November 09, 2009

Dracula


Dracula belongs to the corpus of "classic" literature that people don't bother with because they're so familiar with the larger body of derivative work it inspired that they think reading it would be redundant and boring. In some cases, the derivative work has indeed obviated any pressing need to labor through the original work--Michael Mann's remake of The Last of the Mohicans, for example.

In the case of Dracula, though, adaptations early on introduced an invidious element of dramatic corruption into the core structure of the story. The mutation has by now contaminated the entire lineage, so that the ubiquitous meme of Bela Lugosi in a dinner jacket has become about as terrifying as a Sesame Street Muppet. Attempts to repair the damage--like putting Gary Oldman in a dinner jacket--only perpetuate the original mistake.

That mistake was to give the Count top billing. It's an understandable one. Playing evil (plus lonely and misunderstood) is much more fun--and tasty, given the scenery to chew on--than playing the virtuous good guy. Milton, as they say, gave the devil all the good lines in Paradise Lost. But Milton did it on purpose; it wasn't a hack screenwriter's attempt to mollify the casting director because The Big Movie Star didn't want to end up with a bit part.

Because, the way Stoker wrote it, Dracula is a cameo, not the lead, and never the controlling point-of-view. Though his mere existence threatens and so must be mercilessly extinguished--no sympathy for the devil here--he nevertheless spends most of his time off-stage while more important things are going on.

To understand how it is supposed to work, we need only turn to the one writer/director who got it right: Joss Whedon. Consider the story's basic formulation: an eccentric professor of the dark arts plus a couple of associated geeks and some useful imported muscle gather around a tough woman, her dorky boyfriend and ditzy girlfriend, and end up pulling off some major vampire slayage.

The devils don't get the best lines. Mostly they get summarily dusted.

You can get carried away with this kind of thing, but the parallels are easy to draw: Mina/Buffy; Professor Van Helsing/Giles; Jonathan Harker/Xander; Dr. Jack Seward/Willow; Lucy/Cordelia. Quincey Morris is a Texan in London; Spike is a Londoner in California (though Quincy Morris is perhaps closer to Charles Gunn in Angel, and Lucy's fate is more similar to that of Lilah Morgan at the end of the 2002-2003 season).

That's right, Stoker created the first Scooby Gang, and Joss Whedon's 21st century version proves a surprisingly faithful homage. Buffy, to be sure, has more Quincey Morris in her than does Mena, although Mena certainly has more Buffy in her than does her squeeze Jonathan. Mena brings to mind C.S. Lewis's quip, "They don't make great aunts like they used to."

Another unfair assumption about Dracula is that anything written a century ago must surely be slow going. In the category of dense Victorian literature, Dracula can be honestly described as a page turner. As an author Stoker deserves comparison to Michael Crichton. Much of the fun arises out of his eagerness to incorporate the very latest in late 19th century high-tech with the graveyards and Transylvanian castles.

Telegrams fly back and forth like email. Quincey Morris packs the latest Winchester repeaters from America (and a Bowie knife, natch). Dr. Seward records dictation using just-invented phonograph technology, and performs so many blood transfusions that in The Dracula Files, Fred Saberhagen has his 20th century Dracula complain Lucy died because blood typing wasn't discovered until 1900, three years after the publication of the novel.

So much gets read into Bram Stoker's Dracula and its offspring in the name of tedious literary (and psychological) analysis that generation after generation pushes it aside without discovering what a thumping good read it is. It's time to rescue the novel from the musty mausoleum of "literature" and call it something far worse in the eyes of academia: entertaining.

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Comments:

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
I agree--although I do think the second half of the novel is harder to get through than the first. But the first half--Jonathan Harker's diary--is one of the most exciting novel halves I've ever read. And scary! The first time I read it, I got so absorbed, I lost track of time; when I looked up, it was dark out and trees were tapping against the window and I thought, "Sheesh, what am I doing? I should wait till morning to finish this."

As Eugene points out, the scariness is not Dracula but the possibility of Dracula. Everything that Harker is experiencing is fear of something that's not quite . . . there. He grows increasingly worried and freaked out, but Dracula never shows up and goes, "I've come to suck your blood, Harker!" It's all smoke and mirrors, never head-on stuff. This makes it more terrifying since Harker later gets ill, which means he isn't sure how much of his experience was real and how much nightmare.

Saberhagen makes a great spoof because, like with Whedon, he appreciates what Stoker is doing (Whedon was totally willing to spoof himself as well--like the Buffy episode where Jonathan takes over the scoobies, and the whole perspective shifts). In Saberhagen, it's the gang Dracula is obsessed with, not his party planner!
11/10/2009 7:18 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Damien Sullivan
I was re-reading Dracula recently and got surprised by Harker mentioning pictures he'd taken of Dracula's new place "with my Kodak", the company of which as 5 or 10 years old when the book was published.

If you've ever played tabletop RPGs:
http://forum.rpg.net/showpost.php?p=10771826&postcount=8
11/21/2009 11:33 AM