Lucy Westenra from Bram Stoker's Dracula
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Credit: Columbia Pictures

Why do so many Dracula adaptations screw over Lucy Westenra?

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Jan 31, 2020, 1:00 PM EST

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for BBC’s Dracula miniseries.

In the third episode of Dracula, the latest BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, audiences are introduced to the vivacious Lucy Westenra. She is shown to be a thoroughly modern young woman who likes to party, flirt, and be with as many men as she wants, slut-shaming be damned. She is also revealed to be the sole willing victim of Count Dracula. He tells her that, out of the countless humans he has fed upon over the centuries, Lucy is the only one who consented to it. She longs to be a vampire, finding the mundanities of the living to be frightfully boring, so Dracula kills her and waits for her to awaken as one of the undead. Unfortunately, her family decides to cremate her instead of burial and she arrives on Dracula’s doorstep charred beyond recognition. When she looks at her own reflection, she sees her original beauty and is dazzled by it, but the reveal of reality drives her to anguish and she asks to be killed. Without her vanity satisfied, she feels no longer worthy of life.

If you’ve watched any Dracula adaptation over the past century or so of cinematic history, then this new twist on the fate of poor Lucy may not seem all that surprising. Granted, it’s still a shocking conclusion and one that is remarkably callous toward its female character, but Miss Westenra is a character who most versions of the story tend to screw over.

In Stoker’s novel, Lucy is a 19-year-old maiden of true sweetness and purity (the latter of which is mentioned frequently because this is a Victorian-era novel written by a man). She is bright and beautiful and trying to find her place in the world, the main focus of which is her courtship of three suitors: the American cowboy Quincey Morris; Arthur Holmwood, a wealthy aristocrat; and Dr. John Seward, the administrator of the local asylum. She has feelings for all these men, demonstrating her immense capacity for love. At one point, she laments in a letter to her best friend Mina, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” It’s not intended as a statement of greed or indecisiveness but a true concern for everyone’s emotions and the pain of rejection. Eventually, she chooses Arthur, but before they can be wed, she succumbs to a mysterious illness. She suffers from anemia, chronic blood loss, and an aversion to sunlight. Despite multiple blood transfusions from her suitors and Dr. Van Helsing, she falls desperately sick, until eventually dying. Van Helsing knows that this is no mystery illness but the mark of the vampire, and to save her undead soul, they need to stake her heart and cut off her head. After seeing her rise from her grave, Van Helsing and her suitors fight her off until her fiancé is left with the job of killing her for good, thus allowing her to rest in peace.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Most adaptations of the novel that include Lucy prefer to show her as a giddily promiscuous woman who delights in leading on her multiple male suitors. Her treatment of those suitors is often portrayed as vaguely predatory and something to heap scorn upon. Take, for instance, Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the otherwise excellent and reasonably faithful adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Lucy, played by Sadie Frost, is far more explicitly sexual pre-death here than in the book and her flirtations with her suitors are an openly scheming display to show off to Mina how she can wrap all these men around her little finger. Taking this approach to the material turns her eventual violent death into a punishment of sorts for her wanton ways.

That’s not to say that the book is devoid of that problematic narrative. Lucy’s purity as a young woman barely out of adolescence is used by Stoker as a contrast to the more lascivious personality she takes on after Dracula attacks her. Before she dies, she asks Arthur for a kiss in a more passionate manner than she’s ever previously shown, thus exhibiting the more sensual traits that vampirism has unleashed in her. Dracula represents a variety of threats to the story beyond his thirst for blood. He is an Eastern European aristocrat who women find alluring and whose power extends into the financial as well as the personal. He’s almost a parody of the xenophobic propaganda that was common at the time (and, dishearteningly, to this day): that bloody Count, coming over here, buying up all our land, taking our women, spreading disease! Lucy is the poor sacrifice made by Stoker to show how easily us poor lady-folk were led astray at the hands of the monster known as modernity. And yes, to use that old cliché, it sucks.

I get why adaptations would want to have Lucy more openly embrace her sexuality instead of keeping her as this untouched beauty, but why do so many of them end up reinforcing the same sort of misogyny that Stoker does? Her sexual nature is treated as badly as the notion of her “losing” her sweetness. It defangs the potency of her tragedy and makes it seem like Lucy deserves death. Moffat and Gatiss’s version throws in a nice punishment for her vanity while it’s at it.

There is a way to make an adaptation of Dracula that is faithful to the story while updating its thematic heft. Instead of having the tragedy be the supposed end of Lucy’s innocence, why not embrace the idea of her exploring her sexual desires and questioning the patriarchal stranglehold that fetishizes her virginity? As she realizes that the feelings she has, for Dracula or otherwise, are not sinful but a natural part of life, perhaps her doting suitors become jealous and scared of her power. To them, poor Lucy must have been corrupted by this monstrous figure, tearing her away from goodness and the sanctity of marriage, and the only way to end it is to kill her. They see it as saving her but all they are doing is destroying something they cannot contemplate to be anything other than evil.

One adaptation of Dracula does do this notion justice. Guy Maddin’s experimental ballet drama Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary plays up the idea that the men are unreliable narrators and their envy for this foreign aristocrat’s allure over Lucy is a greater threat than his blood-drinking (in the movie, this Dracula is the rare example of the role being played by a man of color.) As Maddin explained in his decision for taking this angle, “So let’s cut off her head — this is the proper vampirism –— cut off her head so she can’t think about them anymore, fill her mouth with garlic so she dare not speak of her fantasies and cut out her heart just in case she actually falls in love with the object of these pornographic reveries.”

Lucy Westenra does not have to be a woman to be made an example of. Frankly, the men have their own questions to answer.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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