Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not an instant hit in 1897 when it was first published, despite positive reviews, but the figure of the vampire himself has since become a cultural figure with a status few others have achieved. Consequently, there have been an enormous amount of stage and screen adaptations of the Dracula novel, or featuring the character throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
And now, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have made their own adaptation of Stoker’s novel, starring Claes Bang as the eponymous bloodsucker. It got us wondering what kind of Dracula we might be in for this time. There are far too many iterations of Transylvania’s most famous citizen to produce an exhaustive list, but there are a few broad categories that adaptations of the character tend to fall into. Dracula the character and vampirism as a metaphor allows for all kinds of interpretations, from those who wish to emphasise his monstrosity, through his upper class status, to parodying the familiarity of the character.
The Monstrous Dracula
Famously, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu is an unauthorised adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Stoker’s estate refused the rights for the silent horror film. The film itself was nearly lost after a court ruled in the estate’s favour, ordering copies of the film to be destroyed. Fortunately, some survived and gave to the world one of the most iconic versions of Count Dracula, named Count Orlok here in an attempt to dodge the thorny authorisation issue. Max Schreck’s appearance captures the inhuman and monstrous qualities of the character with his long, clawing nails and fangs. Murnau’s use of light and shadow to highlight Orlok’s grotesque profile is particularly effective and has become a visual touchstone for vampires on screen in its own right.
Not many adaptations have opted to take the solely monstrous approach for Dracula since, perhaps because Schreck is so recognisable, but also because another iconic take on the character was on its way.
The Gentleman Dracula
In 1931, Bela Lugosi would take on the role of Dracula in Tod Browning’s adaptation of Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston’s stage play. His regal costume, widow’s peak, and slow accented dialogue became synonymous with the character in pop culture almost instantly. Here was a new kind of monster, one that would seem charming one minute and capable of draining you dry in the next. This version of Dracula definitely emphasised his aristocratic background over some of the more bestial descriptions that Stoker gives, but there’s always the sense of natural brutality behind Lugosi’s gentlemanly demeanour. Unfortunately, Lugosi would suffer from typecasting for the rest of his career, but his Dracula is arguably the definitive one and would become the template for many iterations in the future.
Christopher Lee’s Dracula for Hammer Horror would build on this characterisation, bringing a brooding sexuality to the character that has now been woven into the fabric of the character. Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1994 adaptation is the closest we have to a mix of the grotesque and the gentleman in one performance. Sticking closer to the book in terms of Dracula’s initial aged appearance and his slow return to youth, Oldman’s performance often feels like a blend of Schreck’s physicality with Lugosi’s sinister stillness and Lee’s attractiveness, allowing for the romantic antihero angle that Coppola pushes.
The Comedy Dracula
In Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Mel Brooks takes many potshots at Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, as well as adopting Hammer’s familiar aesthetic. Leslie Nielsen rises from the coffin, pinboard straight, graceful right up until the point he smashes his head on the chandelier above his coffin. So arrives his iteration of Dracula, a vampire fooled at every turn by his own clumsiness and not-quite-good-enough hypnosis techniques Nielsen gleefully mimics Oldman and Lugosi in particular in both costume and style.
Though strictly playing a fictional version of Max Schreck playing Orlok, Willem Dafoe’s performance in the brilliantly meta Shadow Of The Vampire is another example of the way in which the Dracula character on screen can be transformed by context. Shadow Of The Vampire is a fictionalised account of the filming of Nosferatu. Part horror movie, part cinematic satire, the film posits that Schreck was actually a vampire and his unusual appearance was his own. Dafoe’s performance apes Schreck’s movements beautifully and taps into the loneliness that other Dracula adaptations, such as Coppola’s, explore in the vampire character.
Other vampire parodies have used famous performances of Dracula as their basis even if not portraying the Count. Count von Count in Sesame Street apes Lugosi’s speech patterns while Petyr in What We Do In The Shadows is a brilliant visual nod to Schreck’s Orlok alongside plenty of other references to vampires on film.
The TV Dracula
The various television versions of Dracula encompass all of the above types. There was the TV series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the eponymous count, here posing as an American entrepreneur who enters into an uneasy alliance with Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) to pursue a common foe. There’s the BBC version from a few years back, which gave us Marc Warren as Dracula in a slightly baffling piece of casting. There, he was around to help Lord Holmwood (Dan Stevens) out with a hereditary syphilis problem. Both versions present him as the gentleman type, ostensibly helping people but with his own agenda running alongside.
The Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, Buffy Vs Dracula, takes that titular concept and runs with it, having enormous fun with Dracula tropes throughout, from the count owing Spike money to Xander going full Dwight Frye Renfield. Dracula ends up “Eurotrashed”. Penny Dreadful would present the two sides of the Count, played by Christian Camargo. Characters from Stoker’s novel were present from the first season, but it wouldn’t be until the third that the vampire himself arrived. The first episode of the third season ended with Renfield coming face to face with Dracula, but the audience only sees Renfield as he collapses into a terrified scream.
And now we have the new television series on the way. So what kind of Dracula are we going to get from Moffat and Gatiss? Given that they’ve been open about it being a “Sherlock-y” rendition of Dracula, but set in 1897, we think we’re looking at Dracula that is both aristocratic and urbane. The brief glimpse we’ve had of Claes Bang’s Count in the trailer so far has a kind of sinister charm and politeness, likely as charismatic as he is dangerous, and always one step ahead of our human heroes. We shall have to tune in on New Year’s Day to find out for sure though…
Dracula airs on consecutive nights from the 1st to the 3rd of January at 9pm on BBC One. See the first teaser and more here.