Bram Stoker's Dracula is a 1992 film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. Screenplay written by James V. Hart and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film joins the ranks with horror film adaptations of a number of gothic Victorian novels that were popularized and produced in the 1990s, most notably that of Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Frankenstien adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The film’s terrific success in the box office and generally positive critical reception is due in part to its illustrious cast, starring Gary Oldman as Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina Murray/Elisabeta, Anthony Hopkins as Professor Abraham Van Helsing, and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. Though many critics have expressed disappointment with Keanu Reeve’s lackluster performance and underrated function in the film’s plot, his presence is still broadly appreciated if not only for his role as decoration to complement the film’s artistic richness. The film is also acclaimed for its haunting score, composed by Wojciech Kilar, which sustains a chilling and emotionally charged atmosphere throughout the film.
The film remains fascinatingly attentive to Stoker’s novel, yet daringly embellishes the plot for a contemporary audience interested in the romanticizing elements of this timeless gothic tale. Largely, the characters fulfill the same function in the film as in the novel, but their personalities, motivations, and backgrounds are whipped into an amplified frenzy. The most marked departure the film takes from the original narrative is the introduction of a highly erotic romantic entanglement between Dracula and Mina, which deflects the novel’s original trajectory from its fixation with conquest and war to an intriguing focus on the redeeming power of love.
The narrative is heavily invested in questioning the monstrosity of Dracula, especially when his villainous reputation is placed in relief with his romantic interest in Mina Harker. Dracula is first introduced as Vlad Dracula, Romanian knight and member of the Order of the Dragon, a multinational power bent on defending the Christian faith and defeating pagan invaders. In the year 1462, Dracula faces foreign invaders in a bloody battle; though he emerges victorious, his beloved wife Elisabeta believes him dead and commits suicide. Consumed with grief and embittered with the deity that ostensibly granted him victory in battle yet also deprived him of his love, Prince Dracula renounces God and is consequently cursed with vampirism for his sacrileges. Fast-forward four centuries later and the aged, yet still malignant Dracula employs the young lawyer Harker for aid in acquiring strategically selected real estate in England. Harker is sent to Dracula’s castle as replacement for the Count’s previously employed lawyer from the same firm, a Mr. R.M. Renfield whose mental health has spiraled into madness shortly after his employment with Dracula and landed him in the Carfax Lunatic Asylum. Harker is only faintly put off by his colleague’s mysterious mental deterioration and the worrisome behavior of the locals. After purchasing his land in England, Dracula voyages to London, leaving Harker to the mercy of his vampire brides, from whom Harker eventually escapes. Meanwhile, Harker’s virginal fiancé Mina Murray is spending time her coquettish friend, Lucy Westenra, whose sexual looseness leaves her vulnerable to Dracula’s predation and her ultimate admission into the world of the undead.
Rejuvenated by his conquest of Lucy, Dracula is free to focus his attention on wooing Mina Murray, whom he had glimpsed in Harker’s photograph and become convinced of her identity as a reincarnation of his lost love, Elisabeta. Mina ultimately falls for her “prince” Dracula and this love interest becomes a driving force for the action in the film.
Old Knowledge vs. New Knowledge
The film presents a constant tension between old knowledge and new knowledge via vampire lore from world-weary cross and stake-wielding professor Van Helsing, and new knowledge via Dr. Seward and his shiny whirring phonograph recording his need for logical diagnoses and categorizations. Frequent flashes of microscopic views of quivering blood cells provide a constant reminder of the realities and capabilities of modern medicine, yet full-fledged annihilation of the vampire is still reliant upon Van Helsing’s bold use of ancient methods through Christian incantations and liberal application of garlic. The success of the vampire hunters’ mission depends on this synthesis of old and new knowledge. The adaptation implies that Van Helsing has been seeking Dracula for many years and has extensive knowledge of his history and vulnerabilities through books and lore. Similarly, this film adaptation also presses the Count’s interest in gaining new knowledge to equip him for his conquest in the West. In the beginning of the film, Dracula is talking with Harker about the properties that he wishes to acquire how much he wants to experience the West in its “life, changes, and death”; during the conversation, the count's shadow stands over Harker and overshadows a large map on the wall, presenting a subtle undertone of Dracula’s interest in learning how to infiltrate and project himself in a new land.
Transformation & Duality
Though Stoker’s novel allows Dracula the ability to transform into a variety of interesting forms, the film adaptation takes this aspect of transformation and duality to the next level. In the film, Dracula revels in his ability to shape shift into a wolves, werewolves, bats, rats, and an insidious green mist. This fluid existence makes Dracula difficult to categorize and pin down, both for Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters in the film, and for the audience. A soft growling or snarling noise almost persistently accompanies Dracula’s actions and movement on screen. In some instances this assignment of animal-like qualities to Dracula’s character makes him seem more supernatural, as in his first meeting with Harker and his heavy breathing is juxtaposed with the howling of the wolves around the carriage. In other instances, Dracula’s animal-like tendencies enhance his sexual appeal (or at least his capacity for predation), as in the scene when his werewolf figure ravages Lucy in the garden.
The themes of transformation and duality also play into the romantic interest in the film, as Dracula wants Mina to love him in his “human” form, just as Elisabeta did. In the garden scene in which he rapes Lucy in his wolf-like form, he hides from Mina and whispers “don’t see me,” and later on when he meets Mina in the town and he is in his more pleasant human form, he compels Mina to “see” him. This desire to be seen and loved by Mina in his original form makes the audience question whether Dracula is indeed a monster, or a being deserving of (and possibly rehabilitated by) love.
The theme of excess, in regards to sexuality, addictions, and preoccupations runs rampant throughout the narrative. The filming techniques and costume choices are a brilliant visual aid in pointing out which characters and events are exemplary of this kind of overindulgence that pervades the film. This visual distinction is most conspicuous in the juxtaposition of Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray. Mina wears a pretty but demure dress with buttons safely secured up to her mid-neck; her dark hair is pinned up modestly, unremarkable coloring, befitting a schoolmistress. Lucy, on the other hand, has her hair down in untamed red curls, and wears a bright, airy pink dress that slumps down her shoulders sensually. Through this visual distinction, Lucy is clearly established as one deeply excessive personality, and is visually reinforced as one more vulnerable to be corrupted, by virtue of her looseness and sexual curiosity, so much so that she almost seems like a caricature of a fallen woman next to the angelic and innocent Mina. Mina is almost repulsed by Lucy’s sexual aggressiveness, which makes Dracula’s seduction of her later on in the film all the more fascinating.
Subliminal shots of alcohol flowing and splashing in tumblers constantly jumps on the screen while Dracula woo Mina. This invocation of addiction paraphernalia and addiction imagery reinforces the idea that Dracula’s affection for Mina is rooted in dependency and infatuation, and certainly provides fodder for the emotionally charged budding romance on screen.
Significance of the Adaptation
"Bram Stoker’s Dracula" (1992) is not the first Dracula adaptation to introduce a love interest between Dracula and Mina; countless earlier film adaptations also exploit the extent of the romantic subplot involving in Count Dracula and Mina, most notably found in the earlier film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973) and Count Dracula (1977). However, Coppola’s adaptation stands out for its highly eroticized, yet humanized version of Count Dracula and its interest in presenting a version of the story that has a distinct respect for the original structure and premises of Stoker’s novel, while also clearing ample room for modern elucidation of an old story. The most prominent successes in the adaptation appear in the form of highlighting the novel’s geographic implications, inversions of gender, and promotion of both the vampire and the vampire hunter as constantly changing and reincarnating entities.
The film’s filming techniques lend much to its treatment of the story in a visual medium. Outstanding and seamless dissolves from scene to scene. Also, frequent use of oversaturation in blood-red coloring and an ever-present unnerving film score work together to deliver an innovative experience of the novel for the audience. It is refreshing that the film takes so much stock in the original key text in the form of journal entries and newspapers, in some cases quoting passages word for word in voice-overs from various characters and providing dated subtitles of which entries were being referenced. Though overall, the film does not invest in the themes of travel and transportation technology as is presented in the novel, the frequency of scenes dissolving into and out of superimposed maps, trains, and landscapes is a brilliant harkening to the pinpoint focus of geography and traveling in Stoker’s novel.
Another engaging aspect of the narrative is that the film seeks to respond to and expound upon characterization in the original novel. Where many critics have read feminist arguments into the original story and subsequent film adaptations, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) cultivates these observations to fruition throughout the film. Many feminist critics praise Mina’s powerful presence in the film, as Mina often seems to be the driving force of her relationship with Jonathan. This is evident through her conduct with Harker in the opening scenes, as Harker tells her he must go. It is Mina that leads Harker around on stage, and it is Mina that initiates intimate relations with him. In a visual media, this inversion of roles is especially interesting, though it does shove Keanu Reeves character to a more subservient role-hence his underrated presence in the film. Some argue that the film’s promotion of Mina’s agency helps underscore the subsequent critical reading of Harker in a feminized role. This is especially evident in the scene in which he meets Dracula’s brides. The vampiresses are hyper sexualized and reinforce undertones of Harker’s inverted gender role, in which he is the recipient of sexual attention, not the initiator. The first bride rises from the bed sheets between Harker’s legs, presenting herself as the sexually superior member, “erecting” herself in a position to penetrate Harker and the bare-breasted vampiresses purr and ravage Harker’s passive body until they are thrown off by Dracula and provided with an infant to feed upon (yet another intriguing reversal of the maternal role).
Dracula’s constant transformation into different forms speaks to the concept of the vampire as a juggernaut that continues to be revitalized over time. However, this adaptation also promotes a strain of critical thought that considers the vampire hunters, despite their undeniable corporeality, can also achieve immortality if they succeed in their mission. The figure of Van Helsing in the film is one of the most memorable and influential characters in the plot, just as he is in the novel. However, in this film adaptation, Van Helsing is allowed to transcend his traditional role as the mild-mannered professor in the novel; the Van Helsing that the audience meets on screen is bold and outspoken, often tactlessly describing the horrific methods by which the vampire is defeated and at times appears to be insane, if not only on the far end of eccentric. Even more curious, the film suggests that Van Helsing is a reincarnation of the priest in the beginning of the film that condemned Dracula’s bride to hell because of her suicide and eventually drove Dracula to vampirism. This parallel reincarnation of Van Helsing and Dracula presents a cultural bond between the vampire and the vampire slayer that endures in contemporary gothic adaptations and appropriations. Van Helsing, in his most popular unapologetic and jaded form as presented in "Bram Stoker’s Dracula" (1992) is reincarnated in films focused chiefly on his character, most notably in Hugh Jackman’s performance as "Gabriel Van Helsing in Van Helsing" (2004) and "Van Helsing: The London Assignment" (2004).