Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is, in and of itself, a landmark of Gothic horror. It is also the most influential work of horror ever written, having inspired countless tales of vampire-themed fiction, not to mention an ever-growing number of film and television adaptations. Today, in honor of the 124th anniversary of the original publication date of Stoker’s novel, I am debuting a new feature here on my Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog. Dracula Extrapolated will explore various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Stoker’s source text. I begin with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
What If the character Dracula was equated with the historical figure Vlad Tepes and then transformed into a tragic lover?
The opening scene of Coppola’s film intriguingly flashes back four centuries and furnishes an origin story for Count Dracula’s vampirism. While the Christian knight Vlad Dracula is off fighting a war against the Turks, a devious missive is sent to his beloved wife Elisabeta claiming that he has been slain in battle. Distraught over the (false) report, Elisabeta throws herself from the walls of Castle Dracula. Dracula returns home to grieve over her corpse, only to be told by the priests in attendance that as a suicide, Elisabeta is damned in the eyes of the Church and cannot be given a Christian burial. Enraged, Dracula desecrates the chapel, renounces God, and vows to return from his own death “to avenge [his wife’s] with all the powers of darkness.” His rash deeds and words earn him God’s curse, an eternally bloodthirsty existence as the undead.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Coppola’s film perpetuates a great fallacy–that Stoker based his fictional character on a real-life antecedent (scholar Elizabeth Miller devotes a whole chapter of her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense to debunking such myth, convincingly arguing that Stoker only found a name for Dracula in the historical Vlad and knew nothing about the Impaler’s grim proclivities and fearful reputation). Similarly, we can forgive the film’s derivative deployment of the reincarnated-love-interest (Elisabeta ends up reembodied as Mina) plot device whose history traces back to other Universal Monster films (cf. 1932’s The Mummy) and extends through vampire narratives of the 20th Century (the 60’s soap opera Dark Shadows; the 1973 Dan-Curtis-produced TV film Dracula). The question to consider here is: what are the ramifications of the Coppola film’s narrative maneuver?
On the positive side, the film’s prologue not only provides a rationale for Vlad the Impaler’s evil reputation as a scourging warlord, but also motivates the actions of the Dracula character. One of the weaknesses of Stoker’s novel is its resort to credulity-challenging coincidence: how convenient indeed that when traveling from Transylvania (where Jonathan Harker has been left imprisoned), Dracula lands in a spot in England that lets him to sink his teeth into Harker’s friend Lucy and his fiancée Mina (a choice of prey that later allows the book’s write-minded protagonists to compare notes and compose a plan for defeating the vampire). Here in the film there’s at least an understandable explanation for Dracula’s specific path of predation. Lucy serves as little more than a replenishing meal, but Mina’s pursuit by Dracula is a deliberate attempt to reunite with the woman he’s identified as his lost love.
But if the film clarifies Dracula’s motivations, it simultaneously muddles the character’s iconic monstrosity. In its determination to turn Gothic horror into Gothic romance, Coppola’s Dracula (calling it Bram Stoker’s Dracula surely creates one of the most misleading titles of all time) subverts its terrifying first act: the scenes set at Castle Dracula, where Gary Oldman cuts a supremely sinister figure as the Count. After his emigration to, and rejuvenation within, England, Dracula becomes a confusing person for the audience: should viewers actually root for the vampire to get the girl (who was already his bride in a past life)? Should we fear Dracula for his bloodlust, or pity him for being love-starved for so long? Dracula hardly strikes as imposing after Mina breaks off their affair (for the moment, at least) to wed Jonathan: Dracula’s bout of wild, dare I say womanly, weeping (an ugly display of emotion that turns the Count’s countenance grotesquely misshapen) makes me want to channel Tom Hanks and proclaim “There’s no crying in vampiring!”
The love story that film forces also radically alters Mina’s character. In Stoker’s novel, Mina is depicted as the epitome of feminine virtue (versus the more wayward Lucy) and arguably the driving impetus for the Crew of Light’s defeat of Dracula. Here in the film, though, she proves a cold-hearted adulteress (professing her love for Dracula even as he confesses to a fatal feeding on Lucy). Worse, Winona Ryder’s Mina emerges (as she grows more in touch with her Elisabetan nature) as a nearly-treacherous accomplice of the Count, someone whose gun points at her husband Jonathan and the other heroes during the climactic showdown with Dracula. This radical departure from the novel highlights the inexplicable leap the film has taken with its reincarnation plot. Why exactly has Elisabeta resurfaced (several centuries after her suicidal plunge) as a modern English woman? Simply so Coppola could romanticize Stoker’s narrative, it seems.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula features some absolutely stunning visuals: lavish costumes (Lucy’s wedding/burial dress; Dracula’s armor), grand scenery (orange-burnt skies; the mountain-topping castle) and frightful supernatural incident (Dracula’s morphing into a horde of rats). The sublimely Gothic look of the film is fortuitous, because it helps distract viewers from the ridiculousness (don’t get me started on the sappy ending, in which a teary Mina mercifully releases Dracula from his vampiric curse) that results from the attempt to transform Stoker’s revolting and unremittingly evil archvillain into a sympathetic figure.