(Editor’s note: this review contains spoilers)
When considering an adaptation of a novel, we must first remember that it is always exactly that – an adaptation. We cannot expect to see an exact rendering of our own analysis of any text onscreen; any adaptation requires careful editing, curating and collaborative interpretation from the actors, writers, directors, set designers and everyone else involved. Writers particularly should always feel free to be creative with a text; too much adherence to the original means you end up with Stephen King’s awful film rendering of The Shining, instead of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece.
After the success of the Gatiss/Moffat reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the BBC recently invested in them to attempt Bram Stoker’s Dracula, presented to us in three ninety-minute episodes. In the first episode, we are in familiar territory to start. Set in the nineteenth century, the earnest Jonathan Harker travels to the strange and lonely castle where he encounters the ancient Count. Gatiss/Moffat soon veer off the text after this original setup, inventing a fictional backstory for the castle in line with the gothic tradition. This is maintained even with the new setting: the convent where Sister Agata (a small role in the novel, she takes care of Jonathan after his escape) has been recast as Van Helsing, the pompous male doctor and vampire hunter from the novel and previous adaptations. Despite Count Dracula being repositioned as what seems to be a villain from EastEnders (all flip remarks and knowing looks) Claes Bang manages to deliver a terrifying performance. In a particular highlight, he menaces nuns after emerging from the body of a wolf, writhing and naked and leering, smothered in blood, and the tension is almost unbearable.
Disappointingly, the direction of the adaptation discards any sense of gothic terror thence on. The nuns are gruesomely dispatched, and the next episode takes place entirely on the Demeter – the famous ship which carries the Count to Whitby, England. But instead of the creepy predation of the crew, Gatiss/Moffat seem to have instead delivered a pastiche of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. A range of passengers are introduced (not from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and most of the episode consists of the Count devouring people, with the rest of them trying to work out whodunnit. This brings me to the essential point about this adaptation: the entire thing appears to be an endless pastiche of any number of other writers. The more effective initial episode borrows heavily from Ann Radcliffe, who popularised gothic fiction in the late eighteenth century. Radcliffe’s novels often feature lost heroes and heroines wandering around a medieval castle, beset by a murderous, powerful villain, and who often take refuge in convents. The tone of Dracula’s lines appear to have been lifted from Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, (also eighteenth century) which is so gloriously horrific it becomes hilariously funny, although I can’t see that this production was deliberately comic. The castle is the same castle as Nosferatu, arguably the best adaptation of Dracula to date. Bang’s appearance is modelled on Christopher Lee’s iconic performance in the Hammer adaptations. When Sister Agata is asked to keep the Count talking, this scene has clearly been lifted from Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights. One of the characters on the boat is knowingly titled Lord Ruthven – a vampire famously modelled on Lord Byron himself in John Polidori’s nineteenth-century novel The Vampyre. I have to admit, I did like that allusion, but these constant references were tedious, messy and went nowhere.
In the final episode, the Count appears in England in present-day, and the following narrative is somehow a mix of tropes from BBC crime dramas, teen dramas like Skins on Channel 4, and films like Silence Of The Lambs. Although all writing inevitably has an element of intertextuality, this jumble of styles and stories isn’t postmodern or witty. It’s sloppy and somewhat vampiric in itself. Even the mythologised character of Count Dracula has simply been sucked into a bit of BBC money-making, which would have been acceptable had there been a thread to follow, a story of its own.
This sloppiness has a darker aspect too, in the depiction of any of the characters that are not straight white men. All the female characters have been stripped of any agency, and are instead insipid, weak, romantics. The only exception is Sister Agata Van Helsing, who adopts a male character’s name but ends up having sex with the Count in the final scene – I can only suppose that because she is a woman, that is the only way they could think of to end it. The black male characters, of course, die swiftly, with one wielding a gun. The Asian man is, of course, a doctor. The gay characters are fey and duplicitous. And so on.
This adaptation, therefore, is a disappointing mess. I write this now as a PhD researcher who is creatively rewriting a contemporary version of Dracula myself as part of my thesis, and I do not feel bound to adhere strictly to a perfectly faithful rendering of the text. However, what did Gatiss/Moffat do with the text? They reinforced stereotypes, copied previous writers’ styles, and produced a hodgepodge of nonsense. Was it comedy, a crime drama, horror? It ended up being none of these things and was certainly not the story of Dracula.
Much does not make sense in their version, even within the story they have chosen to write. The Count falls into the sea and is awakened in modern times because a scuba diver literally sticks his fingers in his mouth and the inevitable happens. The Count has a “special attraction” to Lucy, she is like “no other”, after five hundred years and the conclusion is that Lucy is “in love with death” – despite the fact that, on the contrary, the character seems to be having nothing but fun: partying hard, sleeping around and all in all living her best life. When she becomes a vampire, she sees only a beautiful reflection and not the haggard dead body she now inhabits, but for the Count the reverse is true. The finances of the “Jonathan Harker Foundation” are built up as some great mystery and then forgotten about. The last episode is called The Dark Compass, but there’s no compass, dark or otherwise, unless I missed it in all the chaos. There are many more inconsistencies, but there’s not enough space in my word count.
To conclude, Van Helsing dies of cancer, but tells the Count she’s got him all figured out, and after that, he commits suicide (surely to rise again in the next series) and they embrace as lovers in the afterlife, heading into the sun. Does that sound like an even vaguely interesting script to you, or instead a preposterous bit of hack work, that even the thrilling Claes Bang cannot bring to life?