I wonder what defines a film adaptation of a book? How much of the story or dialogue, or characters need to make it onto the screen for the film to be able to honestly say that it’s an adaptation of a given book. From experience it seems that really all that has to happen is for a film to have the same name as a book and maybe feature a character with the same name as one from that book, and the scumbags from the marketing department slap “adapted from the novel by…” on the opening credits.
The opening credits of Dracula (1931) roll accompanied by music from Swan Lake which is unusual to say the least. The film proper starts with a carriage taking people across the Carpathian mountains on Walpurgisnacht, so the carriage is in a big hurry to make it to the inn before sundown, due to the evil that will be walking the earth that night. One of the travellers doesn’t want to stay at the inn but instead wants to go onto meet another carriage that will take him on to castle Dracula, much to the dismay of the inn keeper, who tells of Count Dracula and his wives (yes, wives as in more than one, maybe he was a Mormon?) and how they’re all shapeshifting vampires. The eager gentleman is on business however and has to go to the castle immediately, so an old woman gives him a crucifix to protect him up at the castle and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the young mans departure.
Castle Dracula appears to be abandoned and large parts are in ruins and infested with wild animals. The Count himself appears and introduces himself to the young man who we learn is a Mr. Renfield and who has kept his visit to Transylvania a secret as per Dracula’s instruction. The purpose of his trip is for Dracula to sign a lease on Carfax Abbey back in England and Dracula plans to travel to England the very next evening to take up residence in his new digs. Later that night, poor old Renfield suffers a turn after an encounter with a large bat and collapses in his room just as Dracula’s three wives approach, though Dracula himself turns up and sends them away before moving in and attacking Renfield himself.
The action then moves to the Vesta, the ship carrying Dracula and Renfield (who’s now a slave to Dracula obsessed with drinking the blood of “small lives” like insects) to England. By the time the ship reaches England there’s no one aboard left alive except Renfield who has gone totally around the twist and is committed to an asylum, conveniently located next to Carfax Abbey, Drac’s new crash pad.
With Dracula loose in London, no flower-girl is safe and he gets down to some murder almost straight away. Once he’s fed he ponces around town in his best clobber and takes in a show. At the show Dracula meets his new neighbours, Dr. Seward who runs the asylum next door; Mina the doctors daughter; Jonathon Harker, Mina’s fiance; and Lucy, the puzzle-factory’s owner’s daughter’s friend who takes a shine to the count. Dracula is a bit odd and talks about death and such, though they put it down to him being from a shit-hole in Eastern Europe as opposed to him being a raving looney and vampire.
Dracula makes a move on Lucy and ends up killing her, leaving a bunch of medical professionals who investigate her death to wonder how she lost so much blood so quickly. Meanwhile, Renfield is having a hard time in hospital as the staff are reluctant to let him eat the flies and spiders that pass his way and his case attracts the attention of Prof. Van Helsing, who studies Renfield’s blood and decides that Renfield is a bit of a vampire. To prove his conclusions the professor confronts Renfield with some wolfbane and puts his bad reaction down to vampirism (as opposed to maybe an allergy).
Shortly after Mina is attacked and is unwell as a result. Those around Mina try to figure out who the vampire is behind the attacks just as Count Dracula pays a visit and Van Helsing notices that he has no reflection in a mirror…
For me, the quintessential Dracula film will need to feature a few core components and thankfully they are all present in the ’31 Dracula. The count himself, Mina, Jonny Harker, Renfield, and vampires that avoid sunlight are all requirements, but there are a couple of pieces of dialogue I always like to hear in a Drac outing and they both occur near the start; when the Count hears the wolves howl and says to Harker “Ah, the children of the night, what music they make” and when he tells Harker “I never drink… wine” during the dinner early on. Both these made into Dracula though there is a major difference in how it did both those scenes, and that was no Harker!
In this version it’s Renfield who goes to Transylvania and brings Dracula to England to wreck havoc, which actually makes a lot more sense as it’s never been clear to me how Renfield fell under Dracula’s spell before Harker encounters him in Transylvania (unless Renfield had been there earlier and returned or something, then why send Harker if that was the case? – this is what happens when you adapt a book written by a drunken Irishman!) Seeing as how Renfield is the one to go east, Dracula doesn’t become interested in Mina or any of the rest of the gang until he gets to England and actually meets them, which also makes a bit more sense as Drac was heading to England anyway which is why he was picking up some property there.
With Renfield taking more of a centre stage role, Harker is left in the background, so Dracula makes this Harker into a bit of gobshite. Renfield, as played by Dwight Frye (who played the doctors assistant Fritz in Frankenstein) is proper disturbing when he’s playing the man gone mad, and his maniacal laugh is a fucking nasty (and therefore amazing) piece of acting. In fact, Renfield is one of the best things in Dracula, after Dracula himself, as he gets the most pivotal role and has the best death in the film too, when he ses his end is near and his conscience is getting the better of him for all the flies and spiders he’s murdered and realises that the afterlife might not be as kind to him as he’d always hoped.
The other stellar performance in Dracula is of course Bela Lugosi as the Count. Lugosi’s accent (which was actually his own, he didn’t really “act” all that much in Dracula) was perfect for the role and he managed to play the vampire aristocrat exceptionally well. The scenes featuring Dracula and Van Helsing together are the best in the movie as the way the vampire and Van Helsing play off each other is brilliant.
There were some pretty decent special effects for a film that’s now over eighty years old, and I especially liked the scene early on where Dracula walks through the cobwebs without disturbing them – the accompanying analogy of the spider spinning a web to catch an unsuspecting fly was a nice touch too. Some of the other effects are as good as you could reasonably expect from a film of this vintage, though the absence of a reflection for the Count is particularly well done while the bat effects are shite.
Throughout Dracula there is only one scene with any music and that’s set at a concert so the music is coming from the stage, apart from that and the opening credits there’s no soundtrack to Dracula, so all the scenes are left to hang on dialogue alone and the resulting silences are fucking creepy. Once you’re in immersed in Dracula you don’t feel like you’re watching a film at all seeing as how there are no musical cues to tell you when a scene is dramatic or romantic or going to be scary.
This Dracula strayed from the book that inspired it but that really didn’t matter as the result was so good (despite a bit of a chopped off ending) and became so iconic that the version of the vampire Count from Transylvania that it presented is now how most people imagine him.
Two Thumbs Up for Dracula.
I vant to cleek on yoor Leenks: