Happy Birthday Dracula: A History of Vampires Through Ten Adaptations
The novel that launched a bona fide cultural phenomenon, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, celebrates its 120th birthday, and its influence on everything that followed in its path remains potent. Vampires remain one of the most striking and familiar icons of fiction, which is probably why they seem to get a new cycle of cultural visibility every few years. They’re a sturdy icon that can be shaped to suit your every metaphorical need. Not even sparkling could bring down its power.
Vampires have been a constant present on the silver screen since its inception and Dracula has remained king of the coop — first seen in print in 1897, has always epitomized the fears and desires of the time which it is present in. From xenophobia and disease to sexuality and religion, the count has embodied much of the context surrounding it, and turned the many fascinations of its audience into entertainment for the masses. While vampires as a pop culture trend come and go, often returning in cycles with certain genre elements diminished in favour of others, creators continue to bring Dracula to the big and small screen in hopes that its familiar name will bring with it critical and commercial success. The novel is seldom adapted in a straightforward manner - romances are added, sympathies switched, settings changed, and mythologies expanded. Dracula is less a story and more a philosophy, an idea, a metaphor as flexible as vampirism itself. Even if you haven’t read the book, the chances are you’re well acquainted with its most iconic elements, with particular characters, ideas, images and such seeping into your minds through cultural osmosis.
The past several years of pop culture have presented an interesting array of fresh ideas to vampire fiction: From the genre-bending Iran set Western of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night to the modern indie take on gothic romance in Only Lovers Left Alive to the hilarious parody and sly satire of What We Do In the Shadows. Some trends come and go, but there will always be a hunger for the undead (suck it, zombies).
Count Dracula himself has changed from a straightforward predatory villain to something more sympathetic, often romantic and even heroic through a solid century of movies, TV shows, literary re-imaginings and even a video game or two. We demand more from our villains nowadays - possibly because the real-life ones have become more nonsensical than ever - but there’s something about the age-old combination of sex and death that keeps bringing consumers back to the most famous vampire in fiction. The scholar James Twitchell wrote that, “Any twelve year old schoolboy can describe the vampire, and that of course is precisely why it is so important.” So, to celebrate 180 years of entertainment and influence, I present to you ten of the seemingly limitless Dracula adaptations that have shaped the character, the culture and the world. As your resident podcast expert on the intersections of feminism and vampire fiction, I feel it is my duty to bring such a list to you. Some of the work included here are masterpieces, some are hidden gems, and others should never be spoken of in polite company, but they all bring something unique to the table and explore the scope of the character’s potential to be a stand-in for any contemporary concern or desire.
Nosferatu was almost lost to history, as Stoker’s estate sued the film-makers for copyright infringement and all existing cuts of the film were ordered to be destroyed, so this may be the rare case of people rooting for the plagiarist. It’s hard to imagine how director F.W. Murnau thought he could get away with it, since the film is a pretty straightforward adaptation of Dracula. However, the changes it made to the source material may be as influential on vampire fiction as the novel itself. Want to know why vampires are allergic to sunlight? Blame this one, noy Dracula.
The setting is moved to the 1830s, with the count landing in Germany rather than England. Amidst all that iconic shadow work and German expressionism, this is a classic horror story that you’ll instantly recognise, even if you’ve never actually seen it. This Dracula, known as Count Orlok, is a creature almost entirely lacking in humanity. His appearance is rat-like, his fingers skeletal claws, and his movement primal, stripped of the aristocratic grandeur that would come to define him in a decade’s time at Universal. That imagery also evokes a lot of the anti-Semitic propaganda that was brewing in 1920s Germany, wherein Jewish Germans were depicted as rodent-like with bushy eyebrows and sharpened teeth. Along with the aesthetics of Orlok himself, rats feature heavily as the harbingers of doom to the citizens of the town his ship docks in. His ships brings countless rats to the nation, and once people start dying, the fear is that the rats have brought with them the plague. 1800s Europe struggled with epidemics of cholera and smallpox, making the imagery especially potent. This is amped up to the teeth in the remake of Nosferatu, directed by everyone’s favourite enigmatic German director Werner Herzog (a set where animal welfare was viewed very casually).
It’s hard to overstate the impact Nosferatu has had on pop culture. There’s been talk of a remake from the director of The Witch but little development. It remains one of the best adaptations of Dracula, legally or otherwise.
Bela Lugosi’s Dracula
Like Nosferatu, even if you haven’t seen Tod Browning’s Dracula, you’re probably super familiar with the iconography. Everyone knows the Bela Lugosi performance, theatrical and grandiose before such things were written off as unconscious camp; the cape and hair; the cobweb dusted castle and quotable lines of never drinking wine. Lugosi’s star making work has influenced all that came after him, whether in earnest imitation or a desire to offer a stark contrast to him, but the film itself is a different kind of beast. Much of the direction is rather staid, like a filmed play, with actors pointing off-screen to more dramatic proceedings and more than a few toy bats fluttering ahead. It’s hard to view this film so many decades later and understand the sheer shock it created amongst contemporary audiences.
At the time, it was a big risk for Universal that had to be really carefully marketed, but it paid off and was ultimately the studio’s most profitable film of 1931. That same year, a Spanish language adaptation of the novel was released, filmed on the same sets as Browning’s one. In the early days of the talkies, it was common for studios to churn out foreign-language versions of their biggest films, essentially the same movie but in Spanish or French. This one, directed by George Melford, even used the same costumes, but it ends up being better than Browning’s. The crew were able to watch dailies of that film and change things accordingly, so the camera action is more dynamic, the longer running time gives it room to breathe, and it’s just a wee bit saucier (lower necklines everywhere). Ideally, you should watch both films to see the contrast, but if you’re short on time, Browning’s original is crucial if only as a piece of cinematic history.
Hammer Horror Dracula
While Lugosi remained a staple of the golden age of Universal Horror, the shadow Browning’s film cast over the genre meant few film-makers or studios were willing to touch Dracula until the 50s, when British horror legends Hammer Films decided to give it a go.
By 1958, the studio had revived their flagging fortunes with an adaptation of Frankenstein, so naturally his vampiric contemporary was the natural follow-up. Like Nosferatu, Hammer tripped up a bit on the copyright issues, and an agreement between them and Universal wasn’t reached until the film had already been shot. Back then, film-makers still had to submit their scripts to the BBFC (Britain’s version of the MPAA) for approval. This was ostensibly to ensure decency for the British filmgoing public, but often acted more in terms of censorship. By the 50s, the BBFC’s power was waning and public attitudes had evolved, so on screen violence was less worthy of the chop (although some films suffered under this system, especially those dealing with LGBTQ issues). The script for Dracula was submitted and immediately deemed “uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar”. The bloodiness of the vampire attacks came under much scrutiny, with the BBFC asking, “why need vampires be messier eaters than anyone else?” In fairness, it’s a question I’ve asked myself often. Obviously, that bloodiness was what drew viewers in, with the red stuff almost flourescent in its blindine vibrancy. For cinemagoers in the 50s, this must have been major, and it led to the film becoming a massive critical and commercial success as well as spawning an entire industry for Hammer.
Without Christopher Lee, there was no Hammer, and his take on Dracula is in a similar vein to Lugosi, but far more refined and lithe. He towers over everyone else and inspires equal parts dread and intrigue with a mere look. This is Dracula at his most aristocratic, and that’s an image that packs a mean punch in Britain, where class remains our favourite fetish. Pair him up with Peter Cushing and you have the ultimate British horror dream team. Ultimately, the studio churned out Dracula after Dracula, with less focus on atmosphere and more on tits and blood. Some films are better than others - Dracula AD. 1972 is a trip, if nothing else, but you have to see the original to understand its power.
Blood for Dracula
Often entitled Andy Warhol’s Dracula but directed by Paul Morrissey, this gonzo 60s adaptation sees Dracula at his most pathetic. Played by Udo Kier with the expected levels of German camp, this Count is the most disempowered representation of the crumbling upper classes, struggling to stay alive amidst political revolution.
Morrissey was a self-described “right-winger” who frequently protested perceived anti-Catholic sentiment and anything he deemed publicly immoral, but he’s not above some gratuitous nudity, incest and rape. Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Dracula has fled to Italy to find a fresh supply of food - in this case, virgins, the only thing he can safely consume. Apparently, Romania is fresh out of them, and his creepy manservant Anton assures him that the staunchly Roman Catholic country will be chock full of naive girls ready for the taking. Ha. He shacks up with an impoverished landowner and his family, which includes four daughters and a confusingly Brooklynite employee called Mario, a Marxist pervert waiting for the revolution. As you can imagine, this isn’t quite what Dracula hoped for.
An inability to find a virgin leaves Dracula impotent, a powerless aristocrat whose sickness reveals itself in vivid ways. He is sickly and pale, and his first scene sees him applying make-up to look somewhat human. A character so often depicted as the great seducer of fiction is reduced to a frail weakling who crawls across the floor to vomit up blood, as the drinking of non-virgin blood leaves him choking and twitching in pain. Compare that to Mario, played by Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro, who is an equally amoral creep, but one with a six pack. Mario is certainly no hero either, although he takes on many of the Van Helsing duties here. He’s hypocritical, lazy, and does nothing to actually instigate the revolution he insists will wash away the impotent decadence of the nobility he works for. Indeed, his politics seem to exist primarily to justify the way he treats the two middle daughters he is alternatingly subservient and abusive to. He brags about wanting to rape the youngest daughter, who’s only 14, which he sees as his “noble” duty to save her from Dracula’s clutches.
All of this makes Blood for Dracula sound incredibly dry, but it’s gleefully camp, blood-soaked and rooted in the growing traditions of European horror. Hell, this film was even released in 3D. It’s common to see vampires as refined aristocrats, their power rooted in archaic structures of class, so to see it deconstructed here is intriguing. Watch if only to hear Udo Kier pronounce the word “virgin” as “wirgin”.
Frank Langella’s Dracula
The tagline for this 1979 adaptation, directed by Saturday Night Live’s John Badham, was, “Throughout history he has filled the hearts of men with terror, and the hearts of women with desire.” After decades of suggestion, we finally get Dracula as the romantic hero. This is the Universal Dracula movie oft-overlooked by fans and critics, mostly because it’s not of that golden era and it deviates heavily from the book (this one’s mostly based on the Broadway play).
The roles of Mina and Lucy have been switched. Sickly Mina is Van Helsing’s daughter and Lucy is the daughter of Seward. The setting is moved to 1913 London, and Dracula is played by Frank Langella as the ultimate suave gentleman. The cape swirling action alone is worth the rental cost. Langella fully embodies Dracula as the man, the noble and dream dinner guest, a man who one can so easily be seduced by, be it sexually or platonically. The Broadway production had been more camp, but here, the film is steeped in gothic romance. Stylistically, this may be the most authentically gothic of the Dracula films outside of Hammer, and mirrors the Browning film in much of its imagery (no surprise given both are Universal productions). Dracula seems most at home in decrepit, cobweb covered surroundings, inspired by the Edward Gorey production design of the Broadway play.
This one has Dracula at his most sexual. While his brief pursuit of Mina seems rooted in bloodlust, his relationship with Lucy seems more genuine, or at least not exclusively tied to his need for nourishment. Their sex scene is garish and soaked in reds (shot by James Bond title sequence designer, Maurice Binder and using lasers borrowed from The Who, I am not kidding), with a possibly Freudian bat swooping in on the silhouettes of the copulating pair as John Williams’s Bond-esque score builds up a climax. The intent is clear - this is good, satisfying sex for both parties and to be desired rather than reviled. Dracula as a romantic hero or anti-hero is more common nowadays - it’s practically mandatory - but here it feels fresh and holds the audience’s sympathy throughout. When Langella performed the role on Broadway, he was praised for the romantic quality he brought to the role, and it’s easy to see why!
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Like the Langella adaptation, this is one that brings the romance to the forefront, but in the most fabulously heightened manner possible. Everything in Coppola’s film is turned up to eleven - the garish colours, the intricate costumes, the beautiful score, the accent on Keanu Reeves… Okay, scratch that last one, but honestly, he’s nowhere near as bad as you’ve been led to believe.
Coppola’s Dracula is pure melodrama, and a reasonably faithful adaptation for the most part. It expands some of Dracula’s history, gives some of the side characters more to do, and makes the ending a bit more dramatic for cinematic purposes, but compared to some adaptations, it’s practically page for page. The biggest change it makes, and the one that just aggravates me the most, is one that’s become depressingly common in adaptations and the genre at large - Mina as the reincarnated lover of Dracula. It’s just bad characterisation, lazy storytelling, and not very interesting romance. I’m not a fan of Dracula adaptations that try to make him a sympathetic hero because it’s always way less fun than having him be the villain. The gender dynamic weakens as a result too - at its best, Dracula is a devastating portrayal of the destructive limitations gender has on society, and how women in particular are trapped by such notions that prize “purity” above all else. Dracula is a tainted source, literally poisoning the blood of his victims and watching them morph into every fear patriarchy has about liberated women. Having him just be a haunted widower or Byronic hero without the malice has no edge or excitement to it. Gary Oldman is clearly having a ball playing the Count - he, like the iconic Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, knows exactly what kind of film he’s in - but he has little chemistry with Winona Ryder, which only hammers home the staid nature of that dynamic.
This version has a bigger emphasis on Lucy Westenra, one of the novel’s trickier characters. In contrast to the more introverted Mina, Lucy is vivacious, optimistic and excited by the prospect of marriage. Her only problem is there are three eligible choices available, and in the novel, she laments that she can’t marry all of them. On the page, this reads as rather sweet, if naïve, but as played in the film by Sadie Frost, it’s more of a sexual game. She knows she can toy with all of these men and get what she wants from them, which she shows off to Mina. I don’t even expect films from 2017 to play sexually liberated female characters without slut-shaming, much less one from the early 90s, so it doesn’t surprise me but still feels like a wasted opportunity.
The reason to watch Coppola’s film is the intricacy of the craft: 100% practical effects, elaborate costuming, the Annie Lennox song, the true sense of unnerving desire that seeps from every scene. Your mileage may vary on the appeal of such an inherently predatory story being softened into a more palatable forbidden romance, but if you can overlook that stumble, everything surrounding it is a veritable feast of skill and soul.
Okay, so true story, I’ve probably seen this film more times than anyone else on the planet. The director of the film was watched this less than me, I guarantee it. “Presented” by Wes Craven, one of the masters of 90s horror and subversions of the genre thanks to the Scream series, Dracula 2000 is not his brightest moment, but it is oddly fascinating in its approach: Part religious fable, part nu-Metal bandwagon jumper. MTV declared 1997 to 2004 to be an attempt to “return” to rock after an extended period of more pop and hip-hop/R&B focused music coverage. Bands that received much coverage from the channel included Korn and Creed and the nu-metal phase, and this period is reflected in Dracula 2000, where the action is moved to the then-modern day New Orleans, where it’s always Mardi Gras and everyone thought Linkin Park was a good idea. This is an attempt to make Dracula “cool”, but the problem with chasing the Zeitgeist is that you’ll inevitably be out of date as quickly as you achieve coolness.
Here, Dracula has escaped from the vaults of Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer, cashing in on an easy cheque with the expected dignity) and fled to America to capture the vampire hunter’s estranged daughter Mary, with whom he shares an unusual connection. Throw in the world’s sexiest antiques dealer, Jonny Lee Miller, and the fun begins. Well, I find it fun.
Despite the obvious religious imagery built into the original story, a lot of Dracula adaptations skimp on the Christian iconography and further explorations of it. That this adaptation is the one to do it, with its bad puns and floating-on-the-roof sex scenes, is even more perplexing. Yet it is here that we get one of Dracula’s most intriguing backstories, and the explanation for familiar elements of his character, such as fear of God and allergy to silver. You see, in this film, Dracula is literally Judas Iscariot, and his vampirism is his punishment for betraying Christ. You don’t get more explicitly religious than that!
This creative decision is one that opens up a lot of doors, but also one that presents some problematic connections. “Circumcising Dracula”, a study of vampires as a figure of anti-Semitism, discusses Medieval accusations circulated by clergy that Jews kidnapped and drank the blood of children. These smears are somewhat ironic given that the Jewish nation was the first to outlaw human sacrifice and prohibit the consumption of any blood (as referenced in the Bible). The notion of the “blood libel” - that Jews used blood sacrifice in religious rituals, usually the blood of Christians - was perpetuated for thousands of years, through to the 20th century. So having your Dracula literally be the man who betrayed Jesus (and also possibly be the Antichrist too, as hinted at in one scene then dropped completely) is messy territory. Don’t worry though, because the film-makers decided to offset these fears by having their canonically Middle Eastern Dracula be played by Paisley’s finest, Gerard Butler. Okay, they probably didn’t think about this element beyond it being kind of cool, but beneath the forced hipness of the entire affair, there’s a seed of real thought at the heart of this odd film that makes it worth at least a late night drinking watch.
It’s a surprise that it took the BBC, purveyors of top-notch literary adaptations and the plummiest of period dramas, so long to give Dracula a go, and even more perplexing that they’d choose such a deviation from the material. The novel has always been about infection and the fear of that, and there were long-standing rumours that Stoker himself died of tertiary syphilis, so why not fully embrace that element? Stoker spent the majority of his early years bedridden with an unknown illness until making an inexplicable recovery aged 7, then growing up without relapse and becoming a top athlete at university. He died after a series of strokes in his 60s, although the rumour of the real cause of death being syphilis remains popular, because at the time, the disease was a real problem across Europe. It remains associated with artistic types and the decadence of late 19th century bohemia, so of course any story about an Eastern European count diving into the London social scene and its women would attract such connotations. Here, the vampire is less a metaphor for STDs than the possible cure, as this adaptation opens with Arthur Holmwood (Dan Stevens, pre-Downton Abbey) discovering he’s inherited syphilis from his father, and frantically trying to find a cure before his wedding to Lucy Westenra. Where vampire blood is often seen as the poison, here, its regenerative qualities are positioned as a possible cure. Of course, you never make a deal with a vampire, and this ends terribly for pretty much everyone involved.
For the purposes of the story, Arthur’s syphilitic status acts more as a symbol of societal guilt over familial roles and sexual propriety. Lucy is gung-ho about her wedding night and can’t understand why Arthur won’t even approach her. Victorian anxieties of sex and the shame of deviation from the societal norm are the focus here rather than the supernatural. This illness brings with it not only physical but mental and moral deterioration (seriously, do NOT google “syphilis”).
Here, Dracula himself is a quieter menace, played by Marc Warren. He’s rather emo in styling (hello, 2006), and ironically presents a safer sexual option for Lucy over her syphilitic husband. She still dies, but it’s a more merciful death than syphilis. He’s almost passive in his attack on the women of English society - here, Lucy is a more active participant in the story than Mina - which robs him of some of his power. There’s less fear from the audience because our Drac seems a bit bored by it all. If you’ll forgive me, I’d say this adaptation is a tad anaemic. Still, it’s got David Suchet as Van Helsing.
Man, I watched this entire damn show, and it was bonkers. Theoretically, it was a good idea for the eternally beleaguered NBC to make a Dracula series, given the cult popularity of their series Hannibal and the growth of the genre on cable with shows like American Horror Story, The Strain and Penny Dreadful. Why not go back to the biggest name in the field, and why not reinvent the story with shades of vintage adventure stories and a few arse-kicking women? Yeah, it was not good, but it did start out rather interestingly.
Here, Dracula is essentially Tesla, and he’s living under the guise of an American entrepreneur in order to use his invention to find a cure for his sunlight allergy and wreak havoc on the people who ruined his life many centuries ago. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is pretty good, but he has nothing to work with, and the script too quickly falls into the expected clichés, from the love triangle to the tired “Mina as Dracula’s reincarnated love interest” trope.
The most fascinating elements of the story - Lucy’s burgeoning love for Mina, Van Helsing as a traitor, Mina’s work as a medical student, Jonathan Harker as a shitty exploitative journalist - are dropped quickly in favour of a wannabe Coppola romance. The one area where the series succeeds is in its depiction of Renfield. If Dracula reveals contemporary society’s various concerns, each era’s depiction of Renfield is an insight into their attitudes on mental health. In the novel, Renfield is a patient at Seward’s asylum who is exploited by Dracula. In most depictions, Renfield is Jonathan’s precursor: The solicitor sent to Dracula before him, the one who came back barking mad and ready to serve his master. It’s the discomfiting kind of ableism you still see in many pop culture depictions of mental illness, where “madness” equals badness (in total contrast to real life, where mentally ill people are more likely to be harmed than cause harm). NBC’s Dracula bypasses this stereotype by having its Renfield be a black man and an active partner of Dracula, a highly competent lawyer who pushes back against his boss’s terrible ideas, but also evidently struggles with the racism he encounters daily. It’s a refreshing take on the character, and easily the most fleshed out element of the series, but even he can’t save this incoherent mess from descending into cliché. Best avoid this one unless you’re a completest.
Universal are desperate to revive their famed Monsters series, and have made a few aborted attempts over the past couple of decades. The Mummy series is immense fun, but didn’t inspire the kind of expanded universe that now seems mandatory in blockbuster film, and Van Helsing stumbled on arrival. Originally, the newly announced “Dark Universe” was supposed to have its origins in this film, a “gritty” origin story of Dracula rooted in the history of the actual Vlad the Impaler, but tepid audience responses led to the studio pretending it never happened and skipping straight to the Tom Cruise Action Hour. It’s hardly the loss of the century - out of all the films on this list, Dracula Untold may be the most boring - but it’s not a film devoid of redeeming qualities.
This one uses the historical life of Vlad Tepes as its inspiration, but with vampires, of course. His time as a child hostage of the Ottoman Empire to secure the loyalty of his father provides the motivation for him to fight the new sultan (played by Dominic Cooper, because whitewashing) and his demand of thousands of child hostages. With his own army greatly outnumbered, Vlad makes a deal with vampire Charles Dance (intended here to be the undead Nick Fury of the Universal Monsters Initiative), and so the legend is born. All of that makes the story sound really exciting and morally murky, but this is Hollywood and the film never knows how to deal with having a literal murdering warlord as its sympathetic action hero. Nobility can only take him so far, so of course this is another Dracula story where the women are fridged, as Dracula’s wife sacrifices herself to him to save the life of their son (but don’t worry, because she’s possibly reincarnated and appears in a tacked on ending that’s intended as franchise bait).
Perhaps the biggest crime of Dracula Untold is that it messes with real history, only to somehow make it more boring with the addition of vampires. The real Vlad Tepes had an intense rivalry with his brother Radu, who the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II rallied behind in order to wage war against Vlad and overthrow him. That didn’t work but many of Vlad’s own men deserted him in favour of Radu, and an attempt to seek support from the King of the Hungarians in 1462 led to him being imprisoned for 12 years (he was murdered 2 years after his release in 1477). It was during this time that stories of Vlad’s incredible cruelty spread across Western Europe, particularly German speaking territories, where books retelling his sadistic acts became best-sellers. Why take a built-in oppositional dynamic and totally ignore it in favour of the mess that became Dracula Untold? There’s certainly a lot of unmarked territory in exploring Dracula as a leader and warlord - he’s a muscled soldier here over the lithe nobleman we’re so used to - but it’s squandered here to fit with a wobbly origin story for an intended franchise. Now, with the Dark Universe going into overdrive, poor Dracula has been left behind. Sorry, Luke Evans. At least you’ll always have Gaston.
So what’s in the future for Dracula? There’s no way Universal won’t return to that fire at some point, especially if this new shared universe actually takes off and people are hungry for the full set of monsters. From what we’ve seen from the coverage so far, this franchise will expectedly focus on big action, which would present a fresh opportunity for another attempt at the over-powered warlord version of the character. Or perhaps they’ll return to the sophisticated aristocrat audiences are used to. The options are truly limitless, although Hollywood’s aims probably aren’t. Whatever the case, there’s always a vampire to suit your needs.