I enjoyed NBC’s new Dracula series an inordinate amount. It was a fun, thrilling experience of storytelling and characterization. And it got me thinking that, despite happily watching various adaptations over the years, I’ve never actually read the original novel. What with it being public domain and all, I put the Project Gutenberg edition on my tablet and sat back to see how the original stacks up to its adaptations.
(If you haven’t already, you really should donate to support Project Gutenberg. They are doing an amazing job cataloguing and providing free access to public domain works.)
Dracula is essentially a psychological drama in epistolary format. But it’s more than that. It’s a complex tale of courage against an overwhelmingly dangerous force of nature (or, in this case, the supernatural). Bram Stoker harnesses a combination of European folklore, Gothic convention, and the shifting landscape of Victorian attitudes towards sexuality and machismo. For the modern reader, Dracula is an interesting portal into the past. Unfortunately, a number of factors work to undermine these strengths—namely, this book is very long, very sexist, and very poorly characterized.
While there’s nothing wrong with epistolary novels as a rule, in this case I found the writing could approach tedium at times. This is a relatively long book in which very little happens; its length is mostly a consequence of the extended descriptions Stoker uses to pad out his letters and diary entries. But my main objection to this format is simply that it constrains the way in which Stoker can reveal certain information, and so he occasionally has to find very contrived ways to shoehorn it into a telegram or letter.
The next thing that jumped out at me while reading was the crushing, latent sexism within the writing. Even by Victorian standards it’s somewhat laughable. There are some fairly tame phrases, such as Mina’s wish that “when we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan” through her mastery of shorthand and typewriting. But then there are gems such as Lucy’s lamentation: “My dear Mina, why are men so noble when we women are so little worthy of them?” (This is upon receiving not one but three proposals in the same day.)
Later on at the start of Chapter 8, Mina and Lucy consume a hearty meal, and Mina reflects that “I believe we should have shocked the ‘New Woman’ with our appetites. Men are more tolerant, bless them!” In the very same paragraph:
Some of the “New Women” writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself. And a nice job she will make of it, too! Tehre’s some consolation in that.
There’s always some danger in conflating an author’s personal opinions with the opinions expressed by characters. But Mina and Lucy are not the only characters to express these opinions; the men in the novel think much the same, and if Stoker disagreed with any of them, one would have hoped to see at least one character with more progressive politics. The very fact that Mina herself expresses these opinions belies any attempt to establish her as an independent and “strong” character.
So really, Dracula consists of two women becoming damsels in distress and a quintet of adventurous men working to save their souls, with one of the two women being allowed to help in a very reduced capacity.
To make matters worse, no one ever argues. Everyone goes on for pages and pages about how great, smart, thoughtful, and brave everyone else in the group is. Mina is so grateful to Jonathan and Van Helsing for being considerate of her womanly nature when making their plans. Arthur is so grateful that Dr Seward summons Van Helsing, whose diagnosis of vampirism requires them to decapitate and mutilate the corpse of Arthur’s fiancée. Jonathan is so grateful that Mina shares his secret journal full of mad tales with Van Helsing (whom she had just met, mind you).
When I started writing this review, I wanted to explain how Dracula is interesting in a psychological sense … the more I think on it, however, the less this seems to be true. Stoker doesn’t seem to care about creating realistic people in his characters, for they act instead like automatons, executing his plot with military precision. Everyone is melodramatic, enthusiastic. There is never any conflict in the group. Van Helsing consistently comes out with crazier and crazier theories and “facts”, and aside from Seward and Arthur’s initial bout of scepticism, no one ever stands up to him. (I love how Stoker blithely has him transfuse blood from himself and Seward in complete ignorance of blood types. It’s the kind of thing that could only ever be hilarious in an anachronistic sense.)
This lack of character conflict is very disappointing in a book that otherwise attempts to probe some of the darkest impulses of the human heart. Stoker’s decision to appropriate the vampire as his monster of choice was an inspired one. The vampire, after all, is sex, and Stoker was writing at a time when discussions of human sexuality and libido were still very much frowned upon. Dracula, though he is a monster to be vanquished through external force, represents the latent desires and appetites of the everyday person. He preys upon the feminine yet decidedly non-sexualized Lucy and Mina, and his defeat at the hands of Jonathan and company signifies the triumph of the traditional attitudes towards this subject over the more liberal ones. In this respect, Dracula has the potential both to scandalize and to reassure its contemporary reader.
Perhaps its single best contribution to literature, however, is as an example of how it is possible for material to inspire adaptations far superior to their source. These days, fans tend to be rather protective of source material—and I suspect this is largely a result of an abusive relationship with Hollywood. We tingle with excitement whenever an adaptation of a favourite novel or series is announced while simultaneously cringing at the thought of how Hollywood has “updated”, “tweaked”, or otherwise altered the material for consumption by the masses. And even in situations when the finished product receives acclaim, such as Game of Thrones, there are those who sniff at any significant departures from the source material, forgetting that translation can never be just transliteration.
Such is definitely the case with Dracula. This book has not aged well. It is a classic for its influence on the media that has come afterwards, but the novel itself is underwhelming. I enjoyed NBC’s new series substantially more—orders of magnitude more—even though it distorts Stoker’s narrative. Dracula is an example of how once something transcends its original form to become a cultural mainstay, it is no longer just about the original form: the modern conception of the vampire is a compelling idea we owe to Stoker, but it has grown up. You’re missing that much by missing out on this book. For the hardcore fans, it’s only a download away. For the rest of us, there are innumerable retellings and reimaginings, with more undoubtedly on the way.