“Dracula is and always has been material for a great picture. great in opportunity for actors, writers and directors. Great in opportunity for photography of a wonderful sort and nature. But while it is picture material from the angle of the pictorial and the dramatic, it is not picture material from the standpoint of the box office nor of the ethics of the industry. It would be a thing which no child and for that matter no adult of delicate and nervous temperament should see, a thing beside which The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would seem like a pleasant fireside reverie.”
– A memo from Universal Pictures, Oct. 6, 1927
Such was the reaction of Hollywood to the gothic horror novel, “Dracula” by Bram Stoker in it’s dramatic form on the stage in New York. But Hollywood’s reaction to the novel would not remain so timid for so long. For once Bela Lugosi got his hands on it, it took off like wildfire and has been a staple of films ever since. But what exactly has Hollywood done with the mysterious and evil Count over the years? We shall look at three film verisons of the story. 1931, 1979, and 1992. How do those film versions compare to what Bram Stoker wrote into his novel, and how do they compare to each other?
“Dracula”, 1931 – Sinister
As is so often the case, the first version of story set the standard by which all future versions would be judged. Originally envisioned as a project for Lon Chaney at MGM, it was shelved after Chaney’s death in August of 1930. Eventually it made it’s way to the Universal Studio wherein it became a project for Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and Director Todd Browning. The role of the evil Count Dracula was, after much searching for a bigger name actor given to the man who had played him on the NewYork stage for so long, the Hungarian born Bela Lugosi. Lugosi didn’t speak much English when he arrived in the U.S. in 1920, so he learned most of his early theatrical lines phonetically. By the time he played Dracula, his accent was very thick, and gave the Count the heavy Eastern European sound and the sinister, menacing demeanor so associated with the role ever since. In the novel, the Count speaks English well, having an almost British accent The biggest change from Bram Stoker to Hollywood was the portrayal of the Count as a handsome, well dressed man about town. This was done in it’s transfer to the stage, but kept up by Hollywood. In the novel the Count is quite strange in his appearance:
“His face was a strong — a very strong — aquiline with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere… The mouth so far as I could see it under the (long thin and white) moustache was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips..” Stoker goes on to describe ears that were pale and pointed bushy eyebrows and a general pale color. “The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”
Generally speaking, the 1931 version of Dracula, classic that it has deservedly become, has little to do with Bram Stoker’s novel other than the plot outlines and the names of the characters. This version is set in the early thirties complete with automobiles, unlike the novel which takes place in the 1890’s The characters relationships are all different: In this version Dr. Seward is an older man and Mina is his daughter. The character of Renfield is the one who travels to Transylvania and meets Count Dracula, and subsequently goes mad, assisting Dracula to get at Mina. There is one line however that makes it straight from the novel and winds up in all three film versions that we shall look at. At one point in Chapter Two of the novel, the Count noticing the howling of the wolves says: “Listen to them –the children of the night. What music they make!” This line passes the lips of Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman. The characters of Dracula’s three “wives” (although they are never identified as such in the novel) appear briefly at the film’s beginning and provide a touch of the sexual aspect of the story along with the obvious spell which Dracula casts over his young female victims.
“Dracula”, 1979 – Sensual
“He is in fact in the book very sympathetic, very romantic, and very tortured and tormented and very singular.”
– Frank Langella on the character of “Dracula”.
It is difficult after having read the book to see where Mr. Langella gets this view that the title character is either romantic or sympathetic. Tortured and tormented certainly do fit, but very little about him comes off as sympathetic or romantic. Nevertheless, Mr. Langella’s view does provide the key to this highly sensual take on Dracula from Producer Walter Mirisch and Director John Badham. This version of the bite ’em guy from Transylvania is rated “R”, which it earns mainly from the fairly graphic blood and gore, and the highly sensual and suggestive nature of it’s depictions. But no more of the glowering, heavily accented menace of Lugosi in this fellow. This Count speaks calmly, clearly, and positively radiates suave attraction from the moment he sweeps into Dr. Seward’s drawing room.
He is obviously looking not just to bite his victims to take their blood, but by the smooth inflection of his voice, and the soft touch of his hand, he is looking to seduce them as well.
As was he case with the 1931 version, this edition makes it’s own departures from Bram Stokers plot details. Although it is set in the 1890’s as Stoker put it, it begins with Dracula’s transport to England by the ship which ends up mysteriously wrecked on the coast near Whitby, the small English coastal town which is the setting for most of the story. The visit to Castle Dracula, and the three wives are dispensed with entirely This time Lucy is Dr. Seward’s daughter, and helps him with his work at the Sanitarium which he runs. Mina is now the friend who is sickly and whom Dracula takes as his first, easier victim while Lucy becomes his main focus. Jonathan Harker is engaged to Lucy, and comes off as a bit of a middle class twit with jealous aspirations to be rich, who hot-rods around in an early period sports car. Renfield is now a resentful working class hauler who falls under Dracula’s sway while delivering boxes of earth to Dracula’s London home/hide-out at Carfax Abbey. And Mina is the daughter of Professor van Helsing, who is played with great old-world dignity and gravity by Sir Lawrence Olivier (above). In this, as in all three versions, Dracula’s transformation into a bat or simple mist is put with his ability from the novel to climb stone walls like a lizard, absent from the 1931 version. Also unlike 1931, the then comparatively new technique of blood transfusion is shown. And in 1979, Dracula is dispatched on-board his would be escape ship, via an unceremonious ride to the top mast and into the vampire-deadly sunlight. This version benefits from an expansive dramatic orchestral score by John Williams as opposed to 1931 which had no score at all.
“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, 1992 – Sexual
If you’re looking for fidelity to Bram Stoker’s novel, this sweeping epic 1992 version is the one you’ve been waiting for. This conceptualization, Produced and Directed by the Oscar-Winning Francis Ford Coppola follows the novel faithfully for the greater part in terms of it’s plot and it’s depiction of the character’s relationships to one another. Gary Oldman plays the title role, and portrays the suffering of Dracula’s soul which is only hinted at directly in the novel. And this time the rating is a hard “R”. The sensual angle of the story which was suggested, though indirectly throughout the novel, which was hinted at in 1931, and brought to the surface in 1979 becomes full-blown sexuality in 1992. Bare-breasts abound in this film, to a degree which would have been impossible in 1931, and possible, but still unlikely in a general-release film in 1979 – even an “R”-rated film. And in this one the time period of 1897 is both clearly stated and adhered to. “I long to walk the streets of your great London…” Dracula says to Harker early in the film and London is indeed depicted as just that: a teeming metropolis on the cusp of the twentieth century complete with early motion picture attractions, a wax cylinder phonograph, and typewriters.
The setting and the pacing of the plot are for the first time just as Bram Stoker wrote them, starting out on Jonathan Harker’s train journey to the castle Dracula in Transylvania, going from the eerie surroundings there to Dracula’s effective imprisonment of Harker there while he goes to London via a mysteriously wrecked ship. And the story like Stoker’s novel is presented as a series of journal and diary entries, letters and newspaper clippings kept by the principal players. The relationships of the various characters are like they were written by Stoker in this version. Dr. Seward is about Harker’s age. Mina (who is engaged to Harker) is a friend of Lucy’s, and Dr. Seward carries a torch for Lucy who is flirtatious with him, her fiancee, the rich young Lord Holming (Lord Godalming in the novel), and a brash young Texan named Quincy Morris, who carries with him a huge Bowie knife at all times. Dracula. who is correctly shown as being very old and pale at the beginning, fixes his attention on Mina after taking the easier target, Lucy. There is an underlying story in 1992 that Dracula was once a great war lord, who fixes on Mina because she happens to resemble the lost love of his youth. His past is discussed in the book, but never specifically spelled out in this way. And nowhere in the novel is any past-connection to Mina either depicted or suggested. Further, in the novel, Dracula only meets Mina when he attacks her; there is no sweet courtship in London prior to that. Still the rest of the 1992 version stays fairly well faithful to Bram Stoker. The three wives (or witches, or whatever they are) of Dracula figure prominently (and also toplessly) in this filming, and the character of Professor Van Helsing is played with full and earthy relish by Anthony Hopkins (above, with Winona Ryder as Mina) who almost comes off as comic relief, but who adds the combination of science and faith which forms such a vital conflict in this bizarre tale. A powerful musical score by Wozzek Kilar is a primary driving force in this film.
Ultimately, in the 1992 version, as with the 1931 and the 1979, the key to the success of the film depends upon the strength of the title character and his portrayal. In 1931 you had the sinister Bela Lugosi setting the standard for Dracula’s air of menace. In 1979, we had Frank Langella making him positively seductive. But only in 1992, do we have in Gary Oldman’s portrayal a monster who (at the film’s beginning anyway) looks like one and who by the end has become more appealing (although in the novel he remains physically repulsive throughout) by proving to be so sad. One of only two points in the novel to say anything clearly sympathetic to the title character puts it thus, when Mina observes the Count just after the fatal blow has been struck:
“I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace , such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.”
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker, 1897, Barnes & Noble Classics Edition, Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2003.
by Denis Gifford, Hamlyn Publ. Group Ltd., London, 1973
Directed by Todd Browning, Universal Studios, 1931
Directed by John Badham, Universal Studios, 1979
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Coumbia Pictures, 1992
by Jon J. Muth, Marvel Co.,New York, 1983