Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)
A few months ago, I was mostly unaware of the entire plot of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Of course, I had acquired some basic knowledge through pop culture and was convinced I’d know what was going to happen. As it turns out, I was wrong.
Somewhere around the beginning of May, after seeing countless posts around social media dedicated to it, I finally caved in and subscribed to Dracula Daily. This is a project that sends Dracula to your email inbox, in real time. Dracula is an epistolary novel, meaning that it consists of dated diary entries, newspaper clippings, and other similar “written” elements, which makes it ideal for consuming the novel in this manner. The whole story takes place between May 3 and November 7, and doesn’t have an entry for every single day, certainly not ones of equal length, but in my opinion this adds another layer to the story that is missed when reading the actual novel back-to-back. For example, the novel starts out with one of the protagonists, Jonathan Harker, being captive in Dracula’s castle. The breaks between updates and varying length of these truly emphasise the period of time he was imprisoned and the slow decline of his optimistic attitude as he starts questioning whether he will ever get out or if what he is experiencing is even real. I’ll admit that I haven’t actually read the novel as it was published, but have heard from other readers that Dracula was not assembled chronologically, so this also gives a different angle to analyse the events happening throughout the novel. Of course, reading Dracula over a century after it was published adds a certain sense of humour to the novel; to modern readers, it’s obvious that the title character is a vampire, but back when it was written, vampires in general weren’t as well-known as they are now, and the name Dracula had no vampiric connotations.
In any case, a few months ago I had no clue what I was getting myself into, and certainly wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the novel this much; especially considering I am usually not a person for horror. I could never have been more wrong. Throughout reading the novel, it became very evident to me that the central theme of it was love, however cheesy it sounds. The group killing Dracula is first bonded by their love for and friendship with Lucy Westenra, which later echoes in their affection for Mina Harker; these two women are the primary reason that they go on their mission to kill Dracula at all. Contrary to what I expected, the group is only able to kill the vampire through teamwork and the power of friendship. It certainly wasn’t because Van Helsing came in and saved everyone from the horrible monster with his superior knowledge about the supernatural and vampire-hunting skills.
This brings me to arguably the most important aspect that popular culture has gotten all wrong about Dracula: the characterization of the protagonists. In the novel, Van Helsing is an old Dutch man with a long list of PhDs and other honorifics who speaks broken English and goes on elaborate rants that don’t seem to have anything to do with the matter at hand; a far thing from the action-hero brandishing crosses and stakes that I had pictured with the knowledge pop culture brought me. Even the depiction of his vampiric knowledge is incorrect; Van Helsing only realises vampires exist a few days before the rest of the characters do, and is mostly guessing which folkloric traditions to repel and kill them actually work. To cast him as Dracula’s archenemy is almost laughable after reading the novel; Van Helsing isn’t even present when the group kills the vampire.
Another character who is grossly mischaracterised is Jonathan Harker, who in most adaptations is the boring, oppressive husband of Mina or in the best cases, portrayed as dutiful but enforcing of gender stereotypes and not truly loving towards his wife. This ties into the portrayal of Dracula as Mina’s liberator from an oppressive marriage, or Mina as Dracula’s reincarnated lover from a past life. I cannot conceive how anyone reading the novel could possibly have had that take-away from it, so I will simply choose to believe any scriptwriters had not read it. Consistently throughout the novel, Jonathan and Mina’s love for each other is evident in the way they are constantly ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for their spouse, and mostly wish to kill Dracula for what he has done to the other, rather than to themselves. Nor is it a very typical, period-conforming couple from the start; from the small things like Jonathan holding onto Mina’s arm in public- not exactly following rules of Victorian etiquette- to the bigger declarations like Jonathan confessing he would give up the chance of going to heaven if Mina was to turn into a vampire, to follow her into vampirism. For a man who has spend months in a vampiric castle and has sworn he would rather die than turn into one himself, this is a rather big proclamation; especially compared to the more pious love of Arthur Holmwood for Lucy, who drives a stake through the heart of his beloved so that she may reach heaven instead of remaining a vampire. In contrast, Jonathan straight-out refuses to promise to kill Mina if she turns into one, even when she asks him to.
As Dracula returns to Transylvania and the group follows to kill him, Mina slowly starts turning into a vampire through the bond that Dracula forced upon her through a process of exchanging blood. Jonathan, portrayed in pop culture as a not particularly devoted husband, is described as constantly watching over her and sharpening his knife while glaring at Dr Seward and Van Helsing, who regularly discuss whether or not Mina is already beyond saving from vampirism. Jonathan also seems to be driven by the thought of killing Dracula in general, but never loses his tenderness towards his wife: “[Jonathan’s] nostrils twitched and his eyes blazed as I told how the ruthless hands of the Count had held his wife in that terrible and horrid position … It interested me, even at that moment, to see, that, whilst the face of white set passion worked convulsively over the bowed head, the hands tenderly and lovingly stroked the ruffled hair” (Chapter 21). To say Mina wishes to be liberated from her marriage to her husband is absurd, considering her declarations of love towards Jonathan are just as impactful and she is arguably the person who works the hardest to see Dracula destroyed after seeing how he has traumatised her husband. In any case, her burning hatred towards Dracula is evident in both her actions and words as they all work to destroy him.
Moving on to the lesser-known characters; in the novel Lucy has three suitors, all with a distinct skillset and personality. However, most adaptations and pop culture only include two at most: Arthur Holmwood, an English Lord who ends up being Lucy’s fiancé, and Dr Jack Seward, who manages an asylum and is the person to introduce Van Helsing to the rest of the group. This is quite unfortunate, considering my favourite of the three is the one often left unmentioned: Quincey Morris, an American from Texas. Not much more needs to be said about him except that he, upon finding out Dracula can change into a bat, starts shooting bats at random around London. Generally, he’s usually the person to take direct action instead of the endless thinking and doubting that most characters are prone to.
Plotwise, pop culture had me believe that it would be far more filled with action scenes and battles with Dracula, while in reality they (spoiler alert) kill him in his sleep after not much of a struggle. Perhaps it is because I read the novel through Dracula Daily, but most of the story seems to be waiting for something to happen, and when something big happens it’s more anticlimactic than I had expected. The general horror and creepiness of the novel was not there because Dracula is a vampire with supernatural powers (in fact, most confrontations take place when he is close to powerless). His manipulative and calculating personality that allows him to toy with his human food before he actually kills them and his affinity for instilling this fear in his prey is more terrifying than any superhuman strength or shapeshifting could ever have been. Unfortunately for him, he continuously underestimates humans, which ends up being his downfall. At the risk of sounding incredibly cliché, Dracula did not have the motivation of love and the strength of friendship that the protagonists had, merely servants who weren’t truly loyal to him. Even Renfield, an asylum patient who is portrayed as his most devoted and fanatic servant, turns against him when he realises that Dracula wants to harm Mina, the only person who actually treated Renfield like a human being.I believe the biggest problem of most Dracula adaptations is that they take themselves too seriously. The novel has plenty of lighter moments- one worthy of mention is a dock worker making fun of Dracula wearing a straw hat “which suits not him or the time” (Chapter 24). And, as mentioned before, the disregard of love and community being major themes in the book. In fact, there wouldn’t have been a book if a background Romanian woman hadn’t given her rosary to Jonathan just before he set off to the castle- he would have been killed in chapter 2. Without Jonathan’s knowledge of Dracula, they never could have defeated him. However, every character of the group has valuable skills and knowledge to contribute and had a single one of them been omitted in the novel, they would not have succeeded. The love they have for Lucy and Mina that brings them together is evident throughout the entire story, proven by both their actions and words. Dracula isn’t about epic battles with vampires and the seduction of innocent maidens, it is, put simply, about love.
Written by Merel Langeveld