by Cary Christopher and Lisanne Harrington
A great way to tie into this month’s History theme would be to visit a horror masterpiece and look at the many ways it has been adapted by screenwriters. How do you take a classic novel and rewrite it so it fits a strict time limit, appeals to a modern audience, and retains the feeling and depth of the original?
It’s not easy, especially when your source material is unwieldy to begin with. Almost every aspiring horror writer has read Bram Stoker’s seminal work, Dracula, at some point. It’s spawned numerous films that have played fast and loose with its narrative. Even better for our purposes, the major film adaptations have come along in more or less twenty year increments. This makes for a fascinating look at script writing for different audience expectations.
If you haven’t read it, shame on you. It’s a classic for a reason. It tells a gripping story through a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles, and the scope of the tale is actually quite large. It starts with a business call to an exotic Count in the far-off country of Transylvania, moves to London for its second act, and then ends with a thrilling chase through the Carpathian Mountains. If you’ve never read the novel you may be surprised to find that Stoker’s Dracula doesn’t look, act, or sound like the vampire you’ve come to expect.
Summarizing the Novel
In order to compare the book to the scripts, you need to know Stoker’s version of the story. Here’s a super short synopsis that covers only the major plot points.
Solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell a piece of London property to Count Dracula. He soon realizes the Count is not what he seems. Dracula holds Harker prisoner in the castle, abandoning him there while the Count heads to London. Harker escapes and makes his way to London.
Dracula begins his reign of terror by singling out a socialite named Lucy. She falls ill and her doctor calls in his professor (Van Helsing) to help diagnose her.
Lucy dies despite all of Van Helsing’s precautions. She becomes a vampire and Van Helsing and her three grieving suitors go to her grave and kill her. Van Helsing is now certain of what Dracula is and convinces the three suitors to join him in hunting the monster down. Harker joins the group in their effort to destroy Dracula.
Dracula turns his attention to Mina Murray (Jonathan Harker’s fiancée), but before he can turn her completely, he’s forced to flee back to his home country.
The band of heroes chases Dracula, hoping that if they kill him, Mina will be cured. They finally catch and destroy him. Mina is saved and everyone lives happily ever after.
Universal’s Dracula (1931)
This is the iconic film that launched a thousand imitators. The screenwriters had a leg up on things because Stoker’s novel had been adapted into a hit play in 1924. However, because it had been adapted for the stage, some significant changes had been made.
First, Harker never travels to Transylvania. Instead, Renfield, a minor character from the book, approaches Dracula about the London property, becomes Dracula’s servant, and is later locked up in an asylum near Dracula’s London abbey. Dracula creates a psychic connection to Renfield that the heroes use to help them find the Count.
Budgets and technology being what they were at the time, the narrative ignores the Carpathian mountain chase. The first act takes place in Transylvania, but everything else remains in London.
The two biggest changes became so ingrained in people’s minds that they actually overshadow Stoker’s version of the story. In the novel, Dracula is a dark, twisted, ugly monster. Drinking blood does make him younger, but he’s never described as attractive. The pull that entices his victims is psychic, not sexual. The playwrights made him dashing, attractive, and able to mingle with society. In other words, the image of the vampire as a sexy tempter comes completely from the Hollywood adaptation, not from Stoker’s book.
The second major change is the idea that Dracula can be harmed by sunlight. Stoker’s Dracula can walk around in full sunlight with no problem. This change actually came from F.W. Murnau’s movie Nosferatu. Since this plays a major part in the climax of the film, it becomes a major change that would continue in almost every single vampire film from this point forward.
Ultimately, the movie retains the feel of Stoker’s novel. Another interesting note is that after the Count leaves Transylvania, the rest of the film is shot on the studio lot indoors. It’s as if you’re watching a play, which totally suited the audiences of the time. Twenty years later, that would have to change. We’ll discuss this change next time, in Part Two.
In the meantime, if you haven’t read this iconic story, now’s the time…
Cary Christopher was born and raised in Florida and Georgia but has called Southern California home now for almost 20 years. He’s written extensively about music, movies and pop culture online and for various publications around SoCal. Now he primarily writes for his blog (www.carychristopher.com). His new novel The Wash is available on Amazon.
Link to my Amazon Authors Page: https://www.amazon.com/Cary-Christopher/e/B076FD8MJ3
After sixteen years as a paralegal, I staged a coup and left the straight-laced corporate world behind forever. I now pander to my muse, a sarcastic little so-and-so who delights in getting the voices in my head to either all speak at once in a cacophony of noise or to remain completely silent. Only copious amounts of Diet Cherry Dr. Peppers and hamburgers will ensure their complicity in filling my head with stories of serial killers, werewolves, and the things that live under your bed.
I live in SoCal, in the small town I fashioned Moonspell’s Wolf Creek after, with my beloved husband and persistently rowdy, always-has-to-have-the-last-word Miniature Pinscher, Fiona.
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