Dracula – Dead but still Evolving.

CW: Reference to rape.

I said, very early in these blogs, that I didn’t want to do reviews. Much as I have my own opinions of various creative works I don’t feel it’s my place to bias any of you as to what you should and shouldn’t read or watch. I’m not a reviewer, I’m a writer. That said I do want to share some thoughts about the recent BBC adaptation of Dracula with you as a means to explore basing your work on a pre-existing material. These opinions are my own and suffice to say spoilers for the show below.

I should start by giving you some grounding on my own interpretation of ‘vampires’. I’m not one for the dark, brooding, romantic, lonely wanderer type. The legends of vampires, to my mind, are cautionary rape tales where the central figure is one of power and influence, using their charm and position to take sexual advantage of others lower placed in the social food-chain. The ‘Lord of the Manor’ or some such, having their way with the staff or, in more recent years, producers or celebrities using their position to their own depraved ends. Vampires are monsters, not love-lorn loners in my mind. The vampire mythos and warnings therein still apply in our modern world but, with the bravery of those involved in the #MeToo movement I would hope that’s changing.

The Dracula story has seen many interpretations, from the Hammer Horror movies of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s to things like Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) starring Eddie Murphy. My personal favourite is still Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) with Gary Oldman in the titular role and, while other vampire based media has taken the bare bones of the legends and spun their own story around it, producers and script writers return, again and again to the Bram Stoker story and Dracula himself. So, now we move on to the latest BBC adaptation and some thoughts/comparisons of the telling itself.

The BBC’s Dracula (2020) is a three-part dramatization developed by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. Both have written for Doctor Who and have a wide range of other credits between them spanning drama, comedy and Sci-Fi. The show starts from the point of view of Jonathan Harker, a very familiar character in Dracula lore, but here he is telling of his encounter with Count Dracula in a convent under the watch of Sister Agatha Van Helsing. This is the first important divergence from the original where Van Helsing was an aging professor of disorders of the blood and Harker didn’t meet that character until he’d escaped Dracula’s castle and returned to England. Some might rail against the gender reassignment of the character but to me the gender of Van Helsing (or any other character for that matter) is not as important as the character’s portrayal. When Katee Sackhoff was cast as ‘Starbuck’ in Battlestar Galactica (2004) it didn’t matter to me who they cast as long as there was a certain faithfulness to the character as portrayed by Dirk Benedict in 1978 and, in Dracula, the performance of Dolly Wells in the roll is one I find no fault with. She manages to conjure impressions of Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Plummer and even a little Mel Brooks from time to time and she is immensely entertaining to watch.

As Harkers account develops we see Dracula take advantage of the young lawyer, not only enlisting him as a kind of tutor on the ways of society and style in London but by draining the mans blood to restore Dracula’s own youth. Rather than some kind of mesmerism the approach Dracula takes is more akin to gas lighting, the darkness of the castle making the passage of time hard to track and Harkers own frailty from increasing blood loss and the growing influence of Dracula over him playing into that process. I’ll insert a brief note about the interpretation of the Harker character here. I wouldn’t be so bold as to assume that the screenwriters were representing an abusive relationship between Haker and Dracula but it does appear so to me. Harker presents as a timorous individual, even refers to himself as ‘just a lawyer’ when the Count suggests tutelage in the ways of modern society. It takes a great deal of trauma and a clear presentation of the Counts dire intent and nature involving a baby to give Harker the determination to leave.

Another bold step away from the usual form comes in the interpretation of Dracula’s ‘Brides’. So often used as a means to titillate the audience (as in 1992, with Keanue Reeves under direction by Francis Ford Coppola) the brides in this adaptation are presented not as glamorous vampires themselves but as Dracula’s experiments toward propagating his species. Beyond that, later in the episode Dracula refers to Harker, saying he might be ‘my finest Bride yet’. The dialogue smashes wide the arbitrary gender assignment of a four-hundred year old creature (Dracula can no longer be described as ‘human’) who, up to this point, has only passed on vampirism by an act much removed from (but still reflective of) sexual intercourse.

In this telling Harker escapes before Dracula leaves for England and so the Count follows him to the convent and this is where there is something of a dialogue masterwork between Dracula and Sister Agatha. The two actors riff, like fire and ice, the dialogue is punchy and combative in a playful way. It’s very much a meeting of minds and a testing of resolves. Dracula, from his human origins as a warlord of Walachia and as a noble of darkest Europe in the late Victorian era obviously doesn’t much expect such astute observation from a woman, let alone a nun but when faced with its existence he revels in the challenge irrespective of its source.

I’ve yet to touch on the presentation of Dracula himself and it is a different characterization to any I’ve seen. The aesthetic of the character quickly changes from a ragged and elderly man to a Bela Lugosi-esque presentation that did give me quite a smile but, beyond the visual this Dracula stepped away from the quiet and cultured, sinister figure to a rather bombastic and overbearing, East-end diva completely assured in his own superiority whether that be intellectual or physical. Whenever the character finds himself stymied he revels in it turning it into a scene within the scene. He plays the characters within until their own human nature swings the balance back in his favour.

The first act of this three-piece is as much about establishing that this is a different take as it is about introducing the characters we are already familiar with and that’s a lesson we all can learn when basing new material of existing stories. Even with Agatha, she’s a nun, but she’s also Van Helsing. The concept is introduced and we swiftly move on. Act two is, in my opinion the best installment. It deals with what happened on the Demeter, the ship that bore Dracula to England and an instance often overlooked in subsequent re-tellings. Here the scriptwriters indulge in a rather fun ‘Death on the Nile’ inspired mystery where we all know who’s responsible but the cast do not. Despite the fact that the audience is well aware of what’s going on the writers hold to spinning a narrative around the disappearances on board and the mysterious ‘passenger in cabin nine’. It’s so very reminiscent of both the old mystery novels and certain more modern formats like Slasher Horror or even The Thing and it works. Alongside this narrative the Count is telling Agatha of the events aboard the vessel and the two blend together in a way that is ultimately very gratifying and, at least in my case, rather unexpected (admittedly I never was good at ‘Who Dunnit’ mysteries).

At the end of part two Dracula comes ashore and is bathed in light from a helicopter and surrounded by Range Rovers and personnel armed with modern assault weapons. He’s also confronted (apparently) by Agatha Van Helsing in modern clothing and she calls him by name. This is a compelling cliffhanger and a clear indication that this is no longer the Dracula story we’re expecting, having stepped on from Victorian England into the modern day, but is it? What we get is almost the story as was, characters like Lucy Westernra, Doctor Seward, Quincey Morris and Renfield appear but, in different guises. Lucy is a social media influencer as well as being a party-girl; Renfield is Dracula’s lawyer and argues with the Harker Institute over the vampires ‘human rights’. There are many changes to the original but also many similarities too. The commentary at play is also undeniable. Dracula sits in the living room of a modest home and states ‘I knew the future would be full of wonder, I didn’t expect it would make them ordinary’. Lucy is cremated rather than interred and, upon rising and at the climax, when shown her true, now burned face she begs Seward to kill her despite Dracula’s assertions that she is still beautiful. At the very finale, Dracula ends the life of Van Helsing (now a merging of Sister Agatha and her descendant, suffering cancer) as an act of mercy and then drinks her blood as a means to end his own existence. It’s a subversion of the form that still holds enough in common with the original story. This isn’t, as such, a review but my feeling is, for all its clever twists the third act comes across as quite shallow. That may or may not be more of a reflection on it’s setting than its story.

This BBC interpretation of Dracula is, in my opinion, a very useful example for writers who intend to revisit existing stories. Many of the differences and changes work while still staying true to the work of Bram Stoker. So often trying to re-imagine or reinvent existing stories or properties can draw negative reaction from the fans of those existing works. In my experience the ones that succeed are those that keep true to those works while still establishing a character of their own. The differences that set a work apart from its inspiration can make it, or break it and it can be the toss of a coin as to which is true.

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