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Devoted to a fault: Who is Renfield in the story of Dracula?
Dracula's most loyal (and pitiful) servant, Renfield, has been in the game since 1897.
The servant is about to take the spotlight. The character of Renfield is a supporting character in the Dracula mythos, but now he’s been bumped up to the forefront with his name as the title. Renfield, starring Nicholas Hoult, will come to theaters on April 14. Any story featuring him wouldn’t be complete without the Count, so Nicolas Cage also stars as Dracula.
Before you see the new movie, you might enjoy some information about where the character of Renfield began, who he is and how he’s been portrayed over the years. It’ll be good for your health, just like water and exercise.
R.M. Renfield has been in the mix from the very beginning. He appears in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, which surprisingly enough was titled Dracula. He is a servant and a “familiar” to the Count and is devoted to him past the point of sanity. He’s mentally unstable and survives on a diet of bugs that are provided to him by the Count. Nice work if you can get it.
What does he do to earn his bugs? He assists Dracula in nefarious schemes. In the original book, one of his main tasks is assisting the Count in turning Mina Harker into a vampire.
Dracula also offers the promise of immortality. Part of the character's bug-feasting comes from the notion that he’ll be able to suck the life out of them as he eats. Dracula holds a number of false promises over Renfield’s head, always dangling a bug-covered carrot in front of Renfield's dying donkey. He also enjoys lapping up any blood that he sees— he licks some up off the floor at one point in the original story.
The novel has the character of Dr. John Seward write a description of Renfield when he’s locked up in Seward’s lunatic asylum. He describes him as having “great physical strength” and notes he was “morbidly excitable” while also having “periods of gloom.” He adds that Renfield could be dangerous; highly dangerous if he has a fixed point of duty.
Renfield’s conscience wins out in the end, and he begs Mina Harker to flee and free herself from the Count. He even manages to fight Dracula off for a time, but he gets a severance package in the form of a snapped neck.
Not very Drac-cool-a! (We're sorry).
The servant dies as he lived— as a heap of rags on the floor. The field of psychiatry has had a bloody festival of fun with the character, with the term “Renfield Syndrome” becoming a thing in 1992. It was another name for “vampire personality disorder” which is exactly what it sounds like.
Renfield Through the Years
The character is almost always featured in adaptations ofn the Dracula stories in some way. F. W. Murnau used the basic idea of him (but changed the name to “Knock”) in the silent 1922 Nosferatu. He was blended with the character of Jonathan Harker (and played by Dwight Frye) in the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic. Klaus Kinski played him as a mute in 1970, before playing the Count in Werner Herzog’s 1979 Noferatu remake where a laughing Renfield was played by Roland Topor.
Tom Waits played a memorable version of the character in Francis Ford Coppola’s lush 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The ever-brilliant Peter MacNicol parodied the 1931 version of the character in Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
He’s also a standard part of television adaptations, though he’s become more of a studied and mannered agent for Dracula over time. Mark Gatiss plays a modern version of him in this mode in a 2020 miniseries, created by Gatiss and Stephen Moffat. Samuel Barnett appeared as Renfield in the third season of Penny Dreadful, making the life of Vanessa Ives worse than it already was.
He’s no stranger to the stage either, and yes, that includes musicals. Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula, The Musical hit Broadway in 2004, with truly devoted fans keeping it running for 157 performances. Don Stephenson played Renfield, and he was given his own musical number! It was called, “The Master’s Song.” Even in musical theater, Renfield was chained to his master.
What’s hot in 2023 Renfield news? The new movie, of course.
The unhealthy co-dependent nature of the Renfield/Dracula cycle of abuse will be mined for dark comedy, and Renfield is finally going to join a support group. Hoult will surely play a memorable version of the character, and Nicolas Cage? Yeah, he’ll make an impression too.
The new movie won’t be a parody in the vein of a Mel Brooks approach, it will be closer to What We Do In The Shadows. We fully expect Hoult’s Renfield to have more than a little in common with Guillermo De La Cruz (Harvey Guillén) from the televised extension of that film. There’s always been an essence of Renfield in the portrayal of Guillermo, a long-suffering familiar who never gets what he is promised or owed. That comedic tone will now flip back to the main inspiration.
Will Renfield break free? Will he earn his new title-character status? Will he eat bugs and lick blood off of the floor? Will he reference Klaus Kinski? Can he train those pilots to complete their impossible mission? All of these questions (and more) will be answered when Renfield is unleashed.
Renfield comes to theaters on April 14. There will be no bugs in the popcorn.