How The Best Adaptation of Dracula Isn’t An Adaptation Of Dracula At All

Dracula is not an easy book to adapt. Told in a contemporary form of the epistolary, utilising journals, diaries—one of which is recorded on a phonograph—letters, news clippings, and even a section of a ship’s log, it juggles roughly eleven major and minor characters, five of which lend their voices to the narrative, with most of the flavour and iconic action belonging to the first half of the book. On screen, there are too many characters and relationships to devote enough time to to fully develop (though they are not horribly dense in the novel to begin with) and thusly, many adaptations of the work both combine characters and shuffle their relationships with each other into a more manageable narrative. 

This is what both Nosferatu and, naturally, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht do. Nosferatu is a minimalist version of Dracula, retaining the original flavour with only a handful of the original characters. In it, the Jonathan Harker of Dracula is turned into the character Hutter; his fiancée Mina into his wife Ellen; Dracula into Count Orlok and the mad Reinfield into Knock. Lucy, her suitors, and her subplot—her seduction and death at Dracula’s hand, her transformation into the “Bloofer Lady” and her sensational second-killing at the hand of her betrothed—are gone, as is the prominent character of Van Helsing, who guides the majority of the novel. Without this character leading the others, it is up to Ellen, the Mina character, to save the city from the vampire and its plague. Unlike her counterpart in the novel, she is not without power,  and it is she, not Van Helsing, who becomes informed on the nature of the vampire, and how to kill it. It is this knowledge, paired with her beauty and purity of heart, that overcome the vampire in the end.

Unlike Stoker’s Dracula, Murnau’s vampire Count Orlok is vanquished by Ellen in a stark contrast to the book, in which it is “the boys” that do all the noble vanquishing of evil. The 1922 date of the film argues that it was not a feminist agenda that changed the plot, but a simple need to streamline and, perhaps—to be quite honest—to keep things from being too boring.

Herzog’s adaptation of Nosferatu follows this plot, yet this time the characters are more recognisable; Hutter has turned back into Jonathan Harker, Count Orlok is Count Dracula once more, with Knock as Reinfeld again. It is Ellen that has an interesting transformation in Phantom Der Nacht as a hybrid of the characters Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, which is surprisingly effective. This new character marries Lucy’s name and pure (as opposed to literally virginal) character with Mina’s as the “New Woman” of the 1890s she is in the book—nevermind that Phantom Der Nacht, like Nosferatu, takes place in an unidentified early/mid-Victorian era (for some unidentified reason.)

The reshuffle and deletion of character does, of course, change Stoker’s original story drastically, but unlike other adaptations of the work, Nosferatu and Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht retain the Gothicism of the original novel better than any other; Dracula is, in fact, one book in a long line of Gothic fiction. It is not really part of the ‘vampire genre’ or paranormal genre—or whatever other title holds the hundreds of vampire novels in the modern market. It is Gothic horror, a movement born out of and mixed with the Romantic movement, which started—in English—in the mid-late 18th century with works like, most notably, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s  The Monk (1796). The following waves of Gothicism gave us Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818), alongside the first vampire in English fiction, J Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), and contributed—even if in parody—to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818). The work of Edgar Allen Poe falls into this movement at a later date, as does Sheridan Le Fanu’s tale of a female vampire in Styria, Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and, near the very end, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

At the time of Dracula’s publication, this ‘vampire genre’ had not yet cleaved from Gothic fiction on its own, and accordingly, Dracula faithfully retains the Gothic & Gothic Romanticism tropes of supernaturalism, virginal maidens, sympathetic weather (taken possibly to a new extreme, being that Dracula himself can manifest as fog), and the gloomy setting of old castles and ‘exotic’ countries with their foreboding and haunting architecture acting as characters in themselves. Many adaptations of Dracula do not recognize Dracula in it Gothic context, but see it with modern eyes as perhaps one of the first of the ‘vampire genre,’ and thusly, they operate polarly to the adaptation of Nosferatu and Phantom Der Nacht, aligning the work only to the rules of what is now the ‘vampire genre’ as opposed to the rules of Gothicism. Forgoing its Gothic roots, these adaptations can be too reaching in attempting to supplement for this, adding theatricality, opulence and new metaphors that damage the piece as a whole, and often work against what it is trying to achieve. This is, of course, a huge mistake; Dracula is already sufficiently rich and adequately surreal solely by obeying the rules of Gothic fiction. A film that most markedly does not realise this is Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an overly lush and unnecessarily padded film which attempts to enrich Dracula with the figure and legacy of the Wallachian voivode, Vlad Dracula—or Vlad Țepeş, “the Impaler.” This, along with many other changes (and one truly appalling British accent) grates violently against both the Victorian era and the novel it attempts to enrich, and ends up being basically unwatchable. But if you were to look at Phantom Der Nacht alongside Bram Stoker’s Dracula and judge it solely on how faithfully it sticks to the original plot, Bram Stoker’s Dracula would undoubtedly come out ahead. By miles. Which is to argue that it is not the exactness of Dracula we want, but the feeling. And that feeling is Gothic.

Gothic fiction can arguably be called an early form of surrealism. They were, in their beginning, called romances instead of novels; novels being what were rational (and largely written by men), following an interpreted vein of Classicism, while romances were, be they sentimental Gothic or horror Gothic, quasi-historical fantasies, with large action and plots that were, quite frankly, difficult to swallow as reality. And with preternatural beings, especially vampires, the horror Gothic has a dream-like surrealism; dream-like in which it sways between a dream and a nightmare. This is what an adaptation of Dracula needs, and this is what Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht gives us. In the audio commentary to Phantom Der Nacht,Herzog remarks that he was very careful to obey the rules of the genre of film he was making, “A vampire film must somehow lapse into a separate reality, otherwise you have not made a vampire film.” Creatures such as vampires are difficult to believe in solid reality, but they are accepted easily and without second thought in a dream reality. 

As with all the great Gothic works, Phantom Der Nacht does not break its surrealism, but, with each act, grows more and more subtly abstract and strange, creating its own world and its own identity in which the absurd is no longer absurd. The film becomes stranger and more controlled;  this is why the oddness—or historical inaccuracy—of some of the costuming or make up (notably of Lucy) does not work against it, nor are we surprised by the stylised acting of some of the background actors, or of Kinski’s Dracula, with which every move and utterance was painstakingly choreographed before filming.  These elements, and others, give us the necessary surrealism of the vampire film, and are the necessary conversions of not just the Gothic fiction into film, but of the vampire himself in Gothic fiction. It is a world fully reflective of “the other,” the singular quality so achingly present in Stoker’s character of the vampire Count. Dracula as “The Other” does not belong to a human world, nor to the real 19th century, but a dream of both. Modern audiences have lost the fear of Dracula’s representation of “otherness” in the vein of xenophobia, or of degenerates, lunatics or, simply put, “lesser humans” contributing to the population which so worried the Victorians newly aware of Darwinian evolution, but we still understand “the other” in our own capacities. And it is still somewhat evil, metaphysical, mystic and exotic. That we are not told the story from Dracula’s point of view, but by observers who cannot understand the machinations of his undead mind, creates a further distancing, and a more pointed sense of “otherness” for the viewer. He is absent for more of the film than he is present, busy with unknown horrors as the plague—or perhaps it really is vampirism—ravages the population of Wismar.

The unknown, now as it was then, is always a kind of horror. And horror is the heart of Gothicism, and of Dracula.

Stoker’s Dracula is a novel stunningly rich with decadent imagery. If we remember anything sharply from the work, they are images—Harker finding Dracula asleep in his coffin, “lay[ing] like a filthy leech,”; the Count crawling down the wall of his castle like a reptile; the two deaths of Lucy, one pale, virginal, the other sensational, sexual, and gory. Whether it is the modern mind who links vampires intrinsically to sexuality, or if it is only the style of old Gothicism, Dracula is a sensually decadent novel, rich with lush descriptions, the atmospheres of every act laden with a  palpitating, mystic darkness. 

Murnau’s Nosferatu is also striking in the image of Max Schrek—haunting, stark, pest-like, his hands spidery and his sharp teeth not the elongated canines, but the two front teeth, like a rat or  even the pinchers of a spider. Kinski’s Dracula follows suit closely, and like Phanton Der Nacht as a whole, he is not accurate in exactness; for instance, he does not have a widow’s peak or a moustache or hairy palms—but he is accurate in this feeling of “otherness.” He is still cold and inhuman as Orlok is, haunting, stark, and pest like. That he is pest-like in this way, that he as Dracula has control over the rats, is another stroke of accidental genius, as Wismar is afflicted with the plague on Dracula’s arrival. As we now know, rats played a large part in the distribution of the plague, an illness which was, contemporarily, called the Pestilence. 

Analyses like these may feel far reaching, and I do not think all of these metaphors, parallels and subtle nods to origin sources are deliberately designed, but they are nevertheless a small contribution to the argument that vampire folklore, even today, and even if only in fiction and not actual belief, is still deeply imbedded in us, so much so that the metaphors create themselves.

Unlike many modern vampires, the Dracula in Phantom Der Nacht is not fully sympathetic—he has not been “castrated” as some critics phrase it—but exists in a balance between the full malevolent evil of Stoker’s Count and the anti-heroes of Anne Rice’s vampires in The Vampire Chronicles, who, despite being a bit bad, are the “cool” outsiders struggling to find reason, cope, and fit in—a tale that, oddly enough, every living person can relate to. Herzog’s Dracula is still malevolent, and perhaps wants human things, but in an inhuman and diseased way. His melancholy doesn’t devilify him, but lets him rest comfortably with the viewer definitely as the bad guy but not so bad that we hate his appearance on screen.

While Dracula nominally carries the limelight, the most surprising and stunning transformation is in the character of Lucy—largely due to her beauty. At the end of the film, it is, after all, her purity and beauty that lure the vampire to his death, and the way this beauty is constructed is a work of genius. Her make up, consisting of heavy black eye liner and shadow, is reminiscent of the Ellen character from Nosferatu and the entire moody flapper look of the 1920s. On any other actress the transformation may have ended there, but on Isabelle Adjani, with her mournful eyes and strong jaw, she is visually a Pre-Raphaelite beauty—that “passive, anglo-saxon ‘Waterhouse’ girl who so often appears barefoot, with a yearning, flower-like face, gazing at or running from a man.” Ultimately, however, Lucy is not quite the passive Pre-Raphaelite figure, not Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, or Shakespeare’s Ophelia—she is Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci wielded by Waterhouse, “less blatantly malevolent” than the many sirens of Waterhouse’s brush, their song and beauty luring men to their death, and thereby “more convincingly seductive.” She is both the strength of Mina as the New Woman, and the winsome young Lucy. Even her costuming is reminiscent of the wardrobe of these Pre-Raphaelites subjects—some more traditionally belonging to the 1850s, and some invoking the 15th century, as one might see in Waterhouse’s depictions of Ophelia, Medea or The Lady Clare. With specific reference to Waterhouse, working in the 1890s, this is a stunning and very surreal nod to decade in which Stoker penned and published Dracula. 

The feminist critique of Lucy’s sacrifice is a tricky one. This telling is hardly the kind of slaying we’re used to seeing with such female victors as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It Lucy’s own goodness and purity, embodied in the female sex, that is used to kill Dracula in the end; she is a femme fatal, and hardly the kick-ass feminist trope. She triumphs even in the normative, expected passivity of her own gender in the era, though it is still horridly dangerous and erotic—so much so, that she and her victim die. Perhaps this is a conquest of femininity, or perhaps it represents the utter paranoia and mistrust of sexual women and sexuality  so fitting for the era. Either way, it is what the film demands as an adaptation, and why the ending was changed from the novel, let alone anything else, can only be answered by Murnau.

So, convinced yet? Even though it isn’t a direct adaptation of Dracula, Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht excels in giving us a proper gothic retelling of Stoker’s masterpiece—nightmarish, beautiful and even erotic, portraying the subversive “otherness” of the vampire, befit with eerie landscapes, gloomy castles and an end far eerier than Stoker’s Dracula.

make sure to watch the German language version, and not the English language version, which goes by the title of Nosferatu: The Vampyre. The performances are extremely different.

Referenced Works & Recommending Reading / Viewing

Dracula - Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Documentary Journey Into Vampire Country and the Dracula Phenomenon - Elizabeth Miller

JW Waterhouse - Peter Trippi 

Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey - Alison Gernsheim

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979)