2013
09.30

Academic essay analysing Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and its film adaptations, 2011.

Bela LugosiFirst sinking his teeth into the concept of the novel in Scotland’s own Cruden Bay, Stoker horrified the Victorian people with Dracula, some of whom went as far as to call it ‘the most blood-curdling novel of the paralysed century.’ When it comes to the theory behind the adaptation of novels into films, studies have been tainted by a ‘narrow one-sidedness that assumes [that such films] are merely cheap imitations’  but, while there has never been a firm explanation as to the reason(s) for adaptation, McFarlane surmises that the answer moves between poles of ‘crass commercialism’ and ‘high-minded respect for literary works.’ Given that the novel caused such a reaction, and bearing in mind its title as a Gothic classic, it is unsurprising that it has been recreated as several films, whichever of these suggested motives of adaptation the filmmakers aimed to satisfy. The question that arises, however, is how successful are the filmic versions not only in transposing the textual to a visual capacity, but interpreting it in a purposeful, worthwhile manner. Geraghty states that ‘any film that prioritises transposition over interpretation [is likely to] spectacularly fail’ while McFarlane adds that an established mood must be recreated and sustained (p. 7). In light of these observations, this essay will examine and analyse the variations of the characters of Dracula and Mina in the novel, the 1931 film directed by Todd Browning, and the 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In the novel and Browning version, Dracula is little more than a demonic fiend who leeches from the life force of those in his path, including the innocent fiancée of Jonathan Harker, Mina. However, in Coppola’s version, he is the immortal warrior Vlad Dracula, and is searching for the reincarnation of his bride, Elisabeta, who has been reincarnated as Mina. The aim is to highlight and compare what their characterisation (and other relevant literary and cinematic techniques) brings to the overall impact of the three media, or, indeed, what is under- or misrepresented. Attention will be paid to their development and interpersonal relations, in particular the bond that they share with each other, while relating this theme to accepted conventions and theoretical debates in the field of adaptation.

The summary that Gothic ‘shadow[s] the progress of modernity with counter-narrative displaying the underside of enlightenment and humanist values’ and focuses on whatever threatens these values  is perhaps most significant to Dracula than any other Gothic work. The novel and films explore a world beyond human comprehension and highlight how that which cannot be understood is sometimes the aspect that makes the characters’ true personalities understandable. For instance, a supernatural catalyst placed into the repressive social decorum of the Victorian Era – regarding women in particular – is key in comparing the three Dracula-Mina relationships. In late 19th Century England, to be a lady required purity, chastity, innocence and breeding, and anyone who ventured beyond such boundaries was not a lady but a whore; this is the goodness that the men like Harker seek to defend from the sexual immorality of the vampire.  However, the three seductive women in Dracula’s castle invoke an unparalleled reaction in Harker:

The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lipos and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth… [I] could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the [supersensitive] skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer – nearer… I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstacy and waited – waited with beating heart.

These feelings that Harker experiences can be related to Dr. Van Helsing’s statement, in the 1992 film, that ‘Civilization and syphilization have advanced together’ (Coppola). Solano suggests this as being the idea that man, even upon reaching the pinnacle of modernity, is unable to leave behind his primitive urges (para. 11 of 13). The connotations of sexual disease in the doctor’s words cast a negative light on these women who are associated with Dracula, further reinforcing the threatening wantonness that men like Harker combat for the sake of being a gentleman. Mina being exposed to such scenes appears to be unspeakable to Harker, emphasised by his concern that reading his journal regarding this encounter would cause her pain (Dracula, p. 53) and his outrage at Van Helsing for graphically explaining how to kill a vampire in her presence (Coppola). Roth highlights that, in Dracula’s social and historical context, ‘a deliberate attempt is made to make sexuality seem unthinkable in “normal relations” between the sexes’ , resulting in the reserved, chivalric manner in which he sits with Mina in the films. Dracula, on the other hand, objectifies women in an almost chauvinistic satiation of blood thirst (‘Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine’ [Dracula, p. 394]) and, to the Victorians, any man who would infect innocent, proper girls like Lucy and Mina is seen not as a man, not ‘even [a] beast’ (Dracula, p. 293) but as the Devil himself (Solano, para. 3 of 13). However, it has been noted that while the vampire himself embodies transgression, he is also the catalyst that releases subversive, disruptive desire in others. This is true of his – Vlad’s – relationship with Mina in Coppola’s adaptation; Elisabeta, his centuries-old lover who has been reincarnated in the young woman, becomes the reason for his transgressive journey to England. The scene in which Dracula feeds his blood to Mina, in order to telepathically control her, is no longer tantamount to ‘a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk’ (Dracula, p. 363) since Mina recalls her past life and willingly drinks from his bleeding chest in order to join him for eternity. That the mise-en-scène of this chapter does not show her white nightdress smeared in blood like the novel states emphasises her co-operation and desire to be with him; no spilled blood suggests no slaughtered innocence, as if she believes this union is right. Additionally, her light-hearted conversation about sex with Lucy early in the film further suggests a curiosity that is never satisfied by the men around her. The transfusion of blood becomes, then, not an act of rape-like dominance like in the novel and Browning film, but an act of spiritual bonding in love, bringing out her natural, sexual urges that are otherwise repressed by her surroundings and people like the upstanding Jonathan Harker.

Religion plays a large part in developing and defining the two characters. At times it aids them, albeit through its failure, and at times quashes ambitions, but its significance, particularly in Coppola’s adaptation, is incontrovertible. The ship that carries Dracula to England bears a significant name: Demeter, after the Greek goddess of harvest. This idea of religion being the driving force behind his evil plans, and the vessel that carries him to where he may act them out. Similarly, Elisabeta’s name alludes to the Bethen, the goddess trio who inspired the sisters in – and the title of – Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These symbols place the two on a higher plain than religious icons and tie them to a tradition older than Christianity. Elisabeta can be likened to the Bethen in that her story – embodied in her reincarnated soul – is passed down like that of the folkloric triple goddess, highlighting her as a divine being worthy of Vlad. This hierarchic religious imagery may also explain why the Count can bring his dark forces across the sea, regardless of Demeter’s protection and life-preserving powers; while not a Christian figure, the goddess and all holy symbols are beneath Dracula, who has ascended to a higher, older plain than any other hallowed being. This apotheosis is detailed to a greater extent in the Coppola film when, in one of the opening scenes, Elisabeta’s dying wish is to be reunited with Vlad in Heaven, only for His will to declare that her soul is damned for committing suicide. Vlad’s reaction – ‘Is this my reward for defending God’s church?’  – leads to him renouncing God and defacing the altar of the church, swearing to avenge her. This again bonds Dracula and Mina in a spiritual capacity and lends a sense of purpose to his later actions; as sacrilegious as they may be, they are committed in the name of love, as opposed to unexplained, nefarious blood-sucking; as Glover puts it, the nosferatu is tormented by humanisation.

While cinema tends to be less unbridled by the temporal and spatial barriers that allow novels to provide greater insight into the minds of characters, it is worth paying attention to such visual and audio aesthetics of the two films, as they are used to create a tangible sense of character. Geraghty explains this as novels being able to express internal knowledge, but screen adaptations having to imply feelings or motivations from actions since the camera is best suited to the ‘objective recording of physical appearances’ (p. 2). There is little sense in a director filming scenes if they are not important to the film, the sets and sounds thus begging semiotic evaluation in terms of their significance. Both the 1931 and 1992 films make effective use of such elements. In the former, sound – or lack of – is used to confirm that Dracula is more than just a strange man inhabiting a castle. When Dracula and his brides attack Renfield (the equivalent of Harker in the novel and Coppola film), it is in complete silence, except for the cry of a bat, before changing to a noisy scene of the Demeter crossing the sea. This juxtaposition of sounds breaks the pattern of scenes up until then and places importance on the bat scene, verifying that Dracula is, in truth, an otherwordly, evil creature, who seeks more than legal advice from Renfield. A scene in the same film relates to the elitist way in which Dracula views others; he stands above Mina as he guides down the stairs of Carfax Abbey while the now-crazed Renfield cowers below her. This shot signifies the way in which Dracula towers above those who he uses, and much higher above the cowardly, twisted slaves he has created. That this occurs in a holy building further emphasises the aforementioned way in which Dracula has no respect for religion. Additionally, after the Count has been slain, Mina and Jonathan ascend the stairs from the dark basement to the sound of church bells that have connotations of holiness and matrimony, with the couple rising out of the darkness. Their ringing echoes the idea that good has overcome evil, portraying the character of Dracula as nothing more than a villain, unlike the 1992 film. A similar juxtaposition of scenes is used in Coppola’s adaptation; the dark, sinister castle that Dracula calls home is placed alongside the bright, Hillingham home that Lucy and Mina are staying in. The latter is an example of heritage cinema, a ‘restrictive notion of cultural memory’ incorporating the idyllic, orderly home life of good Victorians, contrasted with the stark conditions of Carpathia. This ‘invariable reference’ to the country houses, stately homes, and ‘the gentrified life-style of a neo-pastoral southern Englishness’ is intended to be ‘heteroglossic’ (Voigts-Virchow, p. 124) in that its purpose is to represent the entire British Isles or, in this case, the decency of the people that Dracula preys on, regardless of how much or how little the reader can relate to them. Giddings calls it ‘a period still almost within living memory in which culture we feel we have a strong connection.’ The Austro-German term for heritage film, Heimatfilm, has been described as meaning ‘timeless’, ‘truthful’, ‘pleasant’ and ‘intimate’ (Voigts-Virchow, p. 126), which may better explain the use of such typical heritage-based scenes as a uniting feature; regardless of social class, virtually every member of an audience can relate to these homely feelings. Despite the fact that Dracula reads books about England, he tends to be uncomfortable with modernity, choosing to live in an ancient house and talking in depth about Transylvanian history, particularly battles, ‘as if he had been present at them all’ (Dracula, p. 41) – which he had been (as alluded to in the 1992 film). This shows his ancestral pride and highlights that, ultimately, as Senf notes, he is a creature of tradition who is incapable either of understanding or adapting to modern life (p. 23). As such, heritage cinema becomes a device capable of turning the audience against the seemingly heartless vampire, the spatial setting placing emphasis on the purity and innocence of the two young women and separating them from the dangerous world that Harker is trapped in, as well as instilling the notion that Dracula is out to destroy this appreciated culture. The transitional scene of his face being swallowed by the Count’s shadow further reinforcing this good vs. evil idea that sets up the audience to be repulsed by Dracula, only for their perception of him to later be changed and make for effective, captivating cinema.

Ultimately, Coppola’s adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula can be seen as the filmic version that brings the most original interpretation and addition to the plot. Browning’s film uses cinematic technique to an arguably effective degree, but the naivety of the era – near the beginning of cinema and adaptation – leaves it characterising Dracula only as villain and Mina as a typical helpless damsel-in-distress. While both films do show virtually all of Bottling’s elements of the Gothic novel – ‘supernatural and natural forces, imaginative excesses and delusions, religious and human evil, social transgression, mental disintegration and spiritual corruption’ (Senf, p.7) – only Coppola chooses to develop the story into one that explores the dark side of love, humanity and nature by making Dracula and Mina – or Vlad and Elisabeta – a humanised couple destined to be united in eternity, but held back by the social expectations of Victorian England. To conclude in terms of Geraghty’s view, Coppola prioritises interpretation over transposition and, as such, his film can be seen as more of a success than Browning’s, which, while well-recreated in terms of mise-en-scène, provides little more than a visual accompaniment to the novel.

Bibliography

Bak, John S., Postmodern Dracula: From Victorian Themes to Postmodern Praxis (Cambridge: Scholars Publishing, 2007).

Browning, Tod, dir. Dracula, 1931 (Universal Studios, 2002).

Byron, Glennis, ed., Dracula: Contemporary Critical Essays (London: Macmillan Press, 1999).

Cartmell, Deborah, Whelehan, Imelda, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge: University Press, 2007).

Cartmell, Deborah, Whelehan, Imelda, ed., Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text (Oxon: Routledge, 1999)

Coppola, Francis Ford, dir. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992 (Sony Pictures, 2007).

Dalby, Richard, ‘Bram Stoker’, in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, ed. by Sullivan, Jack (New York: Viking, 1986).

Desmond, John M., Hawkes, Peter, Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006).

Geraghty, Christine, Now a Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

McFarlane, Brian, Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

Senf, Carol A., Science and Social Science in Bram Stoker’s Fiction (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002).

Solano, Michelle Rose, ‘Dracula and the Victorian Era’, Lit React – Analysis & Reactions on Works of Fiction (2011) <http://www.litreact.com/reactions/dracula_stoker_solano.html> [accessed 30 April 2011]

Stoker, Bram, Dracula (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 54.

Sullivan, Jack, ed., The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (New York: Viking, 1986).

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