Thursday, January 09, 2020

Adaptation Weirdness

Has anyone else here watched the new DRACULA miniseries streaming on Netflix? This post includes spoilers on the assumption that by now anyone interested in the show will have either seen it or read reviews. Like most DRACULA adaptations, the program begins with a more-or-less (sometimes less) faithful rendition of Jonathan Harker's stay at Castle Dracula, but with the clever addition of framing scenes in which Jonathan narrates his ordeal to a nun in the nursing convent where he was taken after his escape from the castle. After the Castle Dracula sequences, like many other film treatments, the story, shall we say, veers. Sister Agatha reveals herself as Agatha Van Helsing, a Dutch nun residing at the Hungarian convent and a scholar of superstitions such as vampirism. Jonathan himself has been more radically changed by his experience than his book counterpart. The final scenes of the episode portray Dracula's attack on the convent while Sister Agatha strives to hold him at bay. The second installment of the three follows the voyage of the doomed ship Demeter to England. Unlike in the novel, where the Demeter is a cargo ship and Dracula remains hidden except from his victims, in this program the Demeter is a passenger vessel on which the Count travels openly. This change allows fascinating interactions between Dracula and his mostly unsuspecting fellow passengers. I admire the way this series restores the visceral horror of Dracula as a powerful, demonic vampire. (And I speak as a devoted fan of "good guy vampires" and a champion of Fred Saberhagen's THE DRACULA TAPE, with the Count as narrator and hero, as one of the best vampire novels ever published.) It's also interesting that Dracula can absorb memories and skills from the victims whose blood he drinks, a gift he uses with planning and discretion. The final episode, however, departs completely from the novel to skip from 1897 to the present. Count Dracula comes ashore at Whitby having remained dormant underwater, after the wreck of the Demeter, for 123 years. He's met by an armed security force led by the modern Dr. Van Helsing, a woman scientist who heads the Jonathan Harker Foundation for study of arcane medical conditions, including vampirism. I enjoyed the "fish out of water" dimension of Dracula's adjustment to the twenty-first century, while he remains both charismatic and terrifying. Aside from several familiar characters with the same names and similar narrative functions as those in Stoker's original, though, this third episode has no connection to the novel and, as some reviewers have noted, might as well be an entirely different story.

Since I'm more familiar with DRACULA than any other novel, I take intense interest in the various, often strange ways it has been filmed. Granted, the original is a long, complicated story that only a miniseries, not a standard-length feature film, could hope to render with any degree of fidelity. The 1977 BBC miniseries starring Louis Jourdan comes closest. Aside from combining Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood into one character and making Mina and Lucy sisters (a change I like because it reduces the element of wild coincidence in Dracula's first English victim just happening to be a friend of his solicitor's fiancee), this version follows the novel pretty faithfully. The classic Bela Lugosi movie, however, is derived not from the novel but from the stage play (in which Lugosi also starred), which takes place entirely in England. The Lugosi film restores the opening scenes set in Transylvania but otherwise limits itself to the general outline of the play. This version, oddly, has Renfield rather than Jonathan Harker traveling to Transylvania to finalize the Count's real estate purchase.

One of my favorite movies, although it follows the play and the Lugosi version more than the book, is the 1979 film starring Frank Langella, mainly because Langella makes such an alluring, sensual Dracula. A major weirdness of this adaptation comprises the reversal of names between Lucy and Mina. "Lucy," for all practical purposes, is actually Mina. The Lucy character, now called Mina, has also become the daughter of Van Helsing. A TV adaptation that starts by following the novel but eventually veers, the 1973 Dan Curtis production starring Jack Palance (in my opinion, one of the least suitable Draculas ever cast), draws upon the history of Vlad the Impaler, a cinematic innovation at that time. In addition, it introduces the trope of Dracula's obsession with a woman whom he considers the reincarnation of his wife, in this case Lucy. Coppola's not quite accurately titled BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992) adopts this motif, with Mina as Dracula's long-lost beloved, an element detested by many fans. This one also identifies the Count with the historical Impaler. Otherwise, this production does fulfill its claim to incorporate all the major characters and the general plotline of the novel, including the heroes' pursuit of the Count back to his Transylvanian lair.

The 2013 DRACULA TV series, while set in England in the 1890s and featuring several characters from the novel, otherwise strays so far from the original that I gave up on it after a couple of episodes. In this re-imagining, Count Dracula poses as an American entrepreneur who invests in scientific and technological innovation. His true agenda, however, is revenge on his nemesis, the Order of the Dragon—??!!—the medieval knightly order of which the real-life Vlad Dracula and his father were proud members. This character impressed me as so unlike any Dracula I could recognize that I quickly lost interest in him.

How far can a film adaptation of a book depart from its source before it becomes effectively a different story? Mostly, I have a low tolerance for movies and TV programs that claim to translate books to films but have little resemblance to their alleged originals. Other readers and viewers may happily accept more radical transformations.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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