The Evolution Of Dracula: From Vlad Tepes To A Cinematic Bloodthirsty Vampire
It goes without saying that today, after two centuries, Dracula seems to be truly immortal as he has become a ubiquitous popular culture icon, turning up in every medium from TV series to cartoons and comic books. Undoubtedly, he is one of the most filmed characters of all time with stiff competition from Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes.
However, the true essence of this fictional figure has been altered and lost in hundreds of adaptations that had transformed Dracula into a commercial character which took his place in the mainstream culture, leaving behind the profound themes, symbols and intricacies related to him.
Therefore, the aim of this study is to highlight the metanarrative of Bram Stoker’s novel which is a Gothic masterpiece about repressed fears, gender roles in Victorian society, the consequences of modernity and many other complex themes that are often overlooked.
In order to achieve this, I will begin by presenting Stoker’s main sources of inspiration (his feminist mother and the charismatic actor Sir Henry Irving), which lead him to build this hyperreal character. Not only that, but I will also focus on the disputed relevance of the notorious Romanian ruler 'Vlad the Impaler” and analyse to what extent it influenced Bram Stoker’s fantasy novel.
After investigating Dracula’s origins, I will analyse the most notable screen portrayals and determine which film adaptation captures best the intricate nature of this enigmatic character, by focusing on visual aspects (Dracula’s physical image, dominant features and psychological profile) and subtleties of the plot. Although it is seldom credited, the role of the “Dracula” novel in popular culture is very significant, and, consequently, I will conclude the essay with the impact the story has on the outside world.
In order to achieve an understanding of the context and the metanarrative, one needs to acknowledge the background of the author.
To begin with, during his childhood, Stoker has been confined to bed for 8 years and he was deeply affected by the sensation of relying upon a fixed abode for survival, fact which is echoed in the Count's dependence on his coffin and home soil. During this time, Bram Stoker became interested in horror literature due to his mother who would read for him stories about the cholera outbreak in Sligo in 1832, a terrifying disease similar to Dracula himself.
In 1867, Stoker attended a performance of “The Rivals” in Dublin where he encountered a great influence in his life, the physical embodiment of Count Dracula, the actor Henry Irving, who captivated Stoker by his aquiline features and charisma. Moreover, Irving is described as being austere and flamboyant and he was perceived by Stoker as a very assertive character, which draws a parallel to the trance-like dominance the Count has over Renfield. Interestingly, it is claimed that Dracula’s fangs were inspired by another friendship of Stoker, the one with Sir Richard Burton, who had peculiar canine teeth.
Vlad the Impaler
Stoker investigated vampire mythology and Gothic literary tradition for 7 years before writing the novel and his notes reveal the sources of information he used for research. Among those, there was one article Stoker has been mostly influenced by, entitled “Transylvanian Superstitions” written in 1885 by Emily Gerard, which familiarized the author with the term “Nosferatu”.
It has been highly debated if there is any real connection between Dracula and the Transylvanian-born Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler, but it is obvious that there are a lot of historical references throughout the novel.
During his reign (1456–1462) Vlad Tepes is said to have killed from 40,000 to 100,000 European civilians (political rivals, criminals), mainly by impaling, reason why he has become a bloodthirsty figure, similar to an antihero.
What is obvious is that the geographical coordinates correspond to the historical character, as well as the name ('Dracula') which is derived from a Chivalric order called the Order of the Dragon. There are several clues in the novel that point to Vlad III such as the passage in which the narrator mentions that Dracula fought against the Turks and was later betrayed by his brother or the one in which Professor van Helsing speculates on Dracula’s identity, idea reflected by the following quotation: “He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land.”
Dracula in Cinematography
As mentioned in the introduction, most of the novels’ qualities are lost in the making of a film and many of the adaptations produced in the 20th century fail to represent the psychoanalytic resonance in the story, the subtext and its intricacies. Given the visual nature of the film medium, it tends to deal more effectively with surfaces and appearances, with action and dialogue, than with subtilities and underlying themes.
However, the interesting aspect about all the alterations this character suffered is that The Count is built to have a chameleonic nature, Professor van Helsing himself pointing out that Dracula is a shapeshifter.
Experts on Dracula wrote a biography of Vlad the Impaler: “Dracula: Prince of Many Faces”, title which serves us well here, since, even in the relative handful of films under consideration, the Count comes to us in many guises: as a gaunt, rat-faced, pestilential presence, as a suave, tuxedoed Continental gentleman, a fierce aristocrat almost devoid of any trace of humanity, as a poisonous seducer; as a pseudo-Byronic lover, as a clown and even as a ballet dancer. He comes to us speaking German, English, Spanish and even his own native Romanian.
Notable screen portrayals
1922 - “Nosferatu”
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is the oldest surviving film version of the story, but, unfortunately, changing the character’s name was not enough to avoid conflict with Stoker’s estate, and all prints were ordered to be destroyed. Plagiarized or not, Nosferatu is, for much of its running time, debatably the closest, most brilliantly realized evocation of Stoker’s vision ever filmed.
Max Schreck starred as Orlok, a monstrous creature with rodent-like qualities, his face was strong, aquiline, with lofty domed forehead, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; The only substantial difference between Stoker’s description and the film’s interpretation is that the Count, in the novel, has white hair and a full moustache, while in the film, he’s totally bald.
Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi’s caped, aristocratic version of Count Dracula continues to be the most widely imitated representation of the character and it has become a pop-culture archetype. Despite its popularity, Bela Lugosi is miscast, overdressed and it is by no means any close to Stoker’s image of Dracula. Moreover, this film is not even an actual adaptation of Stoker’s novel, but a remake of the stage play by Deane and Balderston, which had been a hit in New York in 1927.
1953 - “Drakula Istanbul'da”
One of the earliest examples of a Turkish horror film, “Dracula in Istanbul” was the first to feature Dracula with fanged canine teeth. As far as The Count appearance is concerned, he is represented as being tall, thin, mostly bald and dressed in a tuxedo with a cape. It has also established a literal connection between the villain, played by Alif Kaptan and the historical figure Vlad the Impaler and, ironically it reveals the perspective of a country of which Dracula had already been a traditional enemy for centuries.
The real difference is that the Turkish film though relocating Dracula’s destination from Victorian-era London to contemporary Istanbul, is nonetheless more faithful to Stoker’s novel than the earlier films.
1958 - “Horror of Dracula”
Fortunately, this adaptation includes some symbolism as in the first frame of the film, the audience should observe a sculpture of an imperial eagle, which is a symbol of Dracula’s ancient martial heritage. One is reminded as well of the ancient tale of Prince Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, that during his reign he left a jewel-encrusted solid gold goblet next to a roadside spring for travellers to use, but nobody dared to steal it.
British actor Christopher Lee portrayed a well-spoken and finely dressed Count and continued to play the character more than any other actor. Now the question may arise: Is Christopher Lee what Stoker envisioned? In appearance he differs as he’s not an old man with white hair and a full moustache but his all-black attire coincides with Stoker’s portrayal. Overall, he corresponds to Stoker’s characterization: he is tall, lean, physically powerful, aristocratic, arrogant and utterly malevolent.
Horror of Dracula not only captures the essence of the novel, but it distils it and, ironically, while being one of the most freely adapted versions, it is one of the best.
1970 - “El Conde Dracula”
As far as the author Joslin (2006) is concerned, this adaptation is a “cheap-looking failure” because of the cast, dialogue, subtilities of the plot and the unconvincing, caricatural Dracula. Although it was not a Hammer film, Christopher Lee reprised his role in Count Dracula and improved the quality of the film though his acting. Another favourable aspect is that this is the first film to depict the vampire regaining his youth by drinking blood. This detail and the character’s moustache are elements from Stoker’s novel often ignored by other adaptations.
1973 - “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”
The first attempt to depict the Count sympathetically came in the 1973 television adaptation of Stoker’s Story starring Jack Palance. Dan Curtis, creator of the “Dark Shadows” series, adapted the show’s story of a vampire’s loved one being reincarnated for this version of Dracula.
As Dracula, Palance is nothing like Stoker’s vision of gaunt pallor, but he is no more miscast than many other actors have been. Withal, he acquaints himself well, conveying an air of quiet, soft-spoken menace combined with the physical power of a very old soldier. Hence, this is another adaptation, together with Drakula Istanbul’da to identify the Count as Vlad the Impaler. This is revealed by Johnathan Harker who discovers a heroic equestrian portrait identified by a plaque engraved with the words: “Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia, 1475”.
This film also highlights the theme of reincarnation, as, in the portrait described before there was a woman’s face included in the background which corresponds to the prince’s consort, Lucy Westernra, who is very similar to Mina, the main feminine character. Folklorically, the premise of the “reincarnation romance” is problematic because in myths most vampires were peasants; they were buried in shallow graves, where they were easily disposed of and their survival of death did not lead to eternal life. In addition, this concept is not even hinted in Bram Stoker’s novel, but, overall in this retelling of the tale, the spirit of Stoker’s novel survives
1979 - Dracula
Frank Langella starred in this 1979 version of Dracula, and his portrayal of the vampire was more enigmatic and seductive than ever before. Like Universal’s 1931 film, this adaptation was based on Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s stage play and was focused on the more romantic elements of the story and much of the action from the novel’s early chapters is transferred to England. Despite being an overlong, flawed version, it depicts strong visuals, an almost monochromatic ambiance of darkness and it is a beautifully mounted production.
1992 - Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Director Francis Ford Coppola attempted to create the most faithful adaptation possible, but added an introduction with Vlad becoming the vampire and also utilized the reincarnation love story (Gary Oldman portrayed Dracula both as an ancient vampire and with his youth restored). Notwithstanding, as Joslin (2006) claims, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a “deeply frustrating film” and despite the budget and talent invested in the project, the result is an overlong, confusing film in which virtually nothing works from beginning to end. “Wretched excess is the only aesthetic. It’s filmed in a frenzied, would-be fever-dream style replete with gimmicky dissolves and rapid-fire editing, a visual idiom more suited to mid- ‘80s music videos and wildly inappropriate for an adaptation of a 19th century novel”.
2014 - Dracula untold
Dracula Untold stars Luke Evans as Vlad, the man who will become Dracula. The origin story focuses entirely on the character’s fictional transformation from man to legendary vampire. The first in a potential reboot for all of Universal’s monster films, this update looks to recreate a historically accurate 15th century setting.
Stoker never lived to see the full impact that his novel had on popular culture and how nowadays it is regarded as a Gothic fiction masterstroke, and possibly one of the greatest sellers in the history of the written world.
Up to this point, I have been analysing if the metanarrative of Dracula has been distorted by the mainstream culture and to what extent the hypnotic charm and the embodiment of the social and psychoanalytic fears have been conveyed by the screen adaptations of the novel. In addition to this, taken as a piece of feminist commentary, “Dracula” is a revelation, as it is a bold exposition of the Victorian ideals of gender identity, it secretly painted a picture of a “New Woman” (the character Mina) being the best hope against a threat to society in the form of sexual predation. Stoker is producing a proclamation of the ideal femininity. The depictions of the two sexes are violently inverted and distorted which can be regarded as Stoker's reaction to the Victorian paradigm. In this case, Coppola's film adaptation came closest, with all characters exemplifying the sexual tension throughout and adding a vaguely hysterical metanarrative. The previous adaptations were mostly unaffecting by comparison to the potential of the story, but they appealed to a mass audience and from the start of Dracula's film career onwards, the trajectory, along with the budgets and flamboyancies, increased with severity.
For experts and cultural scholars, Stoker's novel has been a treasure box in which each one of them has found a different meaning, such as: an embodiment of the Freudian id, a response to the New Woman archetype, an expression of latent homosexuality and a hyperbolic instance of Victorian anxiety over the potential fluidity of gender roles, as anxiety over colonialism and racial mixing and as a figure of monopoly capitalism.
Stoker's book has spawned a myth and culture which is so ubiquitous that it extends beyond 'household name' status the vampire is now a staple apparition in our society.
Not only films transformed the way the world perceives Dracula, as he became as popular as to appear in British cartoons (“Count Duckula”) , Lucha Libre films (“Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man, 1973) animated sequels (Hotel Transylvania, 2012), “The Simpsons” as a member of the Republican Party and even on cereal boxes (“Count Chocula”).
On a better note, there are thousands of books involving various reincarnations of the Count, the latest, and easily most successful being the books of Anne Rice who has brought the vampire into the modern age of computers, sexually transmitted diseases and terrorism, whilst all of the same issues of lust, repressed fears and gender identity are as relevant and appropriate as they were in Victorian Britain. Hence, Stoker approached sensations, emotions and social issues that were timeless and suitable for our society, addressing many universal questions about our psychological complexity and lifestyles.
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