When it comes to the character of Dracula, there seems to be a divide. The divide I’m referring to is a divide of interpretation and adaptation; some filmmakers take it upon themselves to use the character simply as a villain, without using Bram Stoker’s novel as a backdrop to do it, whereas others want to explore the character within said novel’s universe – by that I mean adapting the book as a whole rather than just the character.
Now, last time, I spoke about Francis Ford Coppola and his film ‘The Godfather’ which to many is considered a masterpiece (and you’ll know I classify myself as one of those people), but what many don’t know is that the Godfather was originally a novel too, one written by Mario Puzo. While Puzo wrote and gained an Oscar for the screenplay, many give credit to Coppola for the film’s success.
With this information in mind, you’d think that a pairing of Coppola and Bram Stoker’s novel would be if anything, a really good unique idea – after all, he was trusted with one novel, and look how it turned out. What’s even more promising is the fact that his adaptation of the classic novel isn’t simply titled ‘Dracula’, it’s instead called ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, indicating to anyone that this film was going to stay true to Stoker’s original themes and ideas. Sounds all good right? Well, not exactly – but one thing is true about this film, it certainly is unique.
Yes, Coppola’s take on Stoker’s novel is a hard film for any film lover to get their head round, because on the one hand there are so many things right with it – yet, at the same time, there are so many things that are wrong with it. So, as a lover of horror and adaptations, let’s see what the deal is with this mess of a film.
Firstly, I feel compelled to address the part of this film that makes it the most memorable, for better or for worse, which is the casting. Dracula, Van Helsing and Dr Seward are played by Gary Oldman, Antony Hopkins and Richard E. Grant respectively and all of them play their parts down to a tee. Oldman hams Drac up with a ridiculous accent, but the way he switches between a Dracula who’s an ancient soldier of a war that turned him into a monster, and one who yearns for what he had before he turned from God is incredibly controlled and powerful, displaying the two sides as if they were two separate characters (this is a point I’m going to bring up again against the film, but hey – we’ll cross that bridge and all that).
Then we have Hopkins playing an astoundingly real Van Helsing, one with vast knowledge and understanding of new sciences but one who has used this knowledge and understanding to chase the supernatural. There’s one scene in particular I love with Hopkins doing the classic mad laugh when he discovers he’s hunting Dracula – in only a few seconds, you can simultaneously see the desire to catch and kill this creature of darkness as well as the fear he feels toward the powers he’s up against. It’s a great scene, and shows exactly why Hopkins is the recognized powerhouse that he is.
Then we come to my favourite, Richard E Grant, who plays a Seward unlike any we’ve seen before, and unlikely to see again. The morphine addiction is there like it is in the novel, but here we also have a true motivation toward it, his love for Lucy. Grant uses this opportunity to play Seward more as a mad doctor, one who pushes at his work to dampen the thought of the un-reciprocated romance situation he’s in. So, in the scenes between him and Renfield, his movements and mannerisms are much more unhinged and unpredictable, and his speech and mood verges on psychotic. Personally for me, this is how I always saw Seward, a man who can hold control in front of colleagues, superiors and those who know him, but once he is on his own, or at the hospital in charge, we see his true demeanor.
Here’s a great scene between him and Renfield (played brilliantly by Tom Waites)
Unfortunately however, these are all overshadowed by two of the worst performances you’ll ever see on screen which are the infamous portrayals of Jonathan and Mina Harker, played by Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder respectively. My god are these bad, like Tommy Wiseau bad – Reeves’ and Ryder’s attempts at an English accent are but the first stone in this dam of flaws holding back the film. I don’t know what it is specifically, but they just get everything wrong. Mina in particular is a true tragedy because aside from Dracula, she’s the main focus – her relationship with the famous vampire is what makes up most of the film and to be honest, I just don’t see it.
Due to her inability to react the right way, or deliver the lines in a convincing manner, the romance angle of the entire film feels unjustified and tacked on. It feels as if the only reason Dracula wants her is because she just happens to look like his lost love, and anyone who knows one thing about love knows that it isn’t based on looks alone (unless Drac is just that shallow, he’s been out of the game for hundreds of years after all).
We get no sense of an actual connection – she spends most of the film looking wide eyed with absolutely no emotion on her face, so her switching between loving and hating the count seems to come out of nowhere. It simply doesn’t work and because of this, it makes this new interpretation of Dracula as a tragic character seem totally pointless, especially when you weigh it up against the horror angle that also comes into play.
Yeahh, I don’t see it.
You can almost forgive Keanu because Jonathan doesn’t have much of a role in driving the story after the start, and while he will never live this performance down, he’s got his performances in A Scanner Darkly and John Wick on his resume, whereas Ryder has yet to impress (except Beetlejuice of course).
Putting the performances to one side, my main gripe with this film actually lies with Coppola himself, and that’s his blend between the tragic and horror elements he puts into play. You know how I said it feels like Dracula is two separate characters, well while it looks good for Oldman, it makes Dracula himself seem completely unfocused. When he’s all old and eccentric looking, Dracula is as how he’s been for centuries, a monster. He climbs walls, threatens people with swords over nothing, and feeds his vampy wives newborn kids; yet when he’s young again, all these traits disappear and he becomes the young foreign prince trying to woo a pretty girl. Yes, he still has his monster moments but because of what we’ve seen so far, its really hard to get on board with his woe is me schtick that he keeps banging on about.
We’re supposed to feel sorry for Dracula, something which becomes fact when Coppola pushes the romance button hard in the scenes between him and Mina, but I must admit, it’s a notion that’s really hard to get on board with (did i mention he fed a newborn to his wives?) Yes, many can see Dracula as this mysterious, romantic type, and there’s no doubt he’s always had charm throughout other films; but here the sympathy and horror elements are not combined well, and personally I feel Coppola amped up the horror elements just to gain further connections with his source material because without them, this is hardly the Dracula we’ve come to know, and it certainly wouldn’t be Stoker’s novel.
Point is, this film is a mess because Coppola really doesn’t seem to know how to play it. On the one hand it’s the story of a monster whose committed horrible crimes and acts, being pursued by a character of light (proven by Hopkins playing the priest at the start of the film), but on the other, it’s the story of a knight whose suffered through a tragedy and yearns to be normal again by finding his lost love. The film blends these threads to try and create something beautiful but instead, these threads get tangled in a mess which leaves the audience alienated from Dracula, and unsympathetic toward Mina (seriously, she’s a right dick in this film).
Coppola, I love you, but you really weren’t the right guy for this job. You made a film people will talk about for years to come; one that stands out in a sea populated by Dracula adaptations and interpretations, but I think that might be for all the wrong reasons.
And, just because you really want it, here’s a collection of clips of Keanu trying his best English gent: