Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Free advice for anyone wanting to film Bram Stoker's Dracula

(2002: “starring” Patrick Bergin. Here after “Dracula the Dumb version”)
This film is awful. Moved to Budapest and translated into the twentieth century, it dribbles along, trying to be some kind of fable about moral choices and moral strength and blah blah blah. The dialogue is awful, the special effects are comic and the acting stilted. The central characters are unlikeable and the ending is just naff. Whoever wrote it must have known it didn’t work. They must have looked at it and thought, gawd, what a mess.
You know something is wrong when one of the selling points for the film, the triumphant climax of the blurb on the box, is that in this version Dracula is played by an Irish actor, and according to the blurb this is significant because Stoker was Irish. (The fact that Stoker lived most of his life in London, and Bergin is done up to look like Billy Connolly doesn’t help their case.)
Actually the fact that the music was co-written by one Thomas Wanker doesn’t help either.
So, for all those people out there who are thinking of making yet another film of Stoker’s Dracula, here’s what you need to know before you start. If you want to film the book, there are some problems. They should be obvious, however, here, in protest, on behalf of all those people who keep thinking that someday someone (other than Herzog) will do the story justice, and who keep forking out good money for dross, is a list. It’s yours for free.
If you can’t solve them yourself watch Herzog’s version. Following Murnau, he sidestepped them.
Thesis statement:
Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is “unfilmable”. There are problems of narrative logic, there are nineteenth century assumptions driving the plot, and while bits of the story are memorable and dramatic, lonnnnnnnnng stretches of it aren’t. Most people who try to read the book don’t finish it. It has to be adapted, and adapting it requires solutions to these problems:

1) If Dracula is a threat to the world as we know it, why is he beaten so easily by such a bunch of hearty dim wits? Drac in his castle at the beginning of the book is frightening. Drac in London is just out of place. What “powers” does the dead Lucy have? She nibbles children and is easily staked. Drac only preys on women and runs away at the first resistance from the boys own heroes. So first choice. Is Dracula a genuine threat to the world? Or just a deluded anachronism. You could write him either way. You could even see his anachronism as a reason why he’s a threat. But you need to decide.

2) Exactly what is evil about Stoker’s Drac apart from his dietary habits and the fact he’s “undead’? Stoker’s version of evil is based on a comfortable binary resting on a Christian framework. Since he wrote his book the binary has been dissolved. We’ve had the ugliness of the twentieth century: the first world war, the holocaust, the atomic bomb “ethnic cleansing”. Compared to this, sucking someone’s blood doesn’t seem that bad. If your Drac is evil then he has to be based on a modern understandings of “bad”. Read American Psycho first. Then imagine an undead Bateman with a political agenda.

3) There’s a lot of nineteenth century stuff in the book you should ignore unless you’re going to set it in the nineteenth century; the misogyny that runs through it, the way Stoker uses his female characters to denigrate women etc etc. but in ignoring it you need to alter the story. Mina is the most intelligent person in the book, but she stays at home while her dim witted husband and his band of brothers race around doing the heroic stuff and leaving her in danger. In a modern film this just makes the band of brothers look even more dim witted. If you haven’t woken up to the fact that there your average intelligent, resourceful modern women would be far more useful than Stoker’s male heroes, then you might want to leave your crypt and walk around in the daylight a bit.

4) It’s really about time the vampire brides were liberated and got to do something other than simper and hiss. Equating female beauty with stupidity and female sexuality with evil is a ……limiting….. view point and the fact that Drac seems to want to spend eternity with the lead characters in a blonde joke is another strike against him. I vote they eat Van Helsing, who should die screaming: Stop it I like it!

5) Van Helsing is another problem, but you can work that one out yourself. Also, in a twenty first century film, there is something deeply incongruous if not actually risible about characters who are obviously not in any way religious defending themselves with religious symbols. If you don't believe in a Christian soul, being a vampire wouldn’t be that bad either.

6) What you cannot ignore is that at the heart of the novel is a perverted eroticism. Bram stoker was pushing his own buttons. What ever that first note book recorded dream of the vampire brides meant to him, it drove the best part of the novel: a darker, disturbed and disturbing version of sexuality. You can ignore it. Or you can run with it. But you must choose and stick with your choice. If you ignore it you may as well not make your film. If you run with it, then for god’s sake, having actresses in night dresses pulling faces while some aging actor gums their throat is funny, not disturbing. In Dracula the Dumb Film I just watched Harker says, ”he seduced me”. Mina replies “in what way?” A sexual seduction it wasn’t; but it should have been.

7) This is a supernatural story. Please carefully consider any special effects. Tod Browning’s film demonstrated that a sparing use could be…effective. The first few minutes of Suspiria which are so unsettling don't use any. For an audience bought up on Star Wars and beyond, cheap special effects, or ones that don’t work, are embarrassing. Relying on them instead of good acting and a good script makes for a silly film.

8) You need good actors. Not famous names (see the Keanu Reeves as Harker disaster for proof) but competent actors who can play characters the audience can care about and believe in.

9) Casting Drac is your main problem. No matter how you envisage him (see point one) the actor has to carry the film. Even if you follow the novell and leave him off stage Drac has to be WRONG: terrifying, mysterious, powerful, sexy, attractive, repulsive, and disturbing. Above all he has to be convincing in all these roles. Playing Hamlet is probably easier, I’d go for one actor to play old Drac in his castle…and then a cast of several Dracs: Lucy’s lover is not Mina’s seducer, nor Jonathon’s, nor Van Helsing’s nemesis.

10) You have to scare and disturb us. (And we have seen so much faked blood and dismemberment that it really doesn't shock anymore). That means you need a good script. Characters in horror films, especially the characters we’re supposed to relate to, should not be more stupid than real people would be in that situation. Would you really go exploring the spooky castle after dark? On your own? Without a torch? When someone tells you “it’s not safe, stay in your room” would you go for a wander to find out why it’s not safe? “Threats to the world as we know it” should not make statements that would cause embarrassed giggles at a dinner party and twentieth century heroes should not be expected to say “Vampires. They are just a myth” in a vampire film. On the other hand, being ignorant of vampire lore in a film set in the twentieth century is also unbelievable.

11) It would be both terrifying and disturbing if the heroes did what seemed absolutely logical, having intelligently considered their course of action, so the audience thinks, I wouldn’t have thought of that but what a good idea, and THEN bad things happened to them.

12) For the length of your film the audience has to believe that this is the real world. What makes Harker’s Journal so effective is that he’s a drab, unimaginative clerk, and his flat factual account of what happens at Drac’s castle is, while you’re reading it, credible. That’s what makes it scary. One of Stoker’s successful choices was to situate the rest of the story in the world his readers knew.

Unless you can solve these problems please leave the book alone. Should you be thinking of filming it, I volunteer to read your script, for free, and will comment on it to prevent yet another waste of time from making it to the screen and into my DVD collection.


Unknown said...

My advice would be to make a radio play - far more effective to have the action occuring in the same place as it does when you read the book: in the mind!

Liam Guilar said...

I agree.
The radio was always my preferred medium. Actually, I'd settle for a dramatised reading of the book with Jim Norton doing the male voices and a female voice of choice doing the women, with incidental music by Arvo Paart.

Unknown said...

Excellent call on the music!