One conversation that Cat and I have had multiple times is one where we are mutually upset about what TV and films have done with Dracula. Whilst I think Cat’s enjoyment of the book is greater than mine, I do like the book and I do think it was an important point in the history of how vampires now exist in the public consciousness. Cat already covered that…so, today, we’re going to pretend to be restrained as we touch on the two adaptations (and we use that word with…well, with some looseness in the case of the film and with barely-repressed laughter in the case of the programme) that bother us.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 film)
Cat: First off, I have to give some sort of credit: this is by far the most faithful film adaptation of Dracula the world has ever seen. It includes all three of Lucy’s suitors (even, as one of my film professors was always excited to say, the Texan! There’s a Texan in Victorian England!). It has both Mina and Lucy, not some strange amalgamation of them. And it includes the basic story beats—a sojourn in Transylvania, the long slow death of Lucy, and the final showdown. Yet somehow all that initial faithfulness just makes the film’s ultimate betrayal of story and tone all the more painful.
Coppola’s direction makes this far too lurid, and, as such, far too obvious. The book does have some moments of bloodshed and mayhem—like the staking of Lucy, which I have to say the film got spot on—but there’s nothing like the waterfalls of bright red corn syrup that constantly flow throughout the film. The same thing happens with the sexiness of it all. Three vampire brides hesitating alluringly at Jonathan’s throat become three Turkish belly dancers instigating an orgy. A tall hooded figure leaning over the prostrate Lucy becomes a werewolf going to town on her. Lucy herself goes from sweet bimbo to queen of innuendo. It makes her role way more slut-shaming than the book’s actual metaphor, which actually argues that anyone can fall prey to the unnatural appetites of the Count. The way Coppola portrays her, Lucy totally had it coming, I mean, did you see how she was dressed? And I’m not just being a prude. Obviously I’m of the opinion that vampires have an innate sexiness and brutality that make them interesting, and I’m all for that being used in the appropriate situation. But when you’re adapting Stoker’s novel? Not appropriate. The beauty of the novel is the subtle horror. Dracula is all the more terrifying for the things we don’t see. For the deathly promises he whispers in your ear, not shoves down your throat. Stoker instills fear by putting the reader on edge, building scenarios that are pieced together separately and made all the more terrifying for the slow reveals. In tone, it’s closer to a dry Brontë novel (the lurking fear in the pit of your stomach) than something by Stephen King (the car’s aliiiiiive!). Coppola makes everything so over-the-top that the film plays more as comedy than horror. A man turning into a humanoid structure of rats? That’s comedy gold!
But my main complaint is the damn framing device. Coppola decides to take an already-overloaded story and pile a pointless narrative on top—the narrative of Dracula as Vlad Dracula, the Turkish invader who only became a vampire after his one true love, Elisabeta, accidentally committed suicide. Thus, all his actions from that fated Turkish beginning are only motivated by him mourning his lost love. Who turns out to be reincarnated in Mina Harker! Twist! Again, this is all not included in the book, nor hinted at even, and works only to coat the entire story with a sickening veneer of saccharine. I won’t even touch the fact that Dracula was not Vlad the Impaler (though he wasn’t). Even without the historical inaccuracy, this convention doesn’t work. It makes Dracula a tragic figure, a man spurred on by love. It’s a modern vampire convention to make the beast sympathetic. We love that in our current vampire stories, but it’s not Dracula. Drac isn’t spurred to London in hopes of reunification with his wife. He doesn’t seduce Mina by dances and the floating candles from Hogwarts. He’s trying to seek fresh blood. In the book, Dracula is primal, not lovestruck. And making Mina a willing victim of Dracula completely destroys her significance to the story. Mina is supposed to be the perfect balance between modern and traditional. She’s the ideal. She’s set up as the ultimate woman: caring in a motherly way, intelligent and familiar with new technologies, a doting wife, sexually experienced, but religiously pure. Making her an ancient damsel-in-distress throws a wrench in all that character construction. In short, the whole “Love Never Dies” tagline of the film is a travesty and makes me want to puke.
Amber: Cat pretty much nailed it. But I want to make sure to point out that this film is basically a high budget fanfic of the type that’s supposed to tell the same story but in a way that we have sympathy for the villain. Look, I’m all about those, but why can’t you just make DRACULA? Cos this wasn’t Bram Stoker’s Dracula; this was Coppola’s Dracula fic. But at least this Dracula could go out in the day, which is canon, unlike the whole cool-but-not-canon plot about trying to address the sunlight issue in the programme…
Dracula (TV programme, 2013-2014)
Amber: Initially, I was kind of excited. I’m a fan of Jonathan Rhys Meyers and had seen him do enough “sexy and dangerous” to believe in him as Dracula. Just look at some of his hungry and calculating moments in Velvet Goldmine. The trailers looked sensual and plush…And, here’s the thing, if they hadn’t called it Dracula, it probably would have been mostly okay with me. They had a reasonable budget (or the ability to fake it), some talented actors, some interesting twists (given my main interest on my current re-read of Dracula is the gender role stuff, watching them give some power to a woman, even if it sometimes felt a bit ham-handed…well, that was nice…also, as a big Tesla fan, I was into the technological innovation thing), and one of the few non-useless Renfields ever to grace the screen. And given one of the things I’m constantly annoyed at in terms of standard practices when people do adaptations is how they take away all the real power and intrigue of Renfield as Stoker wrote him, I was pleased with this capable and clever Renfield. Anyway, yes, they had good things here. But!
But this was not Dracula. They took names, they placed it in London, but they otherwise leave the book out of the picture, if you will. I know they wanted the name recognition, but vampires are big enough (and JRM isn’t exactly an unknown actor) that they might want to freak out a little less over that. I mean, really, I can sum it all up as: THIS WAS NOT DRACULA. This wasn’t even the character of Dracula in an alternate universe. This isn’t the same person. As I re-read the book last month, I was constantly pausing to shriek at things that prove that. My current big one is that Dracula makes it clear to Harker that he wants to blend in, calling out in particular his desire to have no discernible accent when he speaks English. So, yeah, the clear move for the programme to make was a Dracula who has a really huge American accent—look, I’m not asking for JRM’s lovely normal accent, but we know he can do a posh British accent—and couldn’t stand out more unless he wore a sequin-covered suit and was also a one-man band.
And, just in case they’re thinking they’re going to try to revive it…Listen, in addition to just giving the characters different names (which will appease me a lot), could you also try to get corsets that fit the women? There were times I was sure Lady Wetherby was going to lose her lovely breasts to some of the ill-fitting corsets into which they shoved her. And whilst the men’s costuming is pretty good, the women’s is not right for the period. If you’re making a period piece and asking me to suspend disbelief for the vampire-ness of it, which I will gladly do, please at least get things like costuming correct. And…well, now I’ll shut my gob and give Cat a chance…
(However, dear reader, I feel constrained to make a recommendation. If you’re looking for a TV programme with a dark aesthetic, set in Victorian times, and containing a strong female character and assorted other supernatural things– including vampires, I must suggest Penny Dreadful. That programme is brilliant.)
Cat: Amber has covered all my book whingings well, and seriously? Not using JRM to his full potential? What a travesty. My main complaint with this sad pile of drivel is that it was a waste. A waste of prime, Victorian vampire potential. I went into this willing to suspend my belief and my novel-loving soul. After all this was TV, my other main love, and I am not blind to the ways a story has to change to fit the television landscape. To make Dracula last throughout several season there would need to be more. So much more, in fact, that this is an area where all the exaggeration of Coppola’s version would have been a welcome addition. Instead of going full-vampire, this Dracula went full-business, and I went full-yawn. Boring subplots about financial intrigue, boring subplots about Mina’s medical career, and boring whining about Dracula’s lost love (oh yeah, don’t worry, the TV show took all that malarky from the Coppola film). Not only did this program fail as a Dracula adaptation, it failed as anything interesting.