Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bram Stoker's Dracula

I have a long, if not particularly notable, association with Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. It was the first "adult" book I ever read, completed when I was seven. It had been given to me by the teenage girl next door (I like to imagine she thought "it would be perfect for the little creep") and took awhile to finish, partly because I may have been a little precocious but wasn't yet a speed-reader, and partly because my mother kept finding it and ineffectually hiding it, convinced it would give me nightmares (it did). I was entranced by it then, and have loved the novel ever since. I have watched Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Jack Palance and others portray the saturnine Count with enjoyment, while lamenting that no one ever attempted to make an adaptation that was true to the book.

So I was pretty stoked back in 1992 when Francis Ford Coppola announced he would be making a huge budget, star-laden adaptation. Since he was calling it Bram Stoker's Dracula, surely he would stick closer to the novel. Else why bother? Obviously, I underestimated Hollywood's willingness to "improve" books. Although I remember being very disappointed, I recently picked up the latest DVD edition and decided to give it another try.

First off, the good stuff: The movie looks great. Coppola has always had a good eye, and also done well in hiring cinematographers, and the movie looks great, although Vlad's armor in the beginning makes him look a little like the Crimson Dynamo. Coppola also makes good use of mostly practical special effects, and uses a very stylized approach to the movie which is very pleasing to the eye.

But it still doesn't work. Although Coppola still calls this a faithful adaptation, his Dracula has been transformed from the monster of the original into a tragic romantic figure. So what if he tortured thousands of people to death, and has spent centuries not only killing humans but destroying their souls? The dude's wife died. This has an ick factor to me. I'm sure Ted Bundy had some sort of heartbreak in his life, the world would still have been better off if he'd been stillborn. Since the years since the movie have seen an explosion of cultural entertainment with vampires as romantic characters, maybe I'm out of touch. The middle of the film, where Dracula romances Mina, also slows the pace of the film to a crawl.

The movie also inserts historical information showing Dracula as the real ruler Vlad Tepes, an inspiration to Stoker for the Dracula character, which Coppola claims to make his version even more "real" than Stoker's. Which would be true if Dracula was a non-fiction account of Vlad the Impaler, but since the title character is a fictional creation of Stoker, that doesn't really hold up. Actually, tying Dracula closer to Vlad makes him less sympathetic rather than more, since Vlad was one of history's true SOBs.

One of the most criticized aspects of the movie at the time of its release was casting Keanu Reeves as Jonathon Harker, but I think this is more of an example of Keanu-hate than anything else. True, he struggles with his fake accent (everyone in the film seems to, even those who are using their native ones), but I truly think he acquits himself well, or at least as well as most of the rest of the wooden cast. To me, the one awful acting performance comes from the usually wonderful Anthony Hopkins, who portrays Abraham van Helsing as sort of a deranged vaudeville performance. He is so over-the-top that he warps every scene he is in, with the most egregious example coming when he dry-humps Quincy Morris like a dog humping your leg, while giving him instructions to guard Lucy. Just too bizarre.

For all his claims of originality, Coppola steals from other films a little too liberally (although they are often his own earlier films). He juxtapositions the sacred and profane when cutting back and forth from the wedding of Jonathon and Mina to the murder of Lucy by Dracula, but it is basically the same as the baptism/settling of scores scene in The Godfather. And when vampiric Lucy vomits blood over her antagonists, it looks like it was taken directly from The Exorcist.

In the end, it would have been more appropriate for the movie to be named Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, and we are still waiting for a version that will be true to the book, a masterpiece of Victorian fiction.


John Hornor Jacobs said...

I have fond memories of this movie, because, the girl I was dating at the time was quite interested in sucking and vampires, which worked out great for me.

It was also the first time I was aware of Winona Ryder's boobs.

They say things kept disappearing mysteriously on set, only later to be found in Winona's trailer. She claimed it was "the curse of Dracula."

I'm still a big fan of Langella's Dracula. My dad took me to see that when I was just a kid, before I read the book, and it freaked me out ten ways to Sunday.

I'm afraid they'll never do a decent adaptation of the book. The has such definite sections, they'll always feel the need to integrate them into a seamless narrative.

And they'll never give Dracula the hairy palms.

KentAllard said...

They should give him the hairy palms. I just don't get the unnecessary changes they force on the story, such as making this about the romance of a tragic figure. Although vampires are now the touchstone of romance novels, so maybe FFC knew something after all.