DRACULA par Steven Moffat et Mark Gatiss – Across the Whoniverse


When Jonathan Harker, a young British clerk, went to Transylvania to finalise the sale of the English estate of Carfax with its new owner, an isolated old count, living in a sordid castle and feared by all, he was far from suspecting that he and his loved ones will soon face the horror and macabre coming to life in the name of the bloody vampire, Dracula. This story has been told in many ways, more or less faithfully inspired by the original work of Bram Stoker, published in 1897. Dracula has been so much adapted that it would be futile to attempt to establish an exhaustive list. But let’s talk about it today as a new adaptation has just appeared, on the BBC in the United Kingdom but distributed among us by Netflix. A very particular adaptation because it was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, For those you don’t know who they are,
Steven Moffat was the showrunner of Doctor Who during the Smith and Capaldi’s eras and Mark Gatiss is a writer and actor who also worked on Doctor Who. They are also the duo behind “Sherlock”. But first, let’s recontextualize. You must know the character of Dracula, but what do you know about the book? The novel was written by Bram Stoker towards the end of the Gothic period of which it takes the characteristics: darkness, places in ruins and desert, a demonic and nocturnal environment, characters tortured… The vampire is a flagship figure of this period, appeared for the first time in the form we still know today in the short story of 1819 “The Vampyre” by John William Polidori. Stoker, very perfectionist, took ten years to complete his novel, including as much as possible geographical descriptions or folklore of places that he have never visited. The character himself is most likely inspired by several sources, although Stoker never confirmed them himself. The main one would be Vlad Tepes, count of Wallachia, a province of Romania. In the 15th century, this count obtained this nickname of Vlad Tepes, i.e. Vlad the Impaler, according to his many cruel and bloody military acts. As soon as he was still alive, there were rumors about him, as a bloodthirsty monster, and it is extremely difficult to establish whether or not the rumors were true. The fact remains that he marked history with its macabre pleasure of impaling its enemies. And behead his opponents. And to burn alive vagrants. But before he got this nickname, he had another one: Vlad Dracula, “Son of the Dragon”, inherited from his father, Vlad Dracul, “The Dragon”. A hundred years after Vlad, was born in the 16th century, Elisabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess who supposedly murdered a large number of young women. The mystery surrounding this sinister story created a myth around the Countess Bathory, claiming that she bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth and her beauty. A myth on which legends around vampires are also based. Stoker learned a lot about folklore from Transylvania, a Romanian province neighboring Wallachia, through the writings of author Emily Gerard. This source is undoubted since he makes a crucial error from Gerard’s writings: the use of the term “Nosferatu”, now so linked to the character of Dracula. Stoker uses it as being the term designating a vampire or an undead in Romanian, whereas this one refers to the demon (and that the exact term is actually “Nesuferitu”). And for “vampire”, it’s… “vampir”. Finally, in 1810 was discovered in South America the vampire bat, a blood-sucking species, which also fed the myths surrounding vampires in Gothic novels. Let’s go back to the “Dracula” novel, and especially its story in epistolary form, based on letters, extracts from diaries or articles. We follow a lot of characters, none of whom stand out as the main character of the story: Dracula, the transylvanian vampire count, is not very present. There remains however a permanent floating threat on the other protagonists. Doctor Abraham Van Helsing is a talented Dutch professor, determined to bring down Dracula at all costs. Jonathan Harker is a notary clerk sent to Transylvania to finalise a sale with Dracula. Mina Murray is his fiancée, quick-witted and not faint-hearted. Lucy Westenra is Mina’s best friend, and a pleasant and appreciated young woman in her community. She is courted by three men simultaneously but sets her sights on Arthur Holmwood, a gentleman of the high society devoted body and soul to his fiancée, and friend with the two men rejected by this one: Quincey Morris, a brave Texan and Doctor Seward, director of the psychiatric hospital, adjoining the domain bought by Dracula, and in which is interned Mr. Renfield, intellectual zoophage, feeding on flies, spiders or larger animals and manipulated by Dracula who promises him larger prey against his obedience. The novel is more or less divided into several acts, which can be found in most adaptations: Harker arrives in Transylvania and is kidnapped by Dracula. Dracula joins England by boat, while Harker escapes. Lucy is repeatedly attacked in her sleep by Dracula, until she dies. Lucy returns from the dead and must be returned to her grave. Lucy’s friends join forces to bring down Dracula. Dracula is tracked down and then destroyed. There are many adaptations of the novel, curiously quite different according to the angles of approach chosen. With such a dense book, no choice: you have to make concessions. Some parts are keeping from the novel more than another, the roles of the characters are changing, reducing their importance or simply removing them from the plot. One of the best known is the 1931 version of “Universal Studios”, by Tod Browning, also director of “Freaks”. What we can retain from this adaptation is its relative fidelity to the majority of the plot of the novel as well as the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi in the role of Dracula, we must still note the vacuity of the work, simplifying or inverting the psychology of the characters. Fascinatingly, some of these structural and role changes will be kept in other adaptations of the novel on screens. The second best known is most likely Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola, in which Gary Oldman’s interprets the count. Of the ten adaptations that I watched to prepare this video, this is the one that seemed to me the most faithful, not to the book but to the spirit of it. The historical additions fully correspond to the descriptive precision used by Bram Stoker, and for me, if you were to see only one adaptation, it would be the most relevant, in terms of quality and interest. We could also extend to Murnau’s “Nosferatu”, adapted from the novel without the authorization of the beneficaries and therefore counting many variations, especially the names, Dracula becoming here for example Count Orlok. These changes were not enough to satisfy Stoker’s widow, who obtained an order to destroy all of the copies… which was a relative failure since many copies remained in circulation. This modified version will lead to a remake by Werner Herzog in 1979, “Nosferatu the Vampyre”, which takes the modifications of Nosferatu, the names of the characters of “Dracula”, and changes the whole structure and a part of the classic story, giving a most interesting final patchwork, although very far from the novel. Finally, note the Terence Fisher’s “Dracula”, the first of many Hammer studio films featuring the character played by Christopher Lee, with Peter Cushing in the role of Van Helsing (it gives a new reason to this “Across the Whoniverse”). Peter Cushing who, on his own, modified the resolution to add a rather epic detail, which I will not reveal to you since Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss reused it. The list is long, and I could talk for hours about other adaptations: the Blaxploitation film “Blacula”; de “Santo in: The Treasure of Dracula” in which El Santo, a very popular character in Mexico, confronts Dracula and his henchmen; “The Batman vs. Dracula”; “Dracula Untold”, more about the real Vlad Tepes; or one of the many parodies on the subject, such as “The Fearless Vampire Killers”; “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”, a parody of Browning’s film; or even “Les Charlots against Dracula”, because in France too, we know how to have fun with vampires! And I think it is important before talking about a show adaptation to cite a few television appearances of the character. The first episode of series 5 of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is often cited as an example, but Dracula is also an important character in the television show… “Chica Vampiro”! And the children who grew up in the early 90s also most likely remember the cartoon “Little Dracula”, adapted from a British series of children’s books. So what about the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss show? Already, with three episodes of 1h30, this is a format very different from the other adaptations. Browning’s adaptation itself is shorter than a single episode, so there is more exploration of the psychology of the characters. It’s midway across the book and a Moffat and Gatiss’ show. Their style is there as well as their gimmicks, so thrills seekers Sherlock fans will be delighted. The structure itself is interesting. No classic narration, not a lot of epistolary scenes. The narration takes the shape of interviews, a great well to analyse these characters in details, which lacked in many adaptations. The Dracula character is updated and modernised in a more funny and fascinating way for the current audience. Not everyone will like this irreverent version but I enjoyed and laugh at this brilliant orator. The Agatha character is also worth noting as she becomes in just a scene one of the most remarkable element of this adaptation. Even episode follows a precise part of the book: Jonathan in Transylvania, Dracula’s journey/N(Hello, you!), Dracula in the United Kingdom. I can’t really tell you much more about the story as you know Moffat and Gatiss: They always try to surprise you. Still, these three épisodes are radically different from one another. The first one has a gothic and morbid tone, the second one is more about mystery and doubt. The third one seemed to me like the one with the least interesting style and lowered my eulogistic appreciation of the show, but some of you will probably be much more moved than me by these choices. This adaptation won’t stand as one of my favourite, but it’s rich and surprising and it plays with the legend of Dracula through unexplored patterns, which makes it a fascinating reading of Bram Stoker’s work. This show is right in its time, with new themes brought up, and it succeeds to bring some fresh air upon a stretched-out story. Give this show a chance, it could surprise you in many ways. If you already watched it, tell us your thoughts in the comments, without spoilers, please! See you soon to discover another work across the Whoniverse!

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