Happy birthday, Bram Stoker's Dracula!

Contributed by
Nov 10, 2017

Few novels have had the sheer level of pop culture influence of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel Dracula. An instant success upon release, the book birthed a generation of interest in the paranormal, and various adaptations of the story from the past century have helped to shape our understanding and fascination with vampires. From the silent classic Nosferatu to the failed franchise starter Dracula Untold, countless writers and filmmakers have sought to mine the near limitless array of ideas and themes from Stoker’s work to explore the world as they see fit. The vampire remains one of our culture’s most flexible metaphors, and various adaptations of Dracula can be read as explorations of everything from sex to death to disease, religion, war, and much more. However you read it, Dracula is a story that carries the rich potency of its allure to this day.

Despite its popularity, it’s not a book people tend to adapt with much fidelity. Very few films based on the novel strictly adhere to the story in its entirety. Characters are dropped, added or condensed into one figure, subplots are removed or replaced, things can get very sexy or very creepy, depending on the choices made, and the roles of the women can vary wildly as a result. Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray are two of Victorian fiction’s most fascinating female characters, but you’ll struggle to find a Dracula adaptation that gives them their due.

That’s a fate that falls upon the pair in what is arguably the best adaptation of the book: Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which celebrates its 25th birthday this month. Even by Coppola standards, his take on Dracula is a lush, feverish and grandly executed tale, chock full of impeccable details, set and costume designs to die for, and an overall mood stuck somewhere between pulp thriller and erotic dream. 25 years on, it's easy to forget how big a hit the film was, coming in at number 9 on the year's list of the highest grossing films worldwide. Oscars were won, fans left begging for more, and many critics dedicated their lives to trying to decipher Keanu Reeves's English accent. Out of every Dracula adaptation made, it is Bram Stoker’s Dracula that comes the closest to achieving the unnerving mood of the novel. It’s as honest an adaptation as we’re likely to get, and yet it still cannot help but make major changes that completely flip the intent of the piece on its head, particularly in regards to how they affect Mina and Lucy.

The biggest change the film makes is to turn the story into a romance. It’s easy to forget, given how many Dracula adaptations pull this move, but there isn’t a single romantic interaction between Dracula or Mina in the book. He has no interest in her beyond a desire to feast upon her blood and turn her into one of his brides, a decision he makes without the slightest concern for her own consent. She is, first and foremost, his victim, and the scenes where her suffering after being bitten by her overwhelms her are some of the most chilling parts of the novel.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was not the first adaptation to add this subplot - the John Badham version starring Frank Langella got there first, and did it with a sex scene featuring lasers borrowed from the world tour of The Who - but it was the adaptation that popularised the theme. Even the poster centres the romance as a selling point, with the tagline "Love Never Dies." Making Dracula a romantic anti-hero is an interesting choice for creating sympathy with our story's lead. He goes from being a soulless animal feasting on blood to a tormented lover who seeks only his true love. There's certainly a great appeal in that trope, as evidenced by decades of vampire-centered paranormal romance, but the decision to do this in Coppola's film comes at the expense of the love interest, Mina.

In the novel, Mina is an intelligent and resourceful woman with an unflinching dedication to her soon-to-be-husband Jonathan and her best friend Lucy. She’s someone who witnesses and then experiences an immense amount of trauma, but keeps on fighting even as all hope seems lost. The relationship she has with Jonathan is tested, as both suffer greatly at the hands of Dracula and his brides and still stick together. That’s the true romance of the novel. When Jonathan is shoved aside in order to accommodate the love between Dracula and Mina, rooted in her being the reincarnation of his lost love, it greatly weakens the novel’s key relationship. It also weakens Mina herself. Her intellect and savviness are ignored in favour of making her a melodramatic heroine, which has its power but is a shadow of the novel’s many shades.

It doesn’t help that the romance being one rooted in reincarnation almost entirely removes the relationship of any development. Mina goes from being suspicious of the Count to madly in love with him so quickly that it barely registers (and isn’t much helped by a bereft lack of chemistry between stars Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder). A gripping story of trauma is diluted to a romance that is admittedly beautiful to watch (two attractive actors in Eiko Ishioka’s astounding costumes is always worth your time) but it’s clear that the story’s original emotional core is desperately needed. Reeves’s performance as Jonathan Harker may be questionable but that’s no excuse for marginalizing his storyline.

No character suffers more in the movie than poor Lucy Westenra. In the novel, Lucy is a wholeheartedly earnest young woman with three eager suitors, each seeking her hand in marriage, and it truly pains Lucy to have to turn two of them down. She is someone with an endless capacity for love and she genuinely wishes she could love them all together. The novel is surprisingly progressive in how it portrays this: there’s no judgement or mockery, she’s just a loving young woman. Pretty much every adaptation of the novel has struggled to visualize this part of Lucy’s life without depicting her as shamelessly promiscuous. For Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the way to do this is to have Lucy be a cross between Mae West and an escort.

She flirts with each of her suitors as if she’s competing in an extended round of innuendo bingo and the film frames her as an irresponsible hussy for it. When Dracula first attacks her, the scene turns into a bestial sex scene, as a barely clothed Lucy is ravaged while in a hypnotic state (consent seems iffy) by the vampire in a wolf-man state. Afterwards, she is humiliated and confused by what has happened, and it’s truly unnerving to watch. By the time she is killed by Dr. Van Helsing and her trio of suitors, the film seems relieved to have put an end to her uncontrollable lust. That’s an element that’s always been present in the book, but never with such a scornful gaze.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a must-see for any fan of the novel, of vampire stories and of extraordinary production design. 25 years on, the film has lost none of its power, and stands as the most enthralling take on a popular and influential novel. Yet it’s one that carries with it the weight of history, and of our own changing expectations for the portrayal of women in genre fiction. Mina and Lucy have never looked as good as they do in Coppola’s vision, but their story deserves a sharper eye.