Wednesday 20 October 2010

What Do You Mean You've Never Read...Dracula

It’s a story you think you know, as you’ve probably seen a hundred different movie versions, but have you actually read Bram Stoker’s original novel?

Originally published back in 1897, Dracula was far from a runaway success. Critics praised it highly, but it wasn’t until the film versions were released that Dracula became more well known in popular culture. This seems hard to believe now, but its literary significance wasn’t acknowledged. Readers of the time simply believed it to be a normal, run of the mill adventure story. The opposite is true today, with people spazzing out over the Lisbeth Salander novels like they’re the best thing since The Catcher in the Rye.

A very early example of “Found Horror” (utilising video footage, letters or journals in order to create a sense of mystery and realism, also seen in The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and virtually everything Lovecraft ever wrote), the story of Dracula’s attempt to invade England is told through a series of diary entries (mostly Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker and Dr Seward), newspapers clippings and letters. Unlike most examples of Found Horror being churned out today which only bring shoddy acting and migraine inducing camera work into play, Dracula’s journals and letters work two ways:

Firstly, as with the best of Lovecraft’s work, there is the sense that you have found something. As far as suspension of disbelief goes, there is no better method than tricking yourself into believing that the journal entry you’re reading really is a journal entry someone wrote decades and decades ago. Secondly, it also works to increase tension on a slightly more subliminal level.

If the story is told as a memoir in the first person, you are already relatively certain that the main character has survived, in some capacity, at least. If, however, the story is being pieced together from various scraps and pieces of evidence: you don’t have a clue what happens to someone until it happens! In the past on E14 we’ve discussed how important the “No one is safe” rule is, in horror (and we even discussed it with
Charlie “The Dead” Higson and Robert “The Walking Dead” Kirkman), and Dracula does it well, because you don’t even realise that that’s what it’s doing.

The novel begins as Jonathan Harker, a newly qualified English solicitor, journeying by train and carriage from England to Count Dracula's crumbling, remote castle; seeking to provide legal support to Dracula for a real estate transaction. At first enticed by Dracula's gracious manner, Harker soon discovers that he has become a prisoner. He also begins to see disquieting facets of Dracula's nocturnal life – such as a fascination with blood and creeping down walls.

One night while searching for a way out of the castle, and against Dracula's strict admonition not to venture outside his room at night, Harker falls under the spell of three wanton female vampires, the Brides of Dracula. He is saved at the last second by the Count, because he wants to keep Harker alive just long enough to obtain needed legal advice and teachings about England and London. Harker barely escapes from the castle with his life.

Not long afterward, a Russian ship, the Demeter, having weighed anchor at Varna, runs aground on the shores of Whitby, England, during a fierce tempest. All of the crew are missing and presumed dead, and only one body is found, that of the captain tied to the ship's helm.

What follows is a story of love, adventure and vampires kicking arse.

You may think you know the story, but believe me: you don’t. There hasn’t been a movie adaptation that has managed to be faithful in any way, shape or form. “But wait!” you cry, “What about the Francis Ford Coppola one? The one that claimed to be the most faithful adaptation ever?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, the Francis Ford Coppola one is the most faithful adaptation that there has ever been, but that’s a little bit like saying you’re the tallest man in Lilliput. The whole romance angle, the idea of Dracula and Mina being reincarnated souls, and Count Dracula being Vlad the Impaler are all embellishments that Francis Ford Coppola added. They are, in the words of the great Samuel J. Gopher “Not in the book, y’know”. You know, those elements that the whole film revolves around.

Do yourself a favour and check out the original. You won’t be disappointed.

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