By Geoffrey Reiter
Even now, when anyone mentions the word “vampire” in passing, the first thought to come to mind is almost invariably “Dracula.” Since Bram Stoker first introduced the character in his 1897 novel, Dracula has been the vampire par excellence, the Un-Dead embodiment without equal—but not without sequel. In Stoker’s book, the character of Dracula has an uncanny ability to morph and shape-shift, from bat to wolf to mist, from gaunt to full-blooded; and in the generations that have followed, the character of Count Dracula has similarly undergone countless permutations. Indeed, one of the features that makes Dracula so successful is his tremendous adaptability—perhaps more than any other literary figure in recent memory, Count Dracula evolves to fit the prevailing ethos of the society depicting him. Simply put, you can tell what your culture values by the way it portrays its Draculas.
Count Dracula’s Origins
Bram Stoker first published Dracula in 1897 after doing extensive research, though contrary to popular belief, the character was probably only loosely based on the fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler Vlad Țepeș (the Impaler, sometimes called Dracula). As Stoker knew, vampire lore had existed in many cultures throughout recorded history. In nineteenth-century England, they were a staple of Romantic and Victorian pop culture, from John Polidori’s sophisticated Lord Ruthven (1819) to James Malcolm Rymer’s repellent, self-loathing Varney (1847) to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s voluptuous Carmilla (1872).
By the time Stoker took pen to paper with his creation, he had a long line of predecessors to build off. The three seductive “brides” of Dracula bear the imprint of Le Fanu’s Carmilla, while the more terrifying Count himself is reminiscent of Varney. What made Dracula such a figure of horror, however, was not simply his appearance or his abilities; it was the way in which Stoker was able to use him to embody almost every fear and insecurity of the late Victorian British Empire. He was the old feudal lord encroaching on the capitalist London; he was the foreign other who could degenerate good young British women into promiscuous vamps who reacted violently against children; he was the “man” who descend the evolutionary ladder into lower orders of being; he was anti-Christ who threatened staunch Christian society. Some in Stoker’s day may have thought he went too far in creating his monster, but Stoker himself did not seem to think so. In the copy of Dracula he presented to former Prime Minister William Gladstone, Stoker wrote,
The book is necessarily full of horrors and terrors but I trust that these are calculated to “cleanse the mind of pity & terror.” At any rate there is nothing base in the book and though superstition is fought with superstition I hope it is not irreverent.
A decade after Dracula, Stoker would write “The Censorship of Fiction,” in which he explicitly argues that novels should have a moral purpose, functioning like longer versions of Christ’s parables. In other words, Stoker’s Dracula is a monstrous and evil figure, and he is monstrous and evil because he jeopardizes the Victorian virtues to which Stoker adhered.
Dracula through the Ages
The novel Dracula was fairly well-regarded at its publication but not wildly popular; at the time, Stoker was probably still best known as the manager of the Lyceum Theater. But when motion picture technology emerged, the lure of the vampire proved irresistible. The German director F. W. Murnau was famously the first to attempt a screen treatment of Dracula; but Stoker’s widow wouldn’t grant him the rights, so he changed the names and created the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu. Ironically, though Florence Stoker sued successfully to have the film almost entirely destroyed, Nosferatu remains (in essence if not in detail) perhaps the most faithful adaptation of Dracula. Murnau’s Count Orlock (as played by Max Schreck) is more grotesque than Stoker’s original; he is associated with destruction, plague, and evil in the film, only defeated by the spiritually pure heroine.
After Nosferatu, however, film depictions of Dracula began to change. The fictional count’s first major transformation came through his portrayal by Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s acclaimed 1931 Dracula. Lugosi possessed all the menace of Stoker’s Dracula (and Murnau’s), but he added a curious charisma. While not traditionally handsome, Lugosi combined an intense screen presence with a deliberate, heavily accented speech to create a Dracula who was almost as mesmerizing as he was repellant. Indeed, he so thoroughly captured this aura of entrancing danger that it has since become difficult to remember Stoker’s original figure, who possesses little of this charm. The same could be said of Carlos Villarías who played Dracula in the Spanish-language version of the same year, filmed on the English-language movie’s sets.
From the 1930s on, vampire movies generally—and Dracula movies specifically—became a staple of cinemas. And on the whole, they followed the pattern staked out by Browning’s movie. The plot details of Stoker’s novel were altered and the number of characters reduced or juggled. More importantly, directors and actors went the Lugosi route in representing the title character. From the 1930s to the 1950s, eras of more mainstream moral conservatism in film, the figure of Dracula was always distant and dangerous, yet all the more alluring for those very qualities. Rather than a pure villain, he was becoming the forbidden anti-hero resisted by generic protagonists who were nowhere near as fascinating as he was.
A key moment in this development was the 1958 Hammer film Horror of Dracula, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee in the role that would define him for years to come. Lee’s Count was sophisticated but sexy in a more pronounced way than his predecessors. Whereas previous movies seemed to take Stoker’s novel as a springboard to do their own things, Fisher’s take was a more conscious subversion of the work. It assumed audience familiarity with the original plot and characters, only to gleefully trample those expectations, and it took a similarly cavalier attitude to the book’s moral world. Horror of Dracula tips its hat to tradition by killing Dracula in the end (only to bring him back for subsequent sequels), but with free-flowing blood (now in full color), seductive vampires, and seductive humans, the movie enjoys the ride far too much for the ending to be morally cathartic.
This was the wave of the future for vampire films, including new adaptations of Dracula. So popular was Christopher Lee that he reprised the role for Hammer in several further films, and his smoldering rendition then became the model. New Draculas were all around age forty, and they provided genuine temptations to the repressed Victorian women he vampirized. Dracula went from being a sexual predator to a sexual liberator; the true dark forces were nineteenth-century inhibitions. Frank Langella certainly fit this mold in the 1979 Dracula, which was based on the 1977 Broadway stage adaptation.
But as he was getting a sexier makeover during the ’60s and ’70s, the Count was changing in another way: he was becoming more sympathetic. Stoker’s novel occasionally mused on what Dracula might have been had he not turned evil, and the succeeding films added a sexual gravity and sophistication to his character, but there was very little attempt to “humanize” the vampire. The 1973 version of Dracula, however, starred Jack Palance as a tormented vampire, one who, like Varney, despised his condition. It also played more on the purported historical associations with Vlad the Impaler and introduced the idea that one of the heroines might be his reincarnated wife.
Coppola’s Dracula and Beyond
All these strands came together in 1992 when acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola took on the project Bram Stoker’s Dracula with well-regarded British actor Gary Oldman now stepping into the main role. The title suggested a renewed fidelity to Stoker’s original, and indeed, Coppola’s film was the first to include every major character from the novel’s densely-peopled pages. It also followed the plot structure of the book more closely than previous attempts (with the possible exception of a 1977 BBC version).
But Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not Bram Stoker’s Dracula. On the contrary, Coppola’s movie is the final logical culmination of all the other Dracula themes that had been building as Western culture’s values and priorities shifted. Like Christopher Lee before him, Oldman’s Dracula was sleek and sexy; once blood restores Dracula’s youth, Coppola presents him as a brooding, seductive version of Vlad’s historical portraits. Like Langella’s version, Oldman’s Dracula frees his prey from being victims of Victorian moral repression. And like Palance’s portrayal, Oldman’s Dracula is himself a victim, having been separated (by the church, of course) from his true love in his past life.
At every turn, Coppola seeks to collapse the Good versus Evil binary of Stoker’s novel. Dracula is no longer a monster, or even fully a villain—he is at worst an anti-hero, possible even a tragic hero. His monstrosity comes upon him after emotional abuse by religiously hierarchical figures. Meanwhile, Coppola undercuts the moral ground from beneath the protagonists. The novel’s heroes are by no means perfect, yet they collectively figure as clear representatives of the Victorian code of virtue, one that in the book is explicitly identified in Christian terms. Bram Stoker’s Dracula takes the character flaws that Stoker introduces as obstacles to overcome and magnifies them to a wildly exaggerated degree.
Perhaps no scene better exemplifies the culture shift between the Victorian virtue ethic of Stoker’s original work and the modern values depicted by Coppola than Jonathan Harker’s temptation. In the novel, Jonathan Harker (fiancé of heroine Mina Murray) is a lawyer sent to close a deal with Dracula that will enable him to purchase British property. While at the castle, he is seduced by Dracula’s three vampiric “brides.” Coppola’s movie reproduces this scene very closely, and both versions achieve suspense masterfully. Yet the locus of suspense could not be more different. In Stoker’s novel, assuming the morality of its readers, the tension derives from the fear that Harker will succumb to temptation, proving unfaithful to Mina and showing weakness in sexual restraint. In the titillating visual realm of Coppola’s movie, the situation is inverted; the film assumes its audience wants Harker to succumb and builds its suspense accordingly. If Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the closest movie to the novel in detail, it may the farthest from it in spirit.
In the intervening twenty years, vampire movies have flooded the market, including several new redactions of Count Dracula, to say nothing of the myriad spinoff novels or comics. To a large extent, they continue to follow the patterns that set in the 1960s and 1970s. Films like Dracula 2000 and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary once again draw attention to Dracula as a sympathetic, persecuted figure. Almost without exception, their Draculas have become closer to Polidori’s Ruthven than Stoker’s Count: tall, dark, handsome, and dangerous, causing the women around them to shed any sexual inhibitions. Movies like Dracula 2000, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Dracula 3D, and the forthcoming Dracula Untold, as well as TV programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 2006 BBC Dracula, and NBC’s new Dracula, all seem to diverge from the book’s moral vision and present the a Dracula who, with all his brooding, tormented sex appeal is thoroughly modern. But keep your eyes on the count in the future, because he never seems to die, and whatever shape he assumes, it is always the perfect camouflage for the culture in which he resides.
Geoffrey Reiter is Assistant Professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida. He holds a B.A. in English from Nyack College and a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University, along with an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.