‘Dracula’ and the Bible

NBC television has a new 10-episode miniseries this fall called Dracula. It’s based on the famous vampire from Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel.

I’ve never read Stoker’s novel. I’m not sure I could. I’m not sure any of us could. It’s still in print and readily available — you can download a free ebook version here, or read it online if you like. But those of us sitting here, in 2013, will still have a very hard time reaching back to 1897 to read the book as Stoker intended it to be read or as its first readers read it at the turn of the last century.

Stoker’s language and style may seem a bit archaic, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Stoker introduced symbols and characters and creatures that have, for more than a century, been redefined, reinterpreted and re-presented dozens of times over. If I go back to the original book and encounter those symbols, I can’t help but bring with me all the new meanings that have attached to them over the intervening years.

When Stoker wrote of “Dracula” and “vampires” and “Transylvania” he did not and could not have meant all the things that I cannot help but take those words to mean, to imply, to connote. It would require enormous effort on my part — not just willpower, but extensive research and scholarship — to encounter Stoker’s words and symbols without all that extra and extraneous meaning those words and symbols have since collected and accreted. I’m not sure that project could ever be wholly successful.

The cover of the first edition of the book shown here has just four words on it, but it’s immensely difficult to read even those four words without importing and imposing a vast amount of information they don’t actually contain. The “Dracula” I already know is not the same thing as the “Dracula by Bram Stoker.” My Dracula includes a thousand things Bram Stoker never dreamed of — Bela Lugosi and the Universal movies, Ed Wood and Abbot and Costello, Buffy, Twilight, The Lost Boys, Sesame Street, Count Chocula, Nosferatu, Willem Dafoe, Barnabas Collins, Salem’s Lot, True Blood, Louis and Lestat, and dozens of other things I’ve forgotten reading or watching even though their influence lingers, unacknowledged.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Stoker’s novel:

3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P. M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.

We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “paprika hendl,” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians. I found my smattering of German very useful here; indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.

Having had some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.

In the population of Transylvania there are four distinct nationalities: Saxons in the South, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are the descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the West, and Szekelys in the East and North. I am going among the latter, who claim to be descended from Attila and the Huns. This may be so, for when the Magyars conquered the country in the eleventh century they found the Huns settled in it. I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting. (Mem., I must ask the Count all about them.)

That’s written as a journal entry by Jonathan Harker — a character portrayed and revisited so many times that he has his own IMDB page with dozens of entries. It’s not easy to encounter him there in Stoker’s novel without some of those many portrayals reshaping what I read.

When Stoker’s first readers encountered that passage, they couldn’t know what awaited Harker at the end of his journey. We can’t help but know — or can’t help but think we know. This story is familiar to us, but the story we’re familiar with is not identical to the story Stoker is telling. And so, for us today, the story Stoker is telling may be inseparable from the story we’re already familiar with.

Stoker’s original story is, for us today, at the center of some sort of imaginative whirlpool. And so it is, for us, an enormous challenge to encounter that story itself — as itself — without being influenced by all the allusions and accretions swirling around it, on top of it, under it and through it.

All of this presents a challenge for Cole Haddon and Daniel Knauf, the creators of that new Dracula show for NBC. How will they choose to tell this story? What version or versions of the story will they choose to tell?

One approach would be to attempt a faithful adaptation — painstakingly separating the original tale from all the later cultural additions and reinterpretations of it. That’s a tricky business, first of all because it’s hard. “Faithful adaptation” may be an oxymoron. One can be faithful, or one can adapt, but it may not always be possible to do both at once. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula took this approach, but as that awkward double attribution suggests, that film didn’t so much give us Stoker’s Dracula as it did Coppola’s Stoker.

Another problem with the “faithful adaptation” approach is that it tends to upset some of Dracula’s fans. Their idea of what’s “canonical” may be only a loosely overlapping Venn diagram with Stoker’s original canon. Cut away all of the extraneous later additions that have attached themselves over time to the original story and you’ll be cutting away many fans’ favorite parts. If Jonathan Rhys Myers is more like Stoker’s Dracula than like Bela Lugosi, that’s bound to disappoint some viewers who wanted to see Lugosi, or to upset others for whom Gary Oldman represents the “authentic” Count. Fans may be frustrated if Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Jonathan Harker turns out to be nothing like Keanu Reeves. (OK, yes, that last bit is a joke.)

And so a second approach would be to set aside the difficult project of separating the original from the expanded cultural phenomenon. Instead of trying to faithfully adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the creators of the show might choose to tell a story about our Dracula — the character we all know or think we know today, complete with all of the additions and subtractions, elaborations, amendments and emendations. This approach is easier, but no less complicated and no less fraught with the danger of disappointing the fans because it requires a host of choices about which parts of “our” Dracula to keep and which to cast aside.

These two approaches seem almost like opposites. The first says that the story is what the text says, and that our task is thus to cut away and to cut through everything else to try to get back to the pure, unspoiled essence of the original, authoritative text. The second says that the story is ours, not just Stoker’s, and so Stoker is just one of many participants in a community. In the second approach, then, our task becomes sorting through all the many contributions from the many voices in that community to locate at the center that which seems most true to our story.

In practice, though, these two very different approaches are never quite so abstract and separate as they may seem. The unspoiled original and authoritative text will always be determined and interpreted by the community that belongs to it and to which it belongs. It’s words and symbols and characters can never mean anything wholly separate from what they mean to that community. And Stoker’s voice will always have a privileged place in that community of voices, his original words will always be there at the center, no matter how large the imaginative whirlpool swirling around them grows to be.

And but so anyway, I titled this post “‘Dracula’ and the Bible,” and now I’ve gone on and on about the Bible without hardly even mentioning Dracula. Sorry about that.

  • Abby Normal

    Oh yes.

    I sometimes wonder if younger me would’ve gotten into Twilight–I read plenty of crappybooks back then (*cough*VC Andrews), but I might also have just as easily dismissed them because the popular girls were reading them.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    And with a happy ending, too!

  • Ross Thompson

    Too easy to weaponize that with modern technology when you can just make a special flashlight that kills vampire’s dead.

    One of the Blade movies had UV grenades. They weren’t just a bright light, though; there was an obvious explosion component.

  • Ross Thompson

    There was a book about monsters I read as a kid, probably written some time in the 70′s. I remember them saying that their weakness was specifically to the light of the rising sun, not to sunlight in general.

    I’m no expert on monsterology, but I think that used to be the standard, and the “any sunlight” thing dates back to Anne Rice and Vampire: The Masquerade.

  • Carstonio

    But both the Scofieldists and the Christians who disagree with them agree that the Bible is authoritative, and not necessarily in the knowledge sense. That would be like readers of “Dracula” and its descendants believing that humans have an obligation or responsibility to hunt down and destroy vampires, with the disagreements among the factions being limited to tactics.

  • Anthony Rosa

    Well played, Fred. Well played.

  • Jurgan

    I see it as an exaggeration of humans’ own weakness to sun. If you stay in direct sunlight for a long time, you will get bad sunburns. I imagine a vampire would get near fatal sunburns within ten minutes or so. And since that means the culprit is ultra-violet light, it can be easily weaponized without being an insta-kill special move.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Robin McKinley did a good job of recognizing this conundrum in the legend. In Sunshine, it is acknowledged that moonlight and starlight all are basically sunlight at a remove, but a vampires’ degree of tolerance toward it depends on how old and powerful and evil they are (which are all different axes of character development). So the vampires in her novel all burn up in the sun, but it’s only the really old and evil ones who can’t even go out on a starry night. Some of them can’t go out in the open air at all, because light from stars is always reaching the earth’s surface and they’re just that vulnerable to it now. That’s why they have minions – in their pursuit of power, they’ve actually given up a lot of their ability to interact with the world on a physical level.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    What’s the diff? ;-)

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I feel like this comment thread is incomplete without at least a cursory mention of Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan.

    The slogan underneath the title on the cover is “Friends don’t let friends date vampires.”

    It begins with the idea, “Imagine Twilight from the human best friend’s point of view.” It continues to riff off of every vampire trope since ever. But it doesn’t stop there – it winds up challenging a lot of notions about agency, free will, what it means to ‘not waste your life’, what it means to be a stranger among your own kind, the unlikely places love can blossom and the unlikely and sometimes unfortunate places it can take you… It also made me cry at the end, which I didn’t expect from a book I came to expecting (and getting) non-stop laugh-out-loud funny, considering I first heard about at at the Sirens conference in 2011 where the authors of this yet-to-be-released book were giving a hilarious co-presentation on it (it was nominally a presentation about what it’s like to co-write a book).

    OK, that wasn’t cursory at all. But it’s a good book, so maybe I get verbose talking about it. Go! Read!

  • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

    They sparkle!

    (Or so I’m told.)

  • sidhe

    I have a friend who’s a huge Twilight fan. I always thought it rather odd, as she has otherwise good taste. Then she told me she’s actually from Forks, WA, and that the novels are an accurate description of home, except with more vampires and fewer Native Americans.

  • FearlessSon

    Wait, that was canon?

    Damnit Meyer, why do you have to ruin a perfectly good bit of regional self-deprecation by playing it serious?

  • ohiolibrarian

    Or Angelique!

  • Matri

    The implication of that is… unsettling.

  • Nick Gotts

    I must admit I haven’t read Dracula, but I have an interesting essay by the critic John Sutherland (in Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction), who argues that the Count comes to England:

    in order that he may make himself a thoroughly modern vampire for the imminent twentieth century

    - by learning about society, law, politics, science and technology in the world’s most advanced country. Stoker’s Transylvania is “certainly Gothic and ahistorical” but his England is realistic and up-to-date. Because late 19th century England looks far from modern to today’s readers, they are likely to miss this. Sutherland also links the novel to the “invasion fantasies” which were popular in England at the time; H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is another example, but more typically, the invaders were beastly but mundane foreigners – usually French or German, according to taste. P.G. Wodehouse wrote a parody, The Swoop, in which multiple simultaneous invasions occur:

    England was not merely beneath the heel of the invader. It was beneath the heels of nine invaders. There was barely standing-room.

  • LMM22

    Once we take the effort to understand these sorts of things(and perhaps I’m missing) that formed the context Stoker wrote in, we can form a decent(if admittedly imperfect) understanding of how the story would have been understood.

    We can understand how they experienced it, but we can never experience that experience.

    Years ago in college, a group of friends and I watched (IIRC) “Shakespeare in Love.” There’s a bit at the end that shows the first performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” One of the audience members reacts to the final scene — and my friend gasped. “They didn’t know how it ended.”

    Casablanca, to me, didn’t have a surprise ending. I had known what would happen when I sat down to watch the film. That didn’t make the doomed romance have any less of a punch, I think — but my experience of the movie was profoundly different from that experienced by someone who went to see it as it was originally in theaters.

  • Korou

    OK, that was clever. Well done.

  • auroramere

    Yes and no. In media fandom, at least, all these reactions are happening all the time, along with some great writing, both fiction and criticism, and of course the other 90% of the writing. That’s why fiction recommendations from people who share your tastes are prized. But it’s not a devolution from some superior state of fandom; it’s a whole bunch of people reacting in different ways. Some of those ways are going to be ridiculous or childish (some fans are children).

    And how I wish death threats were a concept unique to fanbases, or to any particular domain.

  • tricksterson

    The cne with Harker and the three female vamps is the first time I can remember getting seriously sexually aroused by a work of fiction.

  • fencerman

    Not to mention that Dracula itself was written as a response to other books and artistic ideas that are never even referred to in the book – they existed in that whirlpool of ideas, culture and history that were relevant in the time that the original book came out of. Romanticism, gothic horror, the counter movement to the enlightenment – all of it creating an ongoing conversation with the past.

    Why on earth would that book go on at such lengths about seemingly bizarre topics like forbidding cooking a calf in it’s mother’s milk? Er… I mean talking about the various races and divisions of people in Transylvania, rather, and the history of the Ottoman rule in Eastern Europe. Yes, that’s it.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Nope. I once read a book called “The Last Days of Christ The Vampire”

    “He gave His blood for you, now he WANTS IT BACK.”


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