I was delighted when, about a year or so ago, I found Bram Stokers “Dracula” in a local bookstore’s bargain bin for under ten dollars. That’s as good a deal as you’d get at Playcroco Casino! I immediately grabbed it, and read through it. I remember enjoying it, although notes I made for myself at the time pointed out my gripes with the story.
Since that first reading, I’ve consumed four Vampire based media, like Netflix’s “Castlevania” animated series. Dracula’s more modern interpretations differ significantly from his original story, in several key ways. Upon a whim, I decided to reread Bram Stoker’s original novel and make a caparison between the character’s origins versus his present-day state.
Spoilers abound, in case you’re unfamiliar with this 125-year-old book (Dracula was first published in 1897!), here’s the gist of the story: “Dracula” is told through a series of typed and transcribed diary entries recorded and collected by a cabal of protagonists. Johnathan Harker, his fiance-come-wife Mina, her friend Lucy, Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood (AKA Lord Godalming), their American friend Quincy Morris, and the eccentric Dutchman, Professor-Doctor Van Helsing Esq.
The story opens with Jonathan Harker, a solicitor, being called to Transylvania to arrange the purchase of property for an enigmatic Count Dracula. After a harrowing journey, Johnathan is welcomed into Dracula’s castle- but all is not as it seems. There seem to be no servants, all the doors are locked, and Dracula gives Johnathan a vague warning not to fall asleep outside of his bedroom. Disobeying the order, Johnathan nearly falls prey to three strange women, from whom Dracula rescues Johnathan. Under fear for his own life, and what Dracula himself will do once Johnathan’s service is complete, Johnathan makes a daring escape out the window.
Meanwhile, we catch up with Lucy and Mina in London, the latter anxiously waiting for her fiance’s return. Lucy, on the other hand, receives not one, not two, but three separate proposals from Quincy, Seward, and Arthur- only to agree to the last one.
Reports of a strange ship arriving in port with its captain dead at the helm hardly concern the party. However, Lucy falls ill with a mysterious blood sickness, where she loses blood but Seward can’t fathom how or why. He calls in a specialist, friend, and mentor, Dr. Van Helsing. Their efforts end in vain, and Lucy eventually dies… only to come back as a Vampire, in Undeath. Arthur himself eventually stakes her through the heart.
Upon Johnathan Harker’s return, Van Helsing eventually fills everyone in on what they are dealing with: Count Dracula, a full and powerful Vampire. He is a creature of evil that has lived for centuries and intends to move to London to establish a new base of operations where he can revel in fresh victims as much as he pleases.
The gang eventually agrees to work together to hunt down Dracula, first by securing all of the properties that Dracula purchased through Johnathan, destroying his coffins so he has nowhere to rest, and then destroying Dracula himself. The story eventually becomes a race against the clock as they chase after a fleeing Dracula across Europe, and intercept his coffin being transported, and stab him through the heart under the light of the sun. Dracula turns to dust, and he plagues the world no longer.
This novel is the origin of how we view the vampire myth to this day. While there are folktale stories that date back to the 17th century, and the novella “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was published nearly 26 years earlier than “Dracula”, it is the latter which has become the iconic inspiration for all Vampire stories to this day.
So how is Dracula depicted here that makes him distinct from his later incarnations? First, there is no sympathetic aspect to him. He is evil, corrupted by Vampirism thoroughly. He’s a polyglot, and cunning, although not especially so. He is fast and strong, can shapeshift, control mist and animals, and has a certain hypnotic effect over his victims. His plans are relatively small scale too. He purchases multiple homes in London, has coffins and corrupted soil moved into them under the guise of “research” so that he can squirrel away during the daytime, and mostly intends to just run around and feast on blood. He also has three women in his Castle who never leave, are never explained, and are not even named.
Let’s compare to Castlevania’s Dracula: He has a similar origin, in that he’s from Transylvania, he fought the Turks, and lives in a big castle. But that’s where the similarities end. Castlevania’s Dracula marries a human woman named Lisa, who humbles him for a while- and they even have a half-Vampire son named Alucard. When Lisa is burned at the stake by Christians, Dracula vows to wipe out all of humanity. This version of Dracula has a different powerset too: He’s fast, can shapeshift, and is also a scientist and a magician, with a magic castle and an army of Vampires and undead monsters at his command.
Now, that’s just a single version, and an animated version at that taking inspiration from Japan. But Hollywood has undergone that shift as well, with movies featuring the character transitioning from “Horror” to “Action”. League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Van Helsing, Blade Trinity, Dracula: The Dark Prince, Dracula: Untold, etc.
Dracula, like the majority of Hollywood villains, has shifted to become a far more sympathetic character compared to his original counterpart. While Bram Stoker’s Dracula was an outright evil bloodsucking monster, modern incarnations often give Dracula some kind of tragic backstory to explain how he ended up where he is.
Modern incarnations also change a lot of the characters’ weaknesses too. Religious themes of “unholiness” are less and less common, and being stopped by running water or being unable to ingress are almost universally ignored. Meanwhile, garlic and sunlight are perhaps still the most popular weaknesses across all depictions. Which is kind of disappointing, as it’s these specific limitations that make Vampires so interesting compared to other monsters.
In Bram Stoker’s novel, there’s a cool moment towards the end of the book where Van Helsing, suspecting a character being turned, crumbles up a Communion Wafer and scatters it on the floor to create a “Holy Circle” that Vampires can neither pass in or out of. It’s a surprisingly clever use of the novel’s “magic system”, but I can’t recall any other adaption ever using it. On the other hand, I kind of get it, because the whole holiness versus evil concept really only works if you are willing to say, definitively, that Christianity is the one true religion- a concept abhorrent in modern Hollywood. Still, it does mean that certain opportunities for narrative are missed because of it.
Suffice it to say, Dracula is an immensely popular character, with a lot of versatility. While his original story leaves the character more vague and definitively evil, later incarnations adapt the character to modern sensibilities: Superhero level superpowers, more secular weaknesses, and a sympathetic backstory to drive his motivations. These are all modern developments in storytelling that reflect the time we live in, that will likely change as the society does. It will be fascinating to see how Dracula is depicted ten to fifty years from now or even a hundred.