Who was Francis Ford Coppola trying to kid? In naming his 1992 vampire movie Bram Stoker's Dracula, the famed director (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) was obviously suggesting that here at last, after many a prior celluloid adulteration, was the story of the bloodthirsty Transylvanian nobleman as originally told in the 1897 novel Dracula by the British writer Bram Stoker. So what happens? We are barely settled in our multiplex seats when we find that Coppola's film is based on a premise found nowhere in Stoker's novel--namely the idea that Dracula, as a mortal in the 15th century, has a beloved wife whom he loses to suicide; that the count then becomes a vampire as punishment for cursing God; and that his 19th-century lady victim is none other than his lost love reincarnated. Were he alive, Dracula's creator Stoker would surely ask Coppola, "Say what?"
But then Stoker never saw Boris Karloff, as the ancient Egyptian Imhotep, pursuing his lost love into the 20th century, in the 1932 horror film The Mummy. Had he seen such a story line, Stoker might have said, "Hmm. Why didn't I think of that?" So maybe Coppola (or his screenwriters) sort of thought of it for him.
That's Hollywood. Novels get invariably changed for the screen for dramatic purposes. The 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi was atmospheric, but followed more the stage play than the novel, and is now badly dated. Subsequent film versions of Dracula--seemingly all starring Christopher Lee, and the best probably being Hammer Films' 1958 Horror of Dracula--always found ways to short-circuit the original tale. But at least most of the films start out just as the novel does, with the English solicitor Jonathan Harker journeying into the Carpathian wilds of Transylvania to meet the mysterious count at his castle--and to encounter horror there that only we know awaits him. It's a perfect beginning, and the Mummy-like premise that opens Coppola's film is, to me, an unnecessary annoyance. That said, I suppose Coppola's dubiously titled movie (starring Gary Oldman as the count) is as good a dramatization of Dracula as we're likely to get. Certainly the story has never been more stylishly filmed.
I first read Stoker's novel as a kid while home in bed with the flu. I've never had more fun being sick in my life. It was a terrific read, which I have since repeated two or three times. If you have never read Dracula, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Yes, some of the characters' romantic emoting is overwrought, and, yes, the substandard English invented for Professor Van Helsing gets tiresome. (So he's Dutch. Couldn't he still speak good English, like his Transylvanian adversary?) But overall the book holds up marvelously. The fly-eating loony Renfield, for example, is a character as memorable as Dracula himself. And the story's horror is timeless.
You can start reading Dracula online here and now. But I would suggest picking up a good print edition instead. Something you can curl up with by a lamp in the quiet of the evening . . . while God only knows what may lurk outside by the window.
In the life of every mortal, for all of one's failures and disappointments, there is usually something one can point to with pride and say, "Well, at least I got that right." Bram Stoker, who made his living as an actor's secretary, was no literary genius. In his writing career Stoker penned some real stinkers, like The Lair of the White Worm and The Invisible Giant. But with Dracula, the bloke got it right.
Copyright 1999 by Ronald L. Ecker
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