Monday, March 02, 2009

Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' (1992)

Dean and I watched this movie last night - I'd picked it up for $5.00 during my wanderings past the discount dvd bin in Walmart's. I'd heard it wasn't very good, but I wanted to see for myself. I found that it confirmed an observation I have made in the past, one that I go so far as to name "Mabuse's Law": Any movie that contains the author's name in a possessive form in the title is a stinker. Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'"(1994) and Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre' are the other big entries in this dubious category; I am always on the lookout for more.

You'd think that a movie that advertises it's connection with the original source material would be agonizingly scrupulous about adhering to that source. You'd worry that it might be SO close to the book, it fails as a movie. Not in this case. The movie hangs on to the names of the characters as well as the geographical locations, but then flies off into a completely anachronistic and ahistoric retelling that has almost nothing to do with the original story.

It begins with a back story about Dracula, drawn from records about the original Vlad the Impaler who inspired the legend. This is interesting, but it isn't actually in the book; Stoker wasn't that concerned about establishing a real-life historic grounding for his story. It also purports to show how Dracula lost his soul - he abjured God after the death by suicide of his beloved wife. It isn't clear how this would turn you into a vampire, but maybe after he was kicked out of the Orthodox Church he began hanging around with a bad crowd. The thing about these old legends is that they seldom have a definite starting point; Dracula wasn't the first vampire, he was just the greatest of that evil race. Evil is always around, and no generation is free from it. I always assumed that Dracula was "initiated" into vampirism the same way he initiated others - it's an endless cycle, an ugly parody of the way life is transmitted from generation to generation.

But nowadays people don't want to accept something as matter-of-fact and prosaic as "evil just exists". It's got to have a "root cause", and Dracula's was disappointed love. This attempt at "understanding" disarms us from the beginning; now it's no longer enough just to hate and fight evil, because that shows us to be limited and unfair. Cooperating with evil is still not approved, but now those who fight have to do it with a long face and regretful sighs ( not to mention "proportionate response"). In this movie, the vampire-fighters are only valiant insofar as they are ignorant - those who "know" Dracula (especially Mina) immediately become ambiguous about fighting him, and not because they are deceived and deluded by his evil spell. No, they know the truth, and that puts them on his side.

The movie changes ALL the characters, not just Dracula. The two women, Lucy and Mina, are unrecognizable, and completely assimilated to 20th-century prejudices and sensibilities. It seems the hardest thing in the world is for modern people to take the way people lived in an earlier era, and just accept the fact that they meant it. Mina and Lucy were Victorian women - they thought and acted in a certain way, and part of that included modesty and reticence about sex. The director just flatly refuses to take them seriously. He is convinced that they acted the way they did because they couldn't help it, and he is going to set them free! So we have Mina and Lucy, in their first scene, tittering over pornographic illustrations in a book of 'The Arabian Nights'. I could barely exclaim indignantly that a decent Victorian household with young girls in it wouldn't even POSSESS such a book, before their conversation went on to "Do men and women actually DO that?" "Oh, *I* did it last night!" seethes sexpot Lucy, "In my dreeeeeeeams! Teehee!" It was such an impossible scene, I was speechless.

This character assassination of Lucy only got worse. She writhed and wriggled in front of her three suitors, who stood there like tailor's dummies. No decent man of that era would ever dream of marrying a brazen harlot like Lucy, but they act as if this is perfectly normal behaviour. I think I can follow the thought process that led to this total misinterpretation of the character. Anyone who reads the book is aware of the strong stream of suppressed sexuality that flows under the surface. The director tapped into that, and then decided that he would "improve" on the original text, by writing the story that Stoker would have written, if only he hadn't been constrained by his era. In doing so, he reveals that he has a crude, limited imagination, and regards anything non-modern as somehow defective. Victorians repressed impulses because they thought they ought to, not because they were helpless victims of their era. I'm sure individual people crossed back and forth over the line of what society demanded and what they personally believed all the time, but modern people act as if nobody but us ever had any choice about what they wanted their society to be like. Stoker wouldn't have thanked Coppola for "setting free" his theme in this way; he'd have been shocked and disgusted, and probably would have failed to recognize his own story. Repressed, controlled sex WAS sex to Victorians; it wasn't just a makeshift until the real thing came along in the next century. Rewriting it to say "what Stoker really meant to say" is ludicrous; it reminds me of an SCTV episode featuring a game show quiz:
Alex-What American writer wrote 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' and went by the name 'Mark Twain'?
Kathy: Samuel L. Clark
Alex: Ooh, no, Kathy, the answer is 'Samuel L. Clemens'.
Kathy: That's what I said.
Alex: No, Kathy, you said 'Samuel L. Clark'; the answer is 'Clemens'.
Kathy: Well, that's what I meant!
Alex: Well, you didn't say it! You have to SAY the answer to get the point!

The "sex thing" continues to bedevil the story, all the way to the end. Coppola can't seem to get over his own cleverness in dragging to the surface this not-so-well-hidden theme, and he flings it onto the screen like the bucketloads of blood that go with the story. The women Dracula victimizes are forever wriggling and writhing in orgasmic ecstasy. They never seem even faintly afraid of dying, let alone damnation - the men who come charging in with homemade blood transfusions seem to be irrelevant buzzkills, who can't tell when they're crowding out someone else's action.

Poor Lucy isn't even safely in her glass coffin before Coppola starts in on Mina. It turns out she's the reincarnation of Dracula's long-lost love! Even while he's draining Lucy dry, he's stalking Mina through London, and manages to capture her heart, while Jonathan is still trapped in the castle in Transylvania. That's another anachronism - that a nice young woman would start openly going out with another man, eating with him in public restaurants, and attending newfangled cinema parlours (where, naturally, the exhibits are pornographic peepshows). It's just so ridiculously out of synch with the actual era.

Anyway, she falls in love with Dracula, only to get word that Jonathan has been found and needs her help, so she breaks off her romance with Dracula and departs for Europe, tossing his love letters into the ocean as she sails away. She marries Jonathan in a beautiful Orthodox marriage ceremony, but this is undermined from the start because she's still hankering after her mysterious prince. It's hard to believe that we're supposed to regard Mina as a heroine, when she's portrayed as a dishonest liar, solemnly marrying a man she doesn't love, but I suppose Coppola regarded Victorian attitudes to marriage as as disposable as their views on sex.

Back to London, and the story starts to wind to its conclusion, as Dracula finds Mina again and starts to vampirize her just as he did Lucy. They follow Stoker's story pretty well for the brief part that covers Dracula's retreat back to Transylvania, and the heroes' race across Europe as they try to intercept him before he reaches his castle. Then the movie goes right off that rails at the very end. Mina turns against Jonathan and Van Helsing, and completely becomes the long-lost 15th-century bride of Dracula, trying to help him make it back home before the heroes can kill him. It's a close-run thing, and they manage to drive a stake partly through his heart, and half cut off his head before she holds them at bay. "Would you do the same thing to me?" she demands of Jonathan? Instead of answering, "Of course, if you became an accursed vampire like Lucy" he stammers "No." What the hell? Even Van Helsing falls apart at this moment, blabbering, "We have all become God's madmen!" whatever that means. No, I'm not even going to bother trying to figure it out. They leave the two "lovers" to retreat into the castle, where Mina delivers the coup de grace to Dracula, though why it's alright now when it was outrageous 2 minutes earlier I don't know. Somehow her love makes it all okay. And somehow they're "together" even though she stops being a vampire in training once he dies. The movie ends at this point, though I wondered if she walked outside and asked her husband-in-name-only for a lift back to London, or if she found that they'd already left by the time she and Vlad had finished their weepy goodbyes. I certainly had the impression that Jonathan had pretty much ceded all claim to her by the time the fight ended, and they all assumed she was going to stay there in the castle.

8 Comments:

Blogger Priscilla said...

I hate books, movies, or made-for-TV's that re-write classic stories with characters reacting to 19th century (or earlier) situations with 21st century attitudes. It just never rings true.

12:11 pm  
Blogger Andrea said...

I found the movie visually stunning but emotionally and spiritually tawdry. Notice how all the good characters were trashed -- not just Lucy and Mina, but the men as well. Van Helsing got off the best, but Jonathan Harker and the Lucy's three young suitors were turned into caricatures. My special favorite was the way the young doctor, whose name I forget (I have packed the book away!) was turned into a drug addict for no reason that I could see -- it's just I guess Coppola wanted to put something in there about how people in Victorian times liked to shoot up on morphine or whatever. The best performance, strangely enough, was Tom Waits' as Renfield. He was so good it was like he was from another movie.

12:48 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

You're right - Renfield WAS good. And the pity is, he was totally robbed of the importance he had in the original story. The performance was worthy of a better script; Renfield is supposed to be a key element in Dracula's plan to capture Mina. His redemption comes when her goodness brings him back to the right side, and he tries to defend her, by keeping Dracula from using his cell as an "entry point" to the hospital. Since the movie didn't bother to show all the precautions Van Helsing had taken to keep Dracula out (the garlic was shown only once, where in the book it's everywhere), and since Mina had already been undermined as a symbol of goodness, Renfield lost his importance to the plot. He became just a sort of mad Greek chorus. Dracula's accusation that he had "betrayed" him made no sense at all; he didn't need Renfield in the end, Renfield couldn't do anything to try to save Mina, and Mina didn't want to be saved anyway.

1:20 pm  
Blogger Kasia said...

Interesting.

This goes to show the folly of seeing a movie like that without having read the book first. I remember having seen this one (along with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) in the theater when they came out, and as an 18 or 19 year old, I remember having been caught by the "visually stunning" elements that Andrea alludes to. And since I hadn't read either of the books, I had no idea (apart from, I recall, being a little skeptical about Winona Ryder's enthusiastic necking with her fiancé) that the movies were unfaithful to the books, much less how spectacularly unfaithful they managed to be.

Apparently I need to add both of those to my reading list. (After Lent.)

2:30 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

'Dracula' is definitely worth reading, despite it's dated format. It's an epistolary novel, much beloved by the earlier Victorians, and is made up of people's letters, diary entries, medical reports, news reports, you name it. But it's still "got it" - you can still get caught up in the story. If the movie had been called 'Francis Ford Coppola's 'Dracula'' I wouldn't have liked it any more, but at least it wouldn't be dishonest advertising.

As mentioned, the whole "reincarnation of the lost wife" theme is completely invented. I was looking at the book this evening, to see if I could find the germ that grew into the abomination that was the movie-Lucy, and I honestly don't see it. I've read analyses of 'Dracula' that claim that Lucy is a 'carnal' character, and so that makes her vulnerable to Dracula, but that still seems to me to be over-drawing her character. Lucy in the book is very sweet, a little frivolous, but also earnest and sincere, in a very childlike way. She says things like "I wish I could marry all three of my suitors", but it's not because she's so highly sexed - she's so sorry that she has to hurt anyone's feelings by turning down two of the marriage proposals, she wishes she could make it better by marrying them all!

She and Mina are bit like David Copperfield's Dora and Agnes, respectively. Lucy is a petted darling, but there's no evil in her. She's definitely weaker than Mina, but then Mina is a thorough heroine! She's everything - she's the Victorian 'Angel of the Hearth', faithful and loving to Jonathan, and she's also his partner, sharing his burdens. She's learned shorthand, to help him in his work when they're married; she transcribes the dictaphone records relating to the case. Theirs is clearly going to be a model marriage in every way. And I think that's why poor Lucy falls victim to Dracula - she doesn't have the inner resources, steadfast faith and courage to resist him, but who does? Only a rare and unique heroine like Mina. Coppola ruins Lucy, turns her into such a blatant moral weakling she's practically asking for it.

9:50 pm  
Blogger Allen Lewis said...

That is modern Hollywood for you. These narcissists cannot resist re-writing classic works of literature and turning them into psycho-sexual fantasies.

Such egoists they are!

10:50 pm  
Anonymous lucy-fireangel said...

i admitt that although coppola's version of the classic Stoker novel was a little off tracks,it nevertheless made an enjoyble watch...gary oldman's passionate potrayal of the intimidating,yet spectacular count waiting for the return of his long lost wife was perfect.the same goes for sir Hopkins whose portrayal of the eccentric yet capable doctor was good.ANDin the victorian age it was believed that dennoncing god the master of one's soul would automatically give the DEVIL (antigod) mastery over your soul.VAMPIRES are an inversion of christ the son and messanger of god(christ gave his blood 4 the people & vampires take the blood from the people)so if u r god's favourite(like christ)u give your blood for people&if u r devil's favourite(like dracula)u take their blood(blood also signifies life)and count dracula was believed to be the first and strongest of the vampires becoz he is said to have pleased the devil by demanding half of the latter's powers(and that half was probably the half that took away the blood=life from people).and if u feast on blood,u r living on life itself and so u can have LIFE4ever.i hope my info was helpful to u.thank you.

11:33 pm  
Anonymous lucy-fireangel said...

i admitt that although coppola's version of the classic Stoker novel was a little off tracks,it nevertheless made an enjoyble watch...gary oldman's passionate potrayal of the intimidating,yet spectacular count waiting for the return of his long lost wife was perfect.the same goes for sir Hopkins whose portrayal of the eccentric yet capable doctor was good.ANDin the victorian age it was believed that dennoncing god the master of one's soul would automatically give the DEVIL (antigod) mastery over your soul.VAMPIRES are an inversion of christ the son and messanger of god(christ gave his blood 4 the people & vampires take the blood from the people)so if u r god's favourite(like christ)u give your blood for people&if u r devil's favourite(like dracula)u take their blood(blood also signifies life)and count dracula was believed to be the first and strongest of the vampires becoz he is said to have pleased the devil by demanding half of the latter's powers(and that half was probably the half that took away the blood=life from people).and if u feast on blood,u r living on life itself and so u can have LIFE4ever.i hope my info was helpful to u.thank you.

11:40 pm  

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