I’m posting on theme for the month!
I really do enjoy a good Stoker novel. But this isn’t just about the novel, Dracula. It’s also about the 10 billion adaptations of the book. Which, by the way, I’m totally unqualified to talk about. I’ve only seen about a dozen of them, and I’m not sure you could count half of those as Dracula movies, but the dude’s in them, or he isn’t in it by name, but it’s clearly meant to be him – I’m looking at you Count Orlok.
Although, on the topic of the book, if you want to have some fun, go to the SparkNotes website and look up Dracula. There you will find a hilarious comment war between young students (one in particular) arguing that Dracula is NOT about sex as SparkNotes suggests, before being figuratively bitch-slapped by professors, grad students, and people who wrote their dissertations on things like the sexuality in Dracula, who explain that, actually yes, pretty much all of Dracula is implicitly about sex. And then take the SparkNotes quiz, cause there’s a question about Mina Harker being a Horcrux.
A couple of quick notes: Nosferatu and Nosferatu: the Vampyre (which has a different name in it’s original German, but it’s confusing enough, so I’m going with this title) are two different movies. The latter is a remake of the former. Also, when I say Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the italics like that, I’m talking about the movie from 1992, not the novel by Bram Stoker. Really we should require that that movie be called Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but for some reason I was not consulted on the titling.
As you can probably already tell, this is going to be random and all over the place and ramble-y. You have been warned.
He is Dracula
Portrayed everywhere from hideous monster to misunderstood lover and everything in between, there don’t seem to be any two versions in agreement on how exactly Dracula should be.
From my perspective, Dracula should always always always be a monster. Always. There are some versions that really take the Dracula as romantic hero concept to the extreme. This drives me crazy. Dracula is based on Vlad the Impaler. I’m sorry, Vlad. I don’t buy that you’re a misunderstood romantic and did all the ridiculously evil shit you did for love.
Not that there isn’t a sliding scale in all this. In Nosferatu: the Vampyre, there’s a sense of loneliness, that may tug a bit at your heartstrings. It doesn’t feel out of place. That Count Dracula is aware of what he is. And despite that loneliness, his nature will eventually take over. He’s resigned to it. He’s not trying to take on a lover. And you still want him destroyed in the end.
But the classical Dracula should be attractive. I don’t even mean in looks, really (though that doesn’t hurt). I mean there should be something about him that draws you in. We know, as soon as we start a Dracula movie that he’s the villain. But if you aren’t sucked in from his first “I am Dracula,” then the filmmakers fucked up. I’m not saying you have to be licking the screen, but he should have your undivided attention and hold it. The character should be terrifying and exhilarating.
Actually, Nosferatu: the Vampyre does this damn well. Dracula is hideous looking, but you’ll probably find that you’re beside yourself with giddiness whenever he steps onscreen.
For all my ranting against the romantic hero approach, Gary Oldman’s take is certainly effective (and easier on the eyes). Bela Legosi’s monster in disguise exhibits stillness and control. He’s hypnotizing. And yet, these three versions of the character couldn’t be more different from each other.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
There’s a wide array of male characters to choose from, and adaptations almost never use all of them, generally combining Lucy’s three potential lovers into one or two characters (Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the one exception that springs to mind). I completely understand why filmmakers, with so many characters to track, would take one or two (or even three) out. But in a way it’s a bit of a shame, as they’re all very different from each other (not to mention the symbolism Stoker was angling with his use of the number 3).
For whatever reason, poor Jonathan Harker rarely fares well in adaptations. He often is killed or turned (pictured Harker excepted), leaving Van Helsing to be the hero, despite the fact that in the original novel, Harker stakes Dracula in the end.
Jonathan Harker is the young dashing hero, but has hesitance and moments of idiocy, as all good little boys and girls on the hero’s journey should. He’s in love, he’s in a comfortable living situation, has a good job, and just happens to land on the monster’s radar in the worst way possible.
Arthur Holmwood, the suitor that Lucy actually gets engaged to, is a rich, young, and becomes a Lord before the end of the book. After staking vamp-Lucy, he helps Jonathan hunt Dracula (slight vengeful streak).
Dr. Jack Seward, the second of Lucy’s suitors, is a young doctor. Renfield is his patient. Seward has a scientific and practical approach to most everything he does, but is also anxious to go after vampires after Lucy’s death.
Quincey Morris is a delightful cliche of an American. He’s a sharpshooter from the south and the third of Lucy’s suitors. It makes the most sense that he’d want to go after the monster. He’s, like, if redneck was cute. Think Tucker and Dale.
Anyway, the point is 4 male characters is waaay too many for anyone to keep track of, so most people choose one or two of the names they like best and make up their own backstory and personality for them, despite the fact that Stoker’s are perfectly serviceable.
Again, the roles are often combined, but this is slightly more frustrating as there are only two girls to begin with and they’re vastly different. When this happens, we end up with a character I call Minucy, a hybrid of Mina and Lucy.
Sometimes the story suffers by only having one of these characters, and other times she really becomes a strong central point for the film. She’s not generally terrific near the beginning, and I often thought to myself “here we go again. The weak female lead,” but on a couple of occasions she really grows into something of a force. It’s nice. She has, like, a character arc.
I really do think though, by and large, it’s important to keep the two characters separate and distinguishable from each other. They’re meant to represent two different things. Let them.
One thing the girls do share, is a bite from Dracula. Lucy turns full vamp, after Van Helsing is called, but is too late to save her. Mina begins the transformation, but Dracula is slain before it can be completed.
Understandably, this is somewhat problematic for modern day audiences, so Minucy generally gets a little more involved in the actual monster hunting in the films, instead of her, “I’m gonna record the hell out of this, so we have a vampire hunting library by the end” sort of role she has in the book.
That’s simply not interesting to watch on film, and contemporary women would wonder why she doesn’t do something more to help herself. Quite a few film adaptations give her a “welp, better go deal with this vampire” attitude, which is much easier to swallow.
How the Boys and Girls Mix-and-Match Affects the Story
Originally, Stoker’s story goes something like this: Jonathan Harker is engaged, later married to Mina. He meets Dracula on a business trip, helping Dracula find new lodgings in England. Jonathan realizes Dracula seems super sketchy. Mina’s friend, Lucy, has three suitors: Arthur, Quincey, and Dr. Jack Seward. Lucy becomes engaged to Arthur. Renfield is Seward’s mental patient. Lucy dies after the appearance of Van Helsing who is unable to save her, but she returns as a vampire, (compliments of Dracula), Renfield is killed (compliments of Dracula), and Mina is in danger of turning into a vampire (compliments of Dracula). Van Helsing and Mina cleanse Dracula’s castle. The rest of the gang (Jonathan, Arthur, Quincey, Seward) face Dracula, Jonathan stakes him, and Dracula is destroyed, curing Mina. Quincy dies.
Every time I start a Dracula film, I basically have to accept the fact that I’m going to have to relearn the character relationships all over again.
In one version, Arthur is married to Mina, and Lucy, his sister, is engaged to Jonathan.
In another, Renfield is Jonathan’s boss (Jonathan is married to Lucy in this version too).
In another, the rivalry for Lucy, between Arthur and Seward, becomes the main focus of the film, and Arthur seems to be suffering from some vampire disease (the most major side effect being it makes him act like an asshole and join a cult), leaving Seward to be the hero. Meanwhile Jonathan’s dead and Mina’s mostly superfluous.
In yet another, Seward is Lucy’s father and Van Helsing is Mina’s. Lucy has an affair with Dracula (apparently he’s her true love. What. The. Expletive.) behind Jonathan, her boyfriend’s, back.
And for some reason a ton of versions have Mina and Lucy’s names switched.
Confused yet? Cause I could go on.
The reason they’re usually after Dracula is either a) a girl dies b) Renfield dies c) a girl is in danger of turning into a vampire d) Monster! Kill it! e) er…we’re in Dracula, that’s what we’re meant to be doing now, right? or f) all of the above.
Oh, and Dracula is either English, German, or Romanian, depending on the version you’re watching, where the other characters are from, and how little/much time they want to spend traveling.
Professor Doctor-Lawyer Exorcising Vampire Hunter
Luckily for everyone, in just about every version of the story, there’s this Van Helsing guy. In the book, Van Helsing doesn’t appear until about halfway through. But when he does, the already fair pace of the novel is kicked into high gear. Here there be monsters.
The idea that Van Helsing should hang back until about halfway through is actually embraced in quite a few retellings. Even in the first Hammer production of Dracula, we follow Jonathan Harker for about half the movie. Then he dies (really? Again? Poor guy can’t catch a break), and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing steps in. He’s all action hero about it, which is less usual.
The great thing about Van Helsing is he’s qualified to do everything, so he can be anything the filmmakers want: action hero, mysterious healer, exorcist, hunter, teacher, lawyer, or all of these. Why the hell not? He’s Van Helsing!
Also, as the name suggests (and as is the case in the book), Van Helsing is not from around these parts, and when this foreign variation is used in the adaptations, it can lend itself to some rather endearing exchanges with the English speakers (“All around the door…” “Jamb.” “Jamb?! Really?! Very well. The jamb of the door.”).
Fun Fact: Do you know what Van Helsing’s first name is? It’s Abraham. Do you know what Bram is short for? Abraham. Stoker named the character after himself.
The Excellent Mr. Renfield
The representations of Renfield, and his lodgings at the asylum, are executed with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Vampires don’t really creep me out, and while I find the Dracula sections of the book interesting, I don’t find them frightening (excepting one scene. We’ll get to that).
The far more frightening sequences were the ones in the asylum. I’ve never felt my brain was screwed in especially well, and asylums? Well, those existed. And it was hell for the patients who were often treated in truly horrific ways and essentially tortured until the end of their lives. To me, one of the villains of Dracula always seemed like Dr. Seward, Renfield’s doctor (this is a personal opinion, and not one I can back up with scholarly essays).
Renfield, as a character, is excellent. As a general rule. He’s suffering from…er…well, Seward calls him a “zoöphagous maniac.” Renfield eats flies and spiders and things, and tends to be portrayed as an all-out lunatic, which is probably quite a fun role to play.
Renfield accepts Dracula as his master, and from that point forward is marked as doomed. It can’t end well and doesn’t. Renfield meets a rather horrific murder at Dracula’s hands (or rather fangs). Renfield puts the other characters in danger, before then trying to protect them. He’s all the clues they need in front of them, and they don’t realize it until it’s too late.
Fun Fact: Klaus Kinski played Renfield in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula in 1970 before he was upgraded to playing Dracula a few years later in Nosferatu: the Vampyre.
The Great and Powerful Nos
Let’s talk about powers for a second. Cause Dracula has them. He has the strength of 20 strong men, is speedier than Gonzalez, can transform his appearance (both into animals and weather elements), and can place people under a trance.
My favorite inaccuracy, perpetuated by it being the method used to kill Dracula in several adaptations, is that sunlight kills or burns vampires. This is simply not the case (or wouldn’t be if they were real). It was the method used to off Orlok in the very first film adaptation, Nosferatu, and it just sort of stuck.
In the book, Dracula has no trouble going out in the day. It’s just not his preference, since he’s nocturnal and is likely to be asleep when the sun is up. Get it? Like bats?
Speaking of bats, I should really mention the wall crawling scene. So there was one vampire scene that actually creeped me out in the book. Jonathan is at the count’s castle and looks out the window. Below him Dracula is crawling along the wall. And he’s wearing his cape, so it looks like he has bat wings. And I quite like bats, but the way Jonathan describes Dracula’s climb down the wall, it sounded more comparable to some sort of bug or insect, and it made my skin positively crawl.
I’ve found a few versions now that have tried their hand at the batwalk. Mostly, it doesn’t work. It’s directed in such a way that Dracula’s movements are slow and deliberate in an attempt to create menace, which is the OPPOSITE of why that scene’s creepy.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula scores a point here. It’s the only adaptation that has the count crawling in small jerky movements like a bat or a bug (though I think those shots should have lingered a bit longer).
I wandered onto a Dracula vs. Frankenstein (I presume they were referring to the creature) Fight thread, and while I will concede Frankenstein may be better written than Dracula (though I obviously prefer the latter), some people seemed to seriously think the creature had the upper hand.
I don’t care how fast, how strong, how intelligent you are, you can’t beat superspeed, superstrength, and mind control. That wins. Oh, also, Dracula can turn himself into fog.
What really bugs me is when they preface their ill-fated argument with “As someone who has read both of the books-”
AS SOMEONE WHO HAS READ BOTH OF THE BOOKS, THE WINNER IS THE FOG MONSTER!
Children of the Night. What Music They Make.
I just wanted to slip a note about the music in here, because there are three scores that stood out to me.
First off, as much as this version annoys me, the 1979 film has a score by John Williams, and it’s as grand and sweeping as you’d hope. Points.
Second, as much as I like the adaptation the BBC did in 1977, the music drives me nuts. Every time the music would creep in, I had to brace myself. It wasn’t that it was unnerving, then it would have been doing it’s job, it’s that it’s just annoying.
Lastly, there was a really interesting choice made in Nosferatu: the Vampyre. There are several points, throughout the movie, when Dracula is either victorious or else has luck on his side, and the music in these moments reflects his victory. The bad guy’s. So you get this exciting, liberating music, while the bad guy is getting his way.
The first time it happened, I thought I had missed something or didn’t understand what was happening, but then I realized the recurring pattern. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, other than that is gives this lonely figure some moments of grandeur. After all, no one’s really triumphant at the end of that movie, so perhaps it’s worth embracing those moments when a character, any character, experiences hope.
The Kitchen Sink
If you’re looking for some Dracula films here are some categories that you might find helpful (all answered by my own personal opinion). I refrained from things like just “best” or “worst” in general, as I realize that’s highly subjective.
First adaptation – Nosferatu (1922)
Most faithful adaptation – BBC’s Count Dracula (1977)
Personal favorite Dracula characterization – Nosferatu: the Vampyre (1979)
Most accurate Dracula characterization – Dracula (1931)
Best monster movie adaptation – Dracula (1931) with Nosferatu (1922) a close second
Best action/adventure movie adaptation – Dracula aka The Curse of Dracula (1958)
Best Jonathan Harker – BBC’s Dracula (2006) for the 2 seconds he’s actually in it
Best Mina/Minucy – Tie: Nosferatu: the Vampyre (1979); BBC’s Count Dracula (1977); Interesting vs. accurate, respectively
Best action Van Helsing – Dracula aka The Curse of Dracula (1958); Sorry, Hugh Jackman
Best non-action Van Helsing – BBC’s Count Dracula (1977)
Best Renfield – depending on my head space: Dracula (1931); BBC’s Count Dracula (1977)
Most visually striking overall – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
And okay, fine, if you want the romance angle (I’m judging you, but fine) – You have two options: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); Dracula (1979)