2ish years ago, I took a course on Gothic literature in which I read Dracula for the second time and watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for the first. I enjoyed Francis Ford Coppola’s film well enough, but as this is not a review of the film, that’s neither here nor there. Naturally, one thing the course asked us to consider were the ways in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula alters and interprets Bram Stoker’s Dracula ( sorrynotsorry I had to), so here are some of my thoughts on that topic.
In his 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola takes considerable creative liberties with his source material. However, while the story told by the his film is not exactly the same as that told by Bram Stoker’s novel, that does not mean Coppola lacks respect for or is unfamiliar with the work his film interprets. In fact, many of the ways Coppola’s film seems to deviate from Dracula actually demonstrate a keen reading of the text.
That said, it is also important to remember that Coppola’s film has nearly a century’s worth of Gothic art and fiction to draw from that Stoker’s novel did not. In a sense, Coppola’s film is not only an interpretation of and a tribute to Stoker’s novel, it is also an interpretation of and a tribute to the Gothic as a genre.
One thing Coppola’s films does is increase the story’s its denial of mutual exclusivity (one of the Gothic’s primary preoccupations is with the confusion and eventual restoration of seemingly fundamental boundaries and categories).
Though not always completely true to Stoker, by making the sexuality implicit in Dracula markedly explicit and by humanizing Dracula through romance as it does, Bram Stoker’s Dracula interprets and represents Dracula in a way that makes Stoker’s Gothic classic even more Gothic.
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The Argument Part 1: Sexy Time
Sex pervades the Gothic, and Coppola seems acutely aware of this fact. An undercurrent of sexuality runs through Stoker’s novel; Coppola’s film, however places sex right at its forefront. Many who have read and written on Dracula have noted its interest in sexual desires and behaviors. Still, while the sex in Stoker is strongly implied, it is not wholly explicit.
One of the most overtly sexual episodes in the novel occurs when Harker is ambushed by three vampire women in Count Dracula’s castle. Describing the encounter in his journal, Harker writes the following: “All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest someday it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain; but it is the truth.” Harker’s focus on the vampires’ lips, and the terms in which he describes them can quite easily be read as an allusion to female genitalia. Additionally, his belief that the account would be painful for his fiancé Mina to read strongly suggests that he understands the “burning desire” the vampires instill in him as being sexual in nature. Also, true to the Gothic nature of his novel, Stoker here combines sexual desire with “uneasy” fear and disgust.
The sexual nature of Harker’s encounter with the vampire women, and the fact that the experience in which he both longs for and is repulsed by the women (that is, in which apparently disparate feelings are mixed) becomes even clearer as the episode continues. Harker writes, “There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive … the lips … seemed to fasten about my throat … Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer—nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat … I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy, and waited—waited with a beating heart.” Though mentally disgusted by the vampire women, Harker’s physical “ecstasy” is undeniable, and is clearly at least somewhat sexual in nature (just replace the word “throat” with penis yo). Still, it is important to note that the “teeth and lips” of the vampire woman about to bite Harker are placed only on his face and throat. Furthermore, she is never said to touch him with any other part of herself besides her mouth.
As Coppola’s film demonstrates, the sexual nature of the encounter in the novel described above is not as intense or as obvious as it could be, but it is there all the same. In Coppola’s version of the scene, before Harker actually sees any of the vampire women, he hears Mina’s voice whispering seductively, summoning him to lie down on the bed. Thus, Coppola’s film suggests that not only does Harker feel desire for the vampire women, but the desire he feels for them is the same that he feels for his fiancé. It may even be that unfulfilled desire for a sexual encounter with his beloved is part of what makes Harker so receptive to the advances of the vampire women.
As the first vampire appears, she rises up through the bed—itself a symbol of sexual activity—directly between Harker’s spread legs. She does not immediately focus on his throat; rather, the first part of him she looks at is his crotchy crotch
sorry. This detail indicates that, according to Coppola’s reading of Dracula, vampiric blood lust is sexual by nature (that Stoker agrees with this is hinted at quite heavily throughout his novel, but is never said outright). Coppola also makes the scene more explicitly sexual by having all of the women appear topless (America loves boobies sigh). Also, whereas, in Stoker, the vampire women agree to take turns biting Harker, in the film, all three intimately caress and bite him all at once; one licks his chest, another—after a fearsome display of her fangs—bites his D, and at least one of them actually draws blood.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Harker appears to be in a state of total physical ecstasy throughout the entire ordeal, and he gives no overt indication that he is repulsed or terribly frightened, though he probably should be. That he actually loses blood in Coppola’s version of the scene increases the savagery. In Dracula, Harker describes the vampires’ fangs as shining “like pearls,” but, in the film, they are bloodstained and gruesome. While making the sexual nature of the episode considerably more apparent, Coppola also emphasizes more strongly the fact that the vampire women are monsters (and pretty scary ones at that). If Harker himself does not seem appropriately frightened by them, Coppola’s portrayal of the women insures that the audience will take notice. By intensifying the erotic aspects of this scene, as well as the horrid, Coppola makes Gothic juxtapositions of pleasure and pain and of terror and delight much more direct and explicit than Stoker himself; at the same time, he also demonstrates acute awareness of sexual desire’s importance to the Gothic.
The Argument Part 2: Humanizing the Monster
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when Dracula storms in to save Harker from the trio of vampire women, one of them says to him, “You, yourself never loved”; in Stoker’s novel, such a statement would be an expression of fact, but in Coppola’s film, it doesn’t seem true at all.
In Dracula, there is no indication that Dracula has ever loved any one (though he does seem to lust a bit for Harker). He lusts for blood, he desires domination, but he does not love as the novel’s heroes do. Moreover, Dracula in Dracula is a monster through and through, and none of the characters question this fact once they know what he is.
By 1992, many were probably familiar enough with the figure of Dracula not to require an origin story for him. However, Coppola burdens his Dracula with a past characterized by tragic love. In a scene that is entirely Coppola’s invention, a young—and still human—Dracula is shown kissing and bidding a sad farewell to his bride, Elisabeta, the night before heading off to war. Dracula survives the battle, but before he makes it home, Elisabeta (who believes him dead) commits suicide. He was her everything and it soon becomes apparent that she was also his. Overcome with grief at the death of his beloved as well as anger at a priest’s declaration that her soul is damned, Dracula renounces god, vows to rise from his own death, stabs a large stone cross, and drinks the blood that pours from it (this is probably an overreaction, but what do I know). In Coppola’s film, Dracula was not always an evil vampire; he became a vampire only after the premature death of the one he held most dear. According to Coppola’s interpretation of Stoker, Dracula is a monster, and, as such, he must be defeated, but he is also the victim of love gone wrong, and, for that, he can also be pitied.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula is not entirely heartless. Though a monster, he feels and has felt distinctly human emotions. Thus, Coppola blurs the line between man and monster, as well as that between victim and villain.
That Dracula is eligible for pity according to the film is clearest at its close. When Arthur stabs Dracula, Mina—who looks exactly like Elisabeta and, over the course of the film, develops a sort of romantic relationship with Dracula—cries out, “No!” In this scene, she does not exhibit worry for her husband, but she does for Dracula. She even protects the vampire from Van Helsing and company after he is fatally wounded. As Dracula and Mina retreat into the church behind them, Harker stops the others from pursuing them; “No, let them go,” he says, “Our work is finished here. Hers has just begun”—her work is the work of love, and of the pity that comes from love. As he dies, Mina cries over and kisses Dracula, calling him, “my love.” As soon as the words leave her lips, Dracula’s appearance reverts to that of his human self, and the church the two of them are in is filled with light. In voiceover, Mina says, “There, in the presence of God, I understood at last how my love could release us all from the powers of darkness.”
In Coppola’s version of Stoker’s story, love—the same feeling that made Dracula a vampire—makes him a man again. When Mina finishes speaking, a brief smile passes over Dracula’s face as his curse is lifted. Then, he says to Mina, “Give me peace.” She obeys, driving a sword through him, and he dies a redeemed man. In her obedience, Mina shows pity. She ends Dracula’s life, not because he is a monster who deserves to die, but because he is a man who has suffered too long. Coppola’s Dracula is at once a terrible bloodthirsty monster who terrorizes others and a loving human who is a victim of great pain and tragedy. A being to be pitied as well as feared, Coppola’s Dracula is a walking contradiction. In that way, he is also the Gothic incarnate.
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Certainly, there much more one could say about the relationship between Coppola’s film and Stoker’s novel.The above is not meant to be exhaustive; rather, it is meant to demonstrate just how interpretations of rich source material can look a little strange without being unreasonable.
Francis Ford Coppola’s interpretation of Dracula may not depict Stoker’s novel as accurately as some would like, but it does demonstrate a clear understanding of the novel and of the literary tradition that is has become so strongly associated with.
By playing up the sexual implications of Stoker’s story while also depicting vampires and terrifying monsters and by depicting Dracula as a terrifying monster while also representing him as a human lover who deserves pity, Coppola intensifies some of the most Gothic aspects of Dracula—a lack of distinction between the typically contradictory and a preoccupation with sexual desire.
(Note, for those interested in this topic, other scenes from Stoker that Coppola interprets in a similar fashion are Lucy’s death as a vampire and the Mina’s drinking of Dracula’s blood.)
Thanks so much fore reading. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or comments you’d like to add. 😀