The first feature film to use an anthropomorphic werewolf was Werewolf of London in 1935, not to be confused with the 1981 film of a similar title, establishing the canon that the werewolf always kills what he loves most. The main werewolf of this film was a dapper London scientist who retained some of his style and most of his human features after his transformation.
The genre was also popularized by the classic Universal Studios movie The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the werewolf Larry Talbot. This movie contained the now-famous rhyme:
“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers at night
May become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.”
This movie is often credited with originating several aspects of the legend which differ from traditional folklore (including invulnerability to non-silver weapons, contagiousness, and association with the moon).
Werewolf fiction is dominated by portrayals of men cursed to become wolves or wolfmen during the full moon . The process of transmogrification is portrayed in many films and works of literature to be painful.
The resulting wolf is typically cunning but merciless, and prone to killing and eating people without compunction regardless of the moral character of the person when human. The form a werewolf takes is not always an ordinary wolf, but is often anthropomorphic or may be otherwise larger and more powerful than an ordinary wolf.
Many modern werewolves are also supposedly immune to damage caused by ordinary weapons, being vulnerable only to silver objects (usually a bullet or blade). This negative reaction to silver is sometimes so strong that the mere touch of the metal on a werewolf’s skin will cause burns. Current-day werewolf fiction almost exclusively involve lycanthropy being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like a disease by the bite of another werewolf.
More recently, the portrayal of werewolves has taken a more sympathetic turn in some circles. With the rise of environmentalism and other back-to-nature ideals, the werewolf has come to be seen as a representation of humanity allied more closely with nature.
A prime example of this outlook can be seen in the role-playing game Werewolf: The Apocalypse in which players roleplay various werewolf characters who work on behalf of Gaia against the destructive supernatural spirit named Wyrm, who represents the forces of destructive industrialization and pollution.
Author Whitley Strieber previously explored these themes in his novels The Wild (in which the werewolf is portrayed as a medium through which to bring human intelligence and spirit back into nature) and The Wolfen (in which werewolves are shown to act as predators of humanity, acting as a “natural” control on their population now that it has been removed from the traditional limits of nature).
Despite the recent upsurge in the motif of heroic werewolves, unsympathetic portrayals of werewolves as monsters also continue to be common in popular culture. This is especially true in movies, which are only slowly incorporating trends in written fiction. There are very few werewolf movies outside the horror genre.