Bright Lights Film Journal

Draining Dracula: What’s Missing from Coppola’s Version?

Actually, a lot

Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been adapted over a dozen times. His character has even appeared in films without any pertinence to the novel such as the B-movie Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990). In this film the Count was played by David Carradine (whose father John Carradine acted the role in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, in 1944 and 1945 respectively.) But few of these filmic adaptations have the essence of Stoker’s critique of colonialism. Much of this is due to the fact that most of the re-enactments of the novel are actually based on the play by John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane. However, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula (fully titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula) attempts to go back to the source for one of the most famous monsters in Western history. Yet despite the return to the beginning, director Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart fail to capture Stoker’s monstrosity or major themes in their attempt to bring the horror classic to the silver screen.

The film opens up, “as it should” according to critic Roger Ebert, with a flashback to 1462, where Dracula’s story as a Romanian knight is told. But to some, this flashback, though visually appealing, may be part of what “Stoker saw fit to omit” (Canby). This flashback, however, actually connects back to the book where Jonathan Harker writes in his journal that Dracula tells Harker about his family’s history. This includes the Szekelys fight and defeat of the Turks (Stoker 30-31). Harker says that Dracula “spoke as if he had been present at them [battles] all” (Stoker 30). But the film’s flashback also adds in the love story motif between Dracula and Elisabeta that is not present in the novel. This romance travels throughout the entirety of the film, where Mina Harker turns into the resurrected soul of Dracula’s lost love. The subplot is also the main element that turns the character of Dracula from a horror figure into a Byronic one, for it gives a reason for Dracula’s terror. Dracula is just attempting to regain his lost love, unlike in the original novel where we do not know why Dracula has chosen to condemn the people of London. Many original horror stories do not tell us why the monster is evil. For instance, Silence of the Lambs does not explain why Hannibal Lecter is a cannibal, nor does the original Halloween go into the psychology of Michael Meyers. But both of these films have re-adaptations, like Coppola’s movie is a re-adaptation, where the source of the terror is explained. This can take away the fear and bring empathy to the monster, changing the horror into sorrow and the fear into pity.

After the flashback, the film adds in a few more scenes (Renfield in the insane asylum, Jonathan saying goodbye to Mina, which is very similar to the opening sequence of another Dracula adaptation: Nosferatu, 1922), before it continues and at eight minutes, thirty seconds begins where the book opens: Jonathan Harker traveling to Transylvania. Even the Universal 1931 Dracula didn’t start off this way. It began with Renfield going to Transylvania, and the 1979 John Badham version of Dracula began with the Demeter sailing to England. So, plot-wise, Coppola and Hart’s version sticks rather close to the book. They even include Lucy’s three suitors, one of the first (if not the first) times that all of her potential fiancées are in the film.

Much like the inclusion of Dr. Jack Seward, Lord Arthur Holmwood, and Quincy P. Morris, the Coppola film also attempts to retain the structural style and numerous focalizations of the novel by including voiceovers to represent the diaries and journals of characters such as Mina, Jonathan, and Van Helsing. These voiceovers are sometimes in conjunction with actual visuals of the characters writing and inserts such as “Jonathan Harker’s Journal 25th May.” However, though Keanu Reeves’s readings of “the impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East” is from the book, the date and the rest of his voiceover is original writings of Jonathan V. Hart (Stoker 1).

While certain elements are faithfully transferred onto the screen, one scene that exemplifies the liberties Coppola and Hart have taken with the script is the “rape” scene between Dracula and Mina. It is, in fact, no longer a rape scene. Instead, it is a seduction between the two star-crossed lovers. Mina welcomes Dracula into her bedroom, instead of being scared of him. Even after he explains that he is a killing monster Mina says, “you murdered Lucy . . . I love you.” In the shooting script this line “you murdered Lucy” is not included (though “I love you” is), and if we watch the scene enough times we can begin to imagine and hear that Winona Ryder attempts to say “but I,” though the subtitles do not show it. Yet this line change will continue to be a mystery, whether or not those words are uttered, for the line was either ad-libbed by the actress or thrown in at the last minute. What it does exemplify is the fact that this is a romance story, not a horror film. For despite this grand transgression, Mina is willing to purposefully damn herself for Dracula. Unlike in the novel, where Mina fights for her life and soul but is forced into drinking Dracula’s blood — which to Dr. Seward is “a terrible resemblance of a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink” (Stoker 249) — in the film it is Dracula who is trepid. As Mina begins to drink from a cut in his chest, he stops her, warning her of her actions, but Mina begs him to allow her to become a vampire, and the couple join in a bloody metaphor for sex and deflowering. The novel’s “turning” scene may also stand for sex and the loss of virginity, but in the book it is more about the horror of having evil take over no matter how good a Christian you are. It is mainly about pure terror and only secondary is its sexual metaphor.

From there the movie gets back on track with the book. Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina several times, and the two of them separate from the group during the chase after Dracula. However, just as Mina’s character has been altered to have loving feelings toward Dracula, Hart and Coppola also make her weaker than she is in the novel. Whereas in the book Mina resists the temptation of her chanting vampiric sisters to “Come! Come!”, in the film she falls under their persuasion and attacks Van Helsing who puts her into a safe circle of fire (Stoker 322). In the book, Mina is encapsulated in the fire before the sisters come. This circle of protection, however, may be the reason why she is able to rebuke them so in the book and not in the movie. She is protected from outside forces while in the “white” magic of the fire and therefore cannot leave nor have any evil enter. She has not only her own prowess, but also the strength of Helsing’s faith.

Though some critics of the film have attacked the casting of Keanu Reeves, this use of the star-system paid off. Desson Howe of The Washington Post describes Reeves as a “perfectly innocent, 19th-century goofball.” But what Howe does point out is that he is in a “less-than-demanding role.” This is true, for Jonathan Harker is supposed to be weak and impotent, not the gallant hero of most patriarchal stories. In fact, he is helpless through much of the novel to save his love, Mina. In the book, when Dracula turns her, Harker is “breathing heavily as though in a stupor” in the same bed (Stoker 249). Even sleeping next to Mina, Harker is unable to do anything, for he is powerless compared to the potent Dracula and his mystical powers. The highly sexualized film might have taken advantage of this moment to show Harker’s sexual impotence compared to the romantic Dracula. Instead, it chose to have Harker with Helsing and Dr. Seward, not in the bedroom. This could have been an opportunity to show that only Dracula, and not Harker, could satisfy Mina’s sexual thirst. Hart and Coppola decided to go in a different direction where, in fact, Harker wards off Dracula but just too late to save his new wife.

Critics have called Hart and Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula an “unusually faithful screen adaptation of the novel” (Canby). Though it is true that it is unusual to have a faithful version of this novel, one may not necessarily find this version better than the others. In this adaptation, the theme is the “Victorian fear of unleashed female sexuality” exemplified by a nearly one-second kiss between Mina and Lucy, along with the highly sexualized turnings of Lucy and Mina. There is also the addition of the AIDS metaphor tied to vampirism with shots of blood cells (Canby). Obviously, Stoker never had any intention of speaking about AIDS, for it was an unknown problem in his time. Part of the “sociology of adaptation,” Dracula has become a slate mirroring the fears of the time. As Nosferatu represented the rise of Nazism and outside tyrannical forces coming to take over, Coppola and Hart’s Dracula is not only about Victorian fears but our own timely horror of AIDS.

Overall, this version of Dracula adds more elements than it takes away, though that does not necessarily make it better or more faithful. The film has the elements of the postcolonial discourse in which the villain still comes to conquer from the East. However, the film does not reference in any way the fear that Irish writer Bram Stoker had about British control. But colonialism is no longer the focus of the story; rather it is more a feminist discourse now with Mina and Lucy rising in prominence and sexuality. The film retains the characters and major plots, while adding to their dimensions and scenes. Whether it is a successful adaptation is up to the viewer. Do we enjoy having Dracula used for modern-day propaganda, or would we prefer an outdated tale of Eastern villains coming to destroy us? But if we truly think about it, a modern-day viewing of the film would not find this fear irrational or outdated, for since the film’s release in 1992 there have been 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A fear of Eastern terrorism does currently exist. A deconstructionist would say that the film is always changing, fluid, depending on the time in which it was watched. Right after the ’80s, AIDS would have been a bigger topic than Eastern terrorism is now. Thus, in a way, the film has returned to the true postcolonial source and original intention, just not necessarily by the director and screenwriter’s intent.

Works Cited

Canby, Vincent. “Review/Film; Coppola’s Dizzying Vision of Dracula.” New York Times 13 November 1992.

Ebert, Roger. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Chicago Sun-Times 13 November 1992.

Hart, James V. Dracula. Shooting Script. 2007.

Howe, Desson. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Washington Post 13 November 1992.

Stoker, Bram, and Leonard Wolf. The Annotated Dracula. 2nd ed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1975.