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Book Review: Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Count Dracula, the evil master vampire, and those who hunt him, established all vampire tropes for generations.

Dracula

Published 1897. Approximately 161,000 words. Available free at Project Gutenberg.


The vampire novel that started it all, Bram Stoker's Dracula probes deeply into human identity, sanity, and the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire. When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help Count Dracula purchase a London house, he makes horrifying discoveries about his client. Soon afterward, disturbing incidents unfold in England-an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby, strange puncture marks appear on a young woman's neck, and a lunatic asylum inmate raves about the imminent arrival of his "Master"-culminating in a battle of wits between the sinister Count and a determined group of adversaries.




Dracula is not the first vampire novel, and it's not the best, but it's impossible to write a vampire novel today that isn't influenced by Bram Stoker.

The original novel is so much a part of pop culture that probably everyone knows the basic story: you've seen one of the many movie versions or TV shows that rehash the plot, you've read comic books, you've played the boardgame. But relatively few people have actually read Bram Stoker's novel, and for that you can be forgiven, because it's a dark, bloody gem of atmospheric moodiness padded with long plodding exposition and stuffy Victorianisms. It is told entirely through journal entries, diaries, newspaper clippings, and other "textual" narratives. Some of the entries are more interesting than others, but the device is mostly effective, as it gives the feel of a series of first-person accounts without explicitly using a third-person omniscient narrator.

Jonathan Harker is a young solicitor sent to Transylvania to explain to a wealthy aristocratic nobleman, Count Dracula, the details of a property Dracula is purchasing in London. While staying in Castle Dracula, Harker comes to realize that he is a prisoner, and that his aristocratic, gracious host is a monster who does not intend to allow him to leave. This first part of the novel is actually the most interesting; it begins as a travelogue of Harker's trip through Eastern Europe, recounted in colorful detail, and Harker continues to vividly evoke the mood and atmosphere of his surroundings, the gloominess of Castle Dracula, his growing horror as he realizes what the Count really is and what his fate will be, and worse, Dracula's diabolical plan to move from the sparsely-inhabited wilds of Transylvania where all the peasants know and fear him so hunting is sparse, to the all-you-can-eat-buffet of London.

As Harker is making his plans to escape, the narrative shifts focus to Mina Murray, Harker's fiancee, and her friend Lucy Westenra. There are also diary entries from Dr. Seward, who runs an insane asylum and is increasingly intrigued with my favorite character in the novel: Renfield.


We are progressing. My friend has now a whole colony of sparrows, and his flies and spiders are almost obliterated. When I came in he ran to me and said he wanted to ask me a great favour, a very, very great favour. And as he spoke, he fawned on me like a dog.

I asked him what it was, and he said, with a sort of rapture in his voice and bearing, "A kitten, a nice, little, sleek playful kitten, that I can play with, and teach, and feed, and feed, and feed!"


Renfield is a pathetic figure, but he's even creepier than Dracula.

Dracula is a surprisingly layered novel that can be analyzed in all kinds of ways: as a commentary on Victorian sexual mores (Dracula's taking of Lucy and his attempt to take Mina being an unsubtle metaphor for sex); its view of Victorian women (Lucy is the flirtatious one with three suitors who turns into a monster who has to be killed; Mina does nothing but gush noble, self-sacrificing platitudes, even as she proves herself to be smarter and braver than any of the men); as a dark satire of Victorian travelogues; and as a straight-up horror novel. And even 114 years later, Dracula is horrific, bloody, and scary. Where Stoker shines is in capturing the mood of dark, ancient castles and unlit London streets, both of which hide creeping terrors, and in depicting the genuine fear and despair of his protagonists, who are not only hunting a powerful, superhuman monster but also having to make plans to kill their own loved ones to save them from becoming monsters as well. Never has a monster hunt by a party that is made up of ordinary men and women, not highly-trained adventurers, been done so well.

Bram Stoker didn't invent vampires, of course, and he based most of their powers on existing legends, but he added considerably to their repertoire, until today it's almost impossible to separate what originated in old folktales and myths and what comes from Stoker's novel. Stoker's Dracula can turn into mist, or a wolf, or a bat. He can control rats and wolves and other animals. He can control the weather. He exerts mastery over the vampires he creates, and can even hypnotize people. He has the strength of twenty men, and he can crawl up and down walls like a lizard. He is repelled by garlic and crucifixes, must sleep with soil from his grave by day, and he can only be killed by having his heart cut out followed by decapitation.

For all its genius, though, I didn't find Dracula to be a particularly enjoyable read, particularly the parts where Professor Van Helsing just rambles on and on. Bram Stoker is a stiff, formal, verbose writer and he's worse than Charles Dickens when it comes to women; he can't write men and women talking to each other without going off on long poetic soliloquies about one another's pure and noble virtues. After the sixth time that Jonathan Harker and Professor Van Helsing console each other with the happy knowledge that they've decided to protect Mina by not telling her anything else and keeping her out of their manly war councils, it would be obvious even if the other foreshadowing weren't so heavy that Mina is set to be Dracula's next chew-toy.

In the end, good triumphs over evil, at a cost, Hollywood has material for a hundred adaptations, and writers continue to imitate, do homage to, or try to subvert Stoker's tropes over a hundred years later.

Dracula on Film



Dracula is of course one of the most-filmed monsters in history, and watching every Dracula movie could take weeks. But I figured after reading the novel, I owed the Count a decent overview of his cinematic oeuvre. I limited myself to those movies which are more or less adaptations of the novel.

Notably, in none of the adaptations did Mina have as active a role as she did in the book. Yes, Hollywood makes women more passive than in a Victorian gothic horror novel.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)



Nosferatu

This 1922 silent German film was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Since Dracula wasn't in the public domain yet, the director, F. W. Murnau, had to change the names and details. "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlock," and a German town replaces London, but it's otherwise in many respects a more faithful adaptation than the official Dracula movie with Bela Lugosi (below). In particular, it includes in detail the story of the doomed ship the Count sails on while transporting his coffins, and the horror of the crew as an unseen creature picks them off one by one. (Nowadays, an entire horror movie could be made just based on Dracula's voyage aboard the Demeter.)

I am not a big fan of silent films generally, but you can do a lot with shadows, dramatic posturing, and grimaces of horror, and Murnau made a pretty creepy film, as creepy as the book. Orlock's slow, silent stalking about makes him quite a scary and implacable monster. Nosferatu really is a horror classic, and anyone interested in the history of vampire movies should not skip this one.

Dracula (1931)



Dracula (1931)

The 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi is often considered the "definitive" movie Dracula. Lugosi patented the suave, tuxedo-wearing hair-slicked-back Count with the slow Transylvania drawl that everyone since has copied. A compact adaptation at barely 1 hour 15 minutes, it's as creepy and morbid as Stoker's novel while taking many liberties with his story. For example, the roles of Jonathan Harker and Renfield are switched, and most of the secondary characters are omitted.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Special effects are largely confined to a beam of light falling across Lugosi's eyes, and a rubber bat on a string, and the acting is typical 30s Hollywood: lots of exaggerated mugging facial expressions and actors holding improbable poses. (Favorite scene: Van Helsing making his Saving Throw vs. Mind Control.)

This is a glorious Hollywood classic, but not the one to watch for fans of the novel who want fidelity to the text.

Note: Lugosi never says "I vant to suck your blood!" (Neither does Dracula, in the book.)

Count Dracula (1977)



Count Dracula (1977)

This 1977 BBC serial was a three-part series which adapted the novel quite faithfully. None of the actors are particularly notable, but the acting is decent (with the exception of the actor playing Quincey Morris -- worst Texas accent ever!). It's marred by some special effects that are cheesy even by 70s standards, and it suffers from the same slow pace as the novel in parts, but it captures one of the things many of the other movies lack -- Dracula's smug self-assurance and his malicious pleasure in taunting people with their powerlessness.

This was not my favorite Dracula movie, but it's the one to watch if you want the film version that's closest to the book.

Dracula (1979)



Dracula (1979)

The 1979 film, with a younger, sexy Frank Langella as Count Dracula, Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing, and a John Williams score, was half stylish period piece and half 70s horror flick. It "updates" the story to the early 1900s (just past Victorian, with motorcars) and preserves most of the characters and major events from Stoker's novel, but takes many liberties with the plot.

It's not as schlocky as it sounds -- in fact, it's a pretty high-quality production with very good acting. While it may not please Dracula purists, I think this was actually one of the better adaptations. It's scary and creepy, not even a little bit campy, and while it might be a little sexed up, it's horrific, not lewd. The Count is a sexy, charming monster, but definitely a monster.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)



Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola's big-budget 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula won three Academy Awards and featured a cast of (1990s) A-listers, including Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, and Gary Oldman.

Visually very pretty, the essential story is more or less Stoker's; Coppola decided to add the semi-historical detail of Vlad the Impaler's campaign against Turkish invaders (which Dracula does allude to in the book) with the completely invented detail of Dracula becoming a vampire because he renounced God, and the absurd addition of Mina Harker being the reincarnation of his lost love.

This is also not a film for purists, but it's probably the most appealing to many modern movie-goers.

Masterpiece Theater: Dracula (2007)



Masterpiece Theater: Dracula

2007's Masterpiece Theater production follows the pattern I have noticed is often the case when comparing Masterpiece Theater and BBC adaptations: it's a better-filmed, better-acted, very dumb and unfaithful adaptation that's been overly sexed up. Jonathan Harker goes on a quest in search of a cure for his "blood disease" -- namely, syphilis, inflicted on him at birth through his mother, thanks to his father. And Lucy complains to Mina (in rather explicit detail) about how her husband ain't givin' her the lovin' she's been longin' for. WTF?

This is a rough adaptation that takes the bare elements of Stoker's novel and twists them into a 21st century horror movie, with standard 21st century horror movie tropes, replacing all of Stoker's atmosphere, subtext, and detail with a lot of blood and cobwebs and latex monster masks.

Bonus: multiple scenes of Mina shrieking hysterically, completely unlike the calm, level-headed woman in the book, who never lost it even as she felt Dracula taking control over her. Yup, once again, a Victorian novel has stronger female characters than a 21st century adaptation of it.

Dracula 2000



Dracula 2000

I Netlixed Wes Craven's Dracula 2000 just because it was available by streaming video, but, as the title suggests, it's not really an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel at all. It's a typical Wes Craven bloodbath with a stupid plot about Dracula being resurrected in the modern day; he's just another Freddy Krueger leaving bodies lying everywhere. The only clever homage was an airplane replacing the ship Demeter, complete with the pilot dying tied to the wheel. At least the black guy doesn't die first. Skip this movie unless you're a Wes Craven fan.

But I can't end my review of Dracula films without mentioning my favorite Dracula movie ever:

Love at First Bite

Okay, I thought it was the funniest movie ever when I was twelve.



Verdict: If you like vampire novels, read the original. It may not be quite as entertaining as more modern works, but it's one of those things that every fan should be familiar with, and I sure wish more contemporary writers would actually read the source material they're borrowing (or whose undead corpse they are defiling). Dracula may be a bit dated stylistically, but I defy you to read it without once feeling a chill or a thrill.

Dracula is one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, though I did not read it for the books1001 challenge, so books1001 is still waiting for someone else to review it.
Tags: books, books1001, horror, movies, netflix, reviews
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