Among the top ten novels ever adapted is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Every decade since the beginning of film in the 20th century sparked one or another version of the classic tale of a Transylvanian Count who likes to drink blood. Perhaps the most popular and one of the earliest adaptations is Nosferatu, a German expressionist film that is still loved by film fans today. While Dracula was not the first tale of Vampires, it was the most influential one. Based on the story of Vlad The Impaler, it combines real stories of sadistic aristocrats with the common superstition of the undead and blood-sucking creatures that were the focus of tales told in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. In the book, a young English man by the name of Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania for some real estate business with a Count, who turns out to be a vampire, drinking blood and turning young women into his “brides”.
Published at the end of the 19th century, it is a classic representation of romantic gothic literature, a genre which gained popularity in the late 18th and early 19th century. Stories of old castles, ghosts, myths, and demonic possession were an attempt to deal with the rapid changes in the world through the industrialization and progressions in the medical field. Famous works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein have typical themes such as medical experiments and the god complex as well as the Sublime — an overwhelming effect of the power of nature as well as the supernatural — and the feeling of something uncanny –- not quite human, not quite object. The stories were often set in medieval locations such as castles and palaces, playing with primal fears. A classic element of the romantic gothic is the distinction between terror (the feeling of anticipation, dread, and fear) and horror (a feeling that follows a frightening sound or appearance). These elements are all well represented in Dracula and its adaptations. The novel has influenced numerous other versions of the vampire story — it is truly an immortal subject in popular culture.
While there are many versions and partial adaptations of the novel, one of the most famous ones is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1995 film starring Gary Oldman and Wynonna Ryder. In most recent years, we saw such works as Dracula: Untold (2014) starring Luke Evans and a short-lived TV series Dracula (2013) starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as well as the character appearing in the highly successful series Penny Dreadful (2015). Almost every other year there is a new Dracula adaptation — why are we so fascinated by this story? The answer is quite simple, for the same reasons people were first fascinated by the novel: a power and blood-hungry aristocrat, a young, innocent man who fights for the love of his life, a spooky story, brave men fighting for the good and a great villain is all we need for an entertaining story.
Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat are no strangers to adapting classic stories to the small (and bigger) screen. Their most famous work is still the modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, the BBC series and worldwide phenomenon Sherlock (2009-2016). Their dedication to the original stories and their clever strategies to adapt and transform them into a modern setting proved why the world-famous detective has always and possibly will always be relevant to audiences, no matter the decade, century or year. Steven Moffat (who also was the showrunner of Doctor Who for several years) has also adapted another famous gothic tale, Doctor Jekyll And Mister Hyde, in his 2007 TV series Jekyll. This dream team of literary adaptations has now reunited to present the newest installment of their oeuvre: Dracula. From here on out there will be spoilers, so approach with caution.
Like Sherlock, Dracula is split into three 90-minute episodes, making them appear more like feature films than TV episodes. And indeed, this is what the episodes feel like.
The first episode, “Rules Of The Beast”, doesn’t start with the immediate introduction of Castle Dracula, but with a convent and a rather battered Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan). We see a shell of a man, with dead eyes, papery skin and bruising all over his body, while he tells a nun — Sister Agatha (the wonderful Dolly Wells) — the story of how he escaped from Count Dracula’s claws. While the novel is a so-called epistolary novel (told in the form of letters and diary entries) to create a more relatable and realistic story, the series chooses to introduce its narrative similarly, by letting Harker speak for himself.
The series then begins to introduce the preceding events, with Jonathan Harker’s trip to Transylvania and his arrival at the Count’s castle. The shots of nature, the arrival at the castle and the castle itself are all an accumulation of what the Sublime represents in gothic fiction: it is used not only to evoke fear in the character but also to build tension for the audience. The production design is impeccable, with meandering staircases, dimly-lit corridors and enough creepy, old portraits for a lifetime. With the visualization of these elements of the story, Dracula manages to set the mood for the entire series. Dracula himself (played marvelously by Claes Bang) appears as an old, ancient man with no resemblance to the attractive and youthful looks of what we are used to from other adaptations. Gatiss and Moffat choose to interpret their way of showing Dracula’s bloodlust — and consumption — as not only giving him life (and a youthful appearance), but also the knowledge of the victim. From Jonathan’s blood, Dracula can read the name of his fiancée Mina, and also improve his English skills.
It is already apparent in the first episode that this is a Gatiss and Moffat work, because it bears the same wit and dynamic in the dialogue as their other works, without making it seem like a copy. We can see that especially in sister Agatha and her snarky commentary when she describes her life as a nun-like being trapped in a loveless marriage for a roof over her head, or when Dracula answers with, “And you’re a lawyer, nobody’s perfect,” when Jonathan accuses him of being a monster. It is these things that make the episode such a great piece of television on top of the masterfully created elements of gothic (and horror) well-represented in the show.
Adding to the interior of the castle, we have the other gothic element of the Uncanny represented in the way Count Dracula’s victims are portrayed in the show. While in most adaptations he just turns these other people into vampires themselves or lets them die, Dracula here introduces a concept that is closely linked to original tales and myths of the vampire phenomenon: vampires are those who can’t die, whose bodies rot while their mind is alert — a common fear and one reason why some graveyards had bells, ropes and other objects installed at graves to avoid being buried alive. Some cultures even put stakes through the hearts of corpses, or cut off their heads and placed them between their feet to avoid them walking the earth as the undead. These myths are all married into the concept of the Undead in Dracula, where he nails them into boxes (not coffins) and they hunt Jonathan in their agony of death, more zombie than a human. Sometimes this borders on being comical, especially in the scene where we see a baby turned into one of these undead zombies, making it look more ridiculous than scary. That is a rather disappointing solution of a scene that is definitely on the creepier side, where Dracula carries a bundle of a crying baby that is meant as an after-dinner snack.
The show also manages to include nods to other incarnations of the novel when they show a shot of Dracula that is a direct homage to Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the character, and when they use elements from other classic horror films. They even manage to imply a nod to their other famous work, when Sister Agatha talks about having a “detective friend in London” at the turn of the 19th century, which was most likely Sherlock Holmes.
Throughout the episode, as Jonathan grows weaker while Dracula grows stronger and looks more like a hot Phil Dunphy (I can’t unsee it), we also learn more about him and the things he fears. We see the classics: sunlight and the cross, but we don’t know why he fears them. We do learn, however, that Jonathan is much less alive than we anticipated. He has been turned into one of the Undead, doesn’t even recognize his fiancée and ends up being the one inviting Dracula into the convent, killing most of the brave nuns who first tried to fend him off with their wooden stakes. The episode closes off with Dracula biting (and killing) Sister Agatha (whose last name is Van Helsing, by the way) while Mina escapes.
The second episode, “Blood Vessel”, describes Dracula’s journey to England via a ship called The Demeter. Like episode 1, this one is structured in a way where it switches between a conversation between two characters and the actual plot. This time, the conversation is a bizarre game of chess between Agatha Van Helsing and Dracula himself, reconstructing the events aboard The Demeter and posing the question of the mystery of who lies in Cabin Nine. The Demeter itself appears in the novel, so the plot is loosely based around the original story now, while the first episode seemed to be a little closer, so this can be seen as a transitional episode. The audience learns more about Dracula and his needs, namely the fact that he needs to sleep on Transylvanian earth to stay alive and keep his powers, which is why he travels with boxes full of dirt.
This episode manages to turn into an actual horror movie, with a murderer on a ship you can’t escape and each character with their connection or fascination with the Count. There’s a secretly queer couple (whose killings are not a good look, but then again, what do we expect from a show about a killer vampire?), the loyal captain, the old lady and of course the ship’s crew, who disappear one by one depending on the Count’s needs (like eating the German crew member when he needs to polish his German skills). In true Gatiss/Moffat fashion, there is also the mystery that needs to be solved. Throughout the episode, the audience and Sister Agatha slowly find out together that the mysterious patient in cabin nine is her, and that Dracula has been keeping her in a dream-like state while he feeds off of her.
However, she manages to outsmart him and break free, peaking in an (apparently successful) attempt on Dracula’s life when they sink the boxes with Transylvanian earth and trap him to burn him alive. Their attempt, however, was in vain, and Dracula manages to escape the attempt, but he doesn’t escape the sinking ship in time, sending him to the bottom of the ocean. When he emerges from the waves, there are suddenly helicopters, police cars, people with weapons and a very much alive version of Sister Agatha in uniform staring back at him. This was the twist I had been waiting for since episode one, because I knew they wouldn’t just give the audience an extended version of the Dracula story, Moffat and Gatiss wanted to take one further step, and prove that they manage to understand the essence of these stories and can transform them splendidly.
That brings us to the final installment, “The Dark Compass”. Dracula is now in the present time, making his time underwater just shy of 123 years long. He manages to escape and flee to a house, where he absorbs the knowledge about the 21st century by killing his first victim. But he is caught and transported to a facility called The Jonathan Harker foundation, which transfers Jonathan’s effort to inform the world about Dracula and his actions into a modern agency with skilled scientists. Their joy over finally catching the subject of their research is however short-lived because Dracula has absorbed all knowledge about the 21st century, mostly the knowledge about the powers lawyers have. Writer and creator Mark Gatiss plays this lawyer himself, adding a wonderful comic relief to the story and undoubtedly thrilled to be part of this scheme and story.
This episode also introduces a vital character, Lucy (Lydia West), who in the novel gets bitten by Dracula and slowly withers away, even though she gets multiple blood transfusions. Modern-day Lucy is not a helpless maiden, but a strong-willed woman who settles for no man and enjoys being a free spirit. The portrayal of Lucy borders on problematic when Jack-The-Nice-Guy just wants to be her boyfriend but she prefers playing juice box to a big bad vampire. But it is also interesting to see that a modern-day young woman makes these choices for herself, that she isn’t afraid of death or the big bad vampire, but that she understands and willingly becomes part of that world. Until of course she is turned into one of the Undead and has to suffer through being burned alive and still not being able to die. In the end, it’s Jack who kills her, Lucy, the one human Dracula felt like he could choose to spend eternity with.
The key figure, again, is Van Helsing. Now, of course, it’s not Agatha, but Zoe, her great-great-niece, who continues her legacy. And her will to understand and with that destroy Dracula is what drives her, even though she is dying of cancer (which makes her blood poisonous to Dracula). Throughout this episode, we find out what Dracula’s weaknesses mean. That he is not burned by the sunlight, or fears the cross or is unable to enter a home without an invitation because he is unholy, but because of a different reason: they are “habits turning into fetishes turning that become legends” — and these are the so-called “rules of the beast”. According to Zoe, Dracula was first confronted with his “fears” when he fell in love with Lucy, because she felt herself drawn to all the things that make others afraid of him. She concludes that Dracula himself craves the death he so often brings upon others. He fears the cross because it is a sign of courage and a sign of not being afraid of death. In the face of the sun and after listening to Zoe’s analysis, Dracula is shown overcome with emotion.
We now enter the final few minutes of this series, and while they are highly philosophical and bring an interesting twist to the immortal murderer, they also bring about a strange ending for Zoe and Dracula. Since her blood is poisonous to him and she is dying anyway, she is the one who can bring him the death he so much craves. The way this is portrayed, however, is that Zoe and Dracula end up sleeping with each other in the vision he conjures, sending the rather weird message that this would be the thing that a woman craves in death, especially from the man she has spent most of her life researching and fighting. This destroys a beautiful scene of epiphanies, but thankfully not the entire series.
All in all, Dracula shows that Gatiss and Moffat are still skilled in adapting a classic story and bringing their own clever twists to it. While there are scenes, moments and character choices that are questionable, they don’t obliterate the overall appeal of the show. It is refreshing to see a Dracula adaptation that is not solely about him seducing his victims but shows his character and what drives him as well as giving his “victims” a backstory. It has elements of horror, classic Dracula movies, and modern character-driven television that make it a joy to watch.