Comparison: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Francis Ford Coppola Film, Essay Example

Abstract

The innate difficulties in bringing a work of fiction to the screen are many, and even the most successful cases of adaptations must find ways to translate, rather than recreate.  This is inescapable due to the visual core of film, as opposed to the textual of the novel.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula, however, may be said to be an ideal property for such adaptation, as its story of terror and the supernatural moves in a powerful course.  It is a story with strong elements of character, mood, style, and irony, and these will be seen in the following as both reflected in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film version, and extended by him as well.  While no adaptation to the screen may be perfectly faithful to the novel, the film nonetheless is true to the basics of story, even as it expands on mood, symbolism, and character through the power of what film can offer visually.

Francis Ford’s Coppola’s Dracula achieves the singular effect of honestly presenting Stoker’s classic novel to the screen while recreating it to fully meet the advantages of film.

Contents

Introduction                                                                                                                          4

Story and Characters                                                                                                           4-9

Settings, Tone, Mood, and Irony                                                                                          9-13

Style, Symbolism, and Climax                                                                                              13-14

Conclusion                                                                                                                            14-15

Works Cited                                                                                                                          16

Introduction

The adaptation of virtually any novel into film presents significant creative issues.  The medium of the book, in plain terms, is vastly different from that of the movie.  It relies on only written language to create character, mood, and story, and it requires the reader to add dimension to these elements.  Then, the novel is capable of detail and complexity, as the author is free to add layers to all components of the tale.  Film, on one level, is then ideally suited for translating fiction because the richly visual medium can supply substance to these elements of tone and character, in essence “doing the work” necessary for the reader.  It also has the advantage of using musical scoring and style of direction to emphasize what is most important to the story.  At the same time, however, film also faces the immense challenge of condensing.  Dialogue aside, the writing that makes the novel what it is must be largely discarded, and the film must find a way to bring the author’s complete vision to life that is very much removed from writing.

These challenges in place, it is not surprising that many film adaptations of novels fail, at least in terms of being faithful to the novel.  Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is then all the more unique.  Viewed as an artistic interpretation, the movie actually succeeds in being true to a great deal of Stoker’s vision while amplifying key components of it not immediately evident.  As the following will explore, Coppola chooses to alter and revise multiple aspects of the novel, even while adhering to the story’s basic trajectory, in order to translate a largely epistolary work into richly visual narrative form.  The result is that Francis Ford’s Coppola’s Dracula achieves the singular effect of both honestly conveying Stoker’s novel to the screen while recreating it to fully meet the advantages of film.

Story and Characters

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897,  does not easily fit into one genre of novel.  It is an adventure, a morality tale, a thriller, and a fantasy dealing with the supernatural.  These aspects then render it highly theatrical, a fact emphasized by the natures and size of the major characters. To begin with, the tale itself is presented only as a series of journal entries, logs, and letters.  The trajectory is smooth and the events follow in chronological order, beginning with Jonathan Harker’s account of his journey to do business with the Count.  From  here, and in Harker’s words, the young lawyer experiences unthinkable dread, and the Count’s role as the evil element seeking to penetrate the world of London is revealed.  As the Count carries out his plans, Harker and his associates are deeply drawn into the intrigue and violence overtaking their own world of London.  Drawn into the story are Harker’s fiancee, Wilhelmina, or Mina; her friend Lucy Westernra; Lucy’s fiance Arthur Holmwood; Renfield, the lunatic who becomes an avatar of Dracula; and Abraham Van Helsing, a professor called in to help by Jack Seward, a doctor and former student of his.  Rounding out the primary players is Quincy Morris, an American adventurer who, like Seward, is romantically interested in Lucy.  As the story evolves, Lucy is sacrificed to the Count’s desires, and the men act in concert to then rescue Mina from a similar fate.  Ultimately, they succeed when, in pursuing Dracula to his Transylvanian home, they effectively end his unnatural life.  The tale concludes with Harker and Mina as living on happily, with Mina diligently recording the bizarre events.  Their son is named after Quincy, who lost his life in the slaying of the Count.  This is, its various characteristics as thriller and adventure aside, a novel that adheres to a traditional format of proceeding in a linear way.  The device of journals and letters does not impede this; on the contrary, they give an added momentum and urgency to the unfolding drama.

In a sense, this foundation of a linear narrative is fully used by Coppola in his film, even as it may be argued that he relies on it too heavily.  This alteration of actual story occurs through Coppola’s choices in, or emphasis on, meaning.  More exactly, there is a great deal of actual information presented in the novel that the film ignores.  For instance, the character of Van Helsing, appearing in the novel at a critical junction and playing a pivotal role, is not even introduced in the film; rather, he simply appears, as though Coppola trusts that his audience already understands the function of this man who is knowledgeable about vampires (Day  75).  Stoker’s Van Helsing is established to the reader; Coppola’s is undefined save by the active part he plays in the hunting of the beasts.  In actual terms of story, the novel, while supernatural, is firmly planted in realistic presentation of scene and action.  There is insanity and extreme violence, but it is on a human landscape.  Coppola’s shifts the story by exploring it more as fantasy, setting aside the practical realities for the sake of revealing dimensions: “Coppola erases the conventional lines of time and space, the division between physical and mental realities”  (Day 75).  The Jonathan Harker of the novel, for example, may question his own sanity while trapped by the Count:  “Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for, that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already” (Stoker  56).  The film is uninterested in this speculation; rather, it prefers to leave unknown where Harker’s delusions’ end and the horrible reality begins.  It is interesting, for example, to observe how Coppola alters the incident of Harker shaving.  The scene is important in both novel and film as a means of emphasizing Harker’s awareness of the evil around him.  In Stoker, the scene is brief; Harker realizes that the Count is in the room, even though he cannot see him in his mirror, and the Count only teasingly warns him about the dangers of cutting himself.  Here, Coppola chooses to add, not edit, and the film uses multiple camera angles to draw out Harker’s allowing Dracula to actually shave him (Dracula).  It is reasonable to assume that Coppola does this to reinforce the hero’s Victorian dread of intimacy or sexuality, as well as heighten the suspense, but it also nonetheless reveals Coppola’s ambition to change the flow of the story.

What ultimately marks the difference in story between the film and the novel, however, is not the license Coppola takes in expanding or discarding incidents.  It far more lies in perspective, which is crucial to the story’s flow itself and which is powerfully connected to how the characters are portrayed in each medium.  In Stoker, it is important to note that the Count only speaks as a documented presence.  Harker, Mina, Seward, Quincy, and others speak directly to one another; only the Count is denied the opportunity to present himself.  In the novel, then, the Count is far more objectified and consequently more an element of fear; lacking the voice to present himself, he is, despite being extensively quoted, denied the advantages of taking a full place as a shaper of the narrative.  Film inevitably changes this radically.  As Coppola’s Count commands many scenes and guides the actual action, he has in fact more dimension than the other participants.  He is here not the thing spoken of, recalled, hunted, and feared, but the thing that creates the need for these reactions.  This enormous shift in perspective then alters the emphasis of the book, and serves to validate Dracula’s character as viable, if not more so, than any other.  This element of perspective also impacts the story in other ways, as do tone and style, explored shortly.  When the central character’s role is changed, there are then changes in the presences of the other characters, which goes to the essence of the story.  For example, the Van Helsing of the novel is well-defined and rooted in reality.  If what he must do is disagreeable or frightening, he invariably attacks it with the passion and commitment of a man certain of his duty, as when he and Arthur attend to the corrupted Lucy and Van Helsing pragmatically gives instructions: “’Come now and be silent.  You shall kiss her once before it is done, but then you must go, and you must leave at my sign’”  (Stoker  194).  In a sense, Stoker’s Van Helsing is symbolic.  As the other characters frantically try to deal with a nightmare scenario, he is assured because he has a background in accepting horror and the unnatural.  He also is unshakeable in his convictions.  Stoker’s Van Helsing is the agent for Christian good and Western science, and there is nothing vague or ambiguous about him  (Holte  87).  With Coppola, this core of certainty is weakened, and Van Helsing undergoes fear and doubt, and also can be foolish.  In his dinner scene with Harker and Mina, for example, following the slaying of Lucy, he is somewhat arrogant and indiscreet.  This alteration of character then affects the story by weakening a central support, that of Van Helsing’s implacable power and integrity.

Ultimately, as character is changed in the film, the story does not specifically alter, but the foundations for it do.  More exactly, when shades of meaning and motive are either added or removed, more than style is affected because motivation is integral to story.  How this occurs in the transition from the Stoker novel to the Coppola film may be most clearly seen in the character of Mina.  Jonathan Harker himself, in both film and book, is something of a necessary cypher.  He exists as spectator and victim, a moral center, yet a man constantly distressed by what he must record and deal with.  It is, in plain terms, a fully reactive role.  Mina, conversely, is very dimensional in Stoker, and in defined terms.  She is above all a good young woman, and highly intelligent.  As her journal entry of Chapter Six relates, she is fixed on attaining the happiness of the life she anticipates with Jonathan, even as her naturally curious mind is intrigued by all around her.  Mina’s steadiness of character and virtue are in fact seized upon by Jonathan when he finds himself trapped in the castle with Dracula’s demon brides: “Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common.  They are the devils of the Pit!” (Stoker 82).  Coppola’s Mina, however, is not quite so perfect.  With Harker and in her normal settings, she is very much a self-possessed young woman in love.  At the same time, and largely owing to Winona Ryder’s portrayal, this is a girl very interested in pursuing the forbidden (Holte  87).  In the scene in which Dracula offers his blood to her to drink, there is a transformation going beyond his sudden biting of her neck.  More exactly, there is the strong sense that this Mina welcomes the opportunity to embrace evil (Dracula).  As the salvation of Mina is a primary element in the story, the story itself is changed.  The Stoker presentation of a more direct need to save innocence from evil is transformed into a tale in which other possibilities are, at least to the primary characters, evident, if not uniformly desired.  In simple terms, and reinforcing the force of character change as changing story, a Mina not entirely eager to be saved, or at least ambiguous in her true desires, adds complexity which then reshapes the narrative itself.

Settings, Tone, Mood, and Irony

It may be argued that if Coppola’s film at least partially relies on its audience’s understanding of the Stoker novel, so too does the novel itself rely on the Victorian sensibilities of its time.  How each work manipulates and takes advantage of these elements illustrates how the gulf in the time periods of creation is vastly important.  Moreover, the distinctions themselves between novel and film are revealed most strongly in setting, tone, and mood.  With regard to setting itself, the novel is of an age and place unlike any other.  Stoker was very much a late Victorian, and the full thrust of how that era shaped ideologies and art is conveyed through his confidence in his settings.  It is all, in a word, completely English in its approach here, with a Victorian’s assumption of viewing place and landscape as based on English ideals.  In Mina’s journal, for example, there is the classic young Englishwoman’s delight in a country scene as she describes Whitby: “This is a lovely place.  The little river, the Esk, runs through as deep valley” (Stoker  97).  For the Victorians, the power and size of London was a source of great pride, as it represented British achievement in all things.  At the same time, there remains the balanced appreciation of nature, so coming into prominence in 19th century British sensibilities (Knoepflmacher, Tennyson 388).  Stoker is clearly a man of his time and place, and further evidence of this lies in how he describes the alien landscapes of Transylvania.  There is little or no wonder at the strangeness of what another culture may develop, or how its people live; instead, even those scenes described as being compelling are referred to in a way indicating disapproval, if not disgust.  Everything related to Count Dracula is unnatural, and partially because it does not fall within the parameters of the Victorian ideas of Englishness as infallibly correct.  Appearance and clothing are judged by Stoker in the same discriminating fashion, through the eyes of his characters.  The important aspect of this is that Stoker is able to take for granted shared perceptions.  He does not need to qualify Harker’s disdain for the Count’s castle, as grand as it is, because Stoker may safely assume that his readers are as one with Harker, and would be similarly displeased by the unearthly and bizarre world of the Count.

For the film, this acceptance of a shared sensibility cannot of course exist.  Coppola has two, not one, alien landscapes to present to his modern audience, and he indulges in the opportunities in as lavish and visually excessive a way as possible.  As will be seen, this then goes to creating irony and point of view in specific ways, but for now it is only necessary to note that Coppola essentially “explodes” the settings of Stoker, amplifying each to its utmost.  This is as true of London as it is of Transylvania, for Coppola’s London is a strange, highly artificial, and yet earthy place.  Harker, Mina, and Van Helsing are of a certain class, and adhere to the behaviors of this station; at the same time, as in the restaurant scene with the three, Coppola refuses to settle for anything like normalcy in the setting.  As they discuss, in mostly polite language, what has happened to Lucy and what is to come, there is a heavy emphasis on the red, fatty roast beef being eagerly eaten by Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing.  Then, the camera occasionally moves to reveal the disapproving glances of those nearby who can hear this disturbing conversation.  In only an English restaurant setting, then, Coppola links the elements of savagery and shock that Harker himself feels in the nightmare world of Dracula.  As to the Count’s home and land itself, Coppola truly takes Stoker’s exclamations of interest, disapproval, and disbelief as expressed in Harker’s writings and exercises little restraint.  These scenes are very much dreams of dark colors and larger-than-life rooms and furnishings, all tinged with menace.  Then, Dracula’s wardrobe, the appointments and shadows of the halls, and the vast and menacing landscape beyond are all, in a word, fantastic.  For example, Stoker does not describe the Count as first seen by Harker as excessively odd:  “A tall, old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere” (Stoker  25).  He is striking certainly, but by no means the bizarrely wigged, robed, ghastly creature Coppola’s Harker, Keannu Reeves, encounters.  The director in a sense actually collaborates with Stoker here, in bringing to fuller life what Harker notes only as odd.  This is abetted by Coppola’s famous extrapolating of Stoker’s reference to a strangeness about Dracula’s shadow, which in the film takes the form of an entity all its own, only partially mirroring the motions made by its owner.  Then, and also in a way supporting Stoker’s Victorian confidence, all scenes in the film are rich in texture and physical dimension.  Coppola’s England is also true to the Victorian ideal of bustling, important, and complex. In plain terms, setting, which is so pivotal to mood, may be said to be laid out in a relatively sparing, or non-sensational, way by Stoker, and transformed by Coppola into a visual panorama giving color and shape to the fantastic.

In both novel and film, it is inherently difficult to examine a single component without referencing others, as setting in each then establishes varying levels of irony.  As noted earlier, and appropriately, Coppola is far more poised to offer ironic counterpoint, if only because he is drawing on a classic source dependent on the ideologies of its time and place.  Consequently, and as is evident for most of the film, Dracula is a virtual study in irony.  In subtle ways and moments, Coppola makes a statement regarding the “evil” lust of Dracula as contrasted by the desires of Harker, Arthur, and Seward for Mina and Lucy, respectively.  Some measure of this may be identified in Stoker as well, as in Harker’s mentioned contrast of his Mina with the Count’s brides.  With Coppola, however, the irony is more substantial, and this occurs more through Mina’s ambivalence, as well as Lucy’s more willing submission.  Stoker does present Lucy as something more than a deeply unfortunate victim.  She is the virgin sacrifice, in a sense, to give added urgency to the saving of Mina.  At the same time, Stoker gives her ironic layers seized upon by Coppola.   In the novel, she seems to walk a line between appreciating virtue and being bored by it.  She writes to Mina of her devotion to Arthur, but her attractions to Seward and Quincy are strong:  “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many that want her?” (Stoker  92). Coppola translates this dreamy flirtatiousness into a kind of repressed lust, played well by Sadie Frost.  What is critical to both works, however, is that hidden desires within women run contrary to the efforts of the men so desperate to save their virtue.

Irony then infuses tone and mood.  Stoker, naturally, must rely a great deal on the reactions of his characters to create the feeling of each scene. Then, the device of telling the tale through journals and letters greatly goes to setting in motion the momentum toward danger, which infuses a consistent tonal quality; even when letters are innocent, that ignorance heightens the dark mood established as looming over all.  When Harker describes encountering Lucy as a ghoul, mood is strengthened by the accepted force of the writer’s recalling the horror:  “Van Helsing raised his lantern and drew the slide.  By the concentrated light…we could see that the lips were crimson with fresh blood”  (Stoker 336).  Coppola’s translation of this to film is nearly exact, yet with an exaggeration inevitable from the richness of the visual, and this presents both real mood and irony; as his Lucy is dripping blood, her ornate “wedding dress” is then all the more disturbing.  Put another way, it is one thing for Stoker’s Harker to look with disgust on Lucy’s “wanton voluptuousness”; it is another when Coppola, using film, adds ironic layers suggesting that no one is free from that charge in regard to women.  This is irony so extreme, in fact, it dominates the entire tone, and through Coppola’s consistent usage of the horror as not restricted to the form of Dracula:  “The film literally builds on the panoptic ubiquity of the monster (Vidal 53).  Essentially, the film, while remaining true to the intensity and directness of Stoker’s battle between good and evil, nonetheless maintains a mood and tone sustained by the ironic presence of the demon as far beyond the form of Count Dracula.

Style, Symbolism, and Climax

In terms of style, there is both a great similarity and marked contrast between novel and film.  As noted, Stoker’s approach is direct. Even when he employs digressions of letters between the women not exactly furthering the action, they have a “job to do”; they reinforce the vulnerability and goodness of the virtue at stake.  At the same time, Stoker’s novel has become a byword for repressed sexuality, and it is widely felt that the directness of his narrative only reinforces the undercurrents of a constant sexual symbolism.  The Count’s compelling Mina to drink his blood in her bedroom, for instance, is viewed as a kind of male sexual conquest, just as Dracula’s assaults rely on his “penetrating” his victims with his teeth.  Even Van Helsing’s efforts to save Lucy through transfusing blood may be seen as the “good” attempt to reinstate virginity after the blood loss implies the loss of it (Reed  62).  Given what is accepted regarding Victorian views on sexuality, the assessment is valid.  In plain terms, everything Dracula does and represents is a physical violation of the established order, and he is the embodiment of dark desires translated through physicality.  Without doubt, Coppola exploits this same symbolism in his movie, adding further layers to it.  As noted, Dracula’s shaving of Harker does not occur in the book; in the film, then, it suggests conflicted sexuality as the Count engages in this intimate act with Harker.  The style here is lavish, as is true of the entire film, but the sinister aspect is powerfully infused with undertones of sexuality as equated with fear and danger.  Then, in regard to climax, the symbolism and styles of each work reinforce the paths taken by each throughout.  Stoker fuels his own momentum by rapidly switching accounts of the final confrontation, and there is no ambiguity in his climax.  Quincy dies heroically, the demon is destroyed, and the Harkers live on in peace and happiness, recalling the entire nightmare as a dream.  With Coppola and by virtue of what film demands, the presence of the Count throughout adds mystery to his execution.  There is no absolute sense of serenity in the film’s conclusion, but something of a loss.  If Dracula is a demon, he is still in the film a creature who needs others and suffers, and this is an impact Stoker denies.

Conclusion

It is reasonable to argue that there can be no such thing as the perfect adaptation of a book to a film, simply because the mediums are incompatible.  The film must replace vast amounts of detailed text with images and scenes, no matter how reliant on dialogue it is.  This being the case, however, Coppola’s Dracula may well stand as an ideal example of how such a process may occur, and largely because Stoker’s novel offers such an immense field of scene to be rendered in film.  Even as, as noted above, there exist differences in symbolism, character, story, and other elements, these are chiefly differences in emphasis.  Coppola does greatly reinforce an ambiguity more suggested by Stoker, but he nonetheless remains true to the tale, and moreover adds inestimable dimension to it through lavish imagery and intensity of focus.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a legendary classic of the supernatural as experienced through a Victorian sensibility, and the film respects this foundation while mining it for the repressed elements unacceptable to the readers of Stoker’s day.  It is no small accomplishment, and Francis Ford’s Coppola’s Dracula achieves the admirable effect of honestly translating Bram Stoker’s novel to the screen, while he recreates it to fully meet the advantages and issues of film.

Works Cited

Day, W. P. Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture: What Becomes a Legend Most. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2002.  Print.

Dracula. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Gary Oldman, Keannu Reeves, Wynone Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, and Tom Waits.  American Zoetrope, 1992.  Film.

Holte, J. C. Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations.  Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997.  Print.

Knoepflmacher, U. C., & Tennyson, G. B.  Nature and the Victorian Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.  Print.

Reed, T. Demon-Lovers and Their Victims in British Fiction.  Lexuington: University of Kentucky Press, 1988.  Print.

Stoker, B. Dracula. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2000.  Print.

Vidal, B.  Figuring the Past: Period Film and the Mannerist Aesthetic.  Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press, 2012.  Print.