel, with Lon Cheney in the titular role, was true to the description of the book: corpse-like with no nose, sunken eyes and cheeks, yellow skin and practically bald. He is often described as a “skeleton”. Not only that, this guy is certifiable. He loves killing people and the heroine is justly terrified of him. Slowly, the Phantom got prettier – and nicer. He was portrayed as severely deformed when Robert Englund tackled the role and the musical Phantom of the Paradise had him facing a Darth-Vader type level of accident with a record press. But then came the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Cue in Gerard Butler with his half-mask and good-looks. Not only did he look pretty hot for most of the movie, we were supposed to feel bad for him. Aw. Still, not as much of a hatchet job as Julian Sands in Dario Argento’s adaptation of the novel: he had zero deformity or scars, and no mask. Be prepared for the romantic/handsome trend to continue as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical sequel to the Phantom, Love Never Dies, is set to debut in 2010.

Lon Cheney did a superb job

Lon Chaney proved why he was called "The Man of a Thousand Faces" when he starred in a silent version of the Phantom's story (left), the musical adaptation "Phantom of the Paradise" updated the setting (centre) and Gerard Butler made a much more romantic and handsome composer in 2004 (right).

Dorian Gray

Here’s one gentleman whose looks are not overstated in film adaptations. Dorian Gray is meant to be extremely handsome and youthful. The book by Oscar Wilde takes great pains to describe his great looks. However, there’s one little detail the movies get wrong: the hair. Dorian Gray is fair haired (actually, golden haired) and this point is describe ad nauseum in the novel with numerous passages extolling his “finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once.” Yet almost all adaptations have portrayed him as dark haired. From Hurd Hatfield to Stuart Townsend, Dorian is almost invariably a darkly handsome man. Why? Probably because we still equate dark hair with evil and fairness with goodness. Kind of how moustaches reveal the villain. Most of the Dorian Grays have also been too old for the part, with only Ben Barnes, protagonist of the 2009 adaptation, approaching the right age on screen.


The 1945 version had Dorian with dark hair (left), as did the 2009 adaptation with Ben Barnes (centre), but every once in a while a blonde Dorian makes it to the big (or small) screen, as this 2004 version proves (right).

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