I have many complaints about the movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), but chief among them is Coppola’s decision to create an impossible central theme: “Love never dies.” Coppola creates a story about the Count’s unending love for a woman across the centuries and his pledged resentment against God. Coppola’s story makes for a dramatic opening sequence: the dome of the Hagia Sophia shrouded in smoke, followed by a confusion of violence and suffering and blood. But he drives the story from that point forward on Dracula’s love…a choice that is impossible based on Bram Stoker’s original character.
In his original book, Dracula, Stoker creates the title character as the absolute embodiment of evil…incapable of humanity, incapable of good, incapable of love. Even the vampire women say to the Count, “You yourself never loved; you never love!” Stoker creates the Count as a demonic animal, driven only by selfish appetite…for blood, yes, but also for power, worshipers, and evil. When nearly trapped, the Count threatens his enemies, “Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine—my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed.” In Stoker’s creation, the vampire is only selfish appetite…anathema to any idea and ideal of Love. Stoker expands the threat of Dracula’s absolute evil, when his main adversary, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, says that Dracula “must go on age after age…multiplying the evils of the world. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water.”
Stoker’s central theme is a complex weaving of the simplistic idea of “Good versus Evil.” But Stoker takes the idea to its limit: he creates the Count as absolute Evil—yes, with a capital E—and challenges a band of five men and a woman to rise as high as they can to defeat him with Good—yes, with a capital G.
A difficulty with the book Dracula is the absolute natures of both the Good and the Evil that Stoker portrays. Ironically, when I taught the book to high-school Seniors, these modern readers accepted the Count’s absolute Evil so much more easily than the absolute Good of his adversaries. The students found the band who battle the Count silly…how they are tied together through deep love and friendship, deep trust and generosity, and an explicit knowledge and commitment to those principles. The band spends more time describing and pledging their noble feelings than they spend actually fighting Dracula. At one point, the head of the band, Van Helsing, says quite simply, “There are darknesses in life, and there are lights.” But the students—and I think all modern readers—have difficulty believing in such clearly stated and acted Good. Today, that level of Good seems reserved for the comic-book style heroes, like Superman and Supergirl, not for realistic characters.
Thus, when Coppola gives the Count his motivation—Love enduring through the centuries—I must object. These are neither the characters nor the story that Bram Stoker created. If Coppola’s Dracula (Gary Oldman) loves Mina (Winona Ryder), he is not the irredeemable demon that Stoker created; if Mina could be clear-headedly attracted to the Count, she is not the angel at the center of the band that Stoker created; and then the whole central theme of “Good versus Evil” falls out. Coppola gives us a story about a somewhat justified vampire being murdered by those who don’t understand his angst…this is my chief complaint. I don’t care to list my other complaints.
On the other hand, I enjoy a few things about Coppola’s movie: the art direction is lush and exciting—if a bit too Tim Burton-esque; many of the Gothic affectations are very powerfully fun: the independent shadows in the castle, and the night of terror when the vampire women seduce Jonathan (Keanu Reeves); Tom Waits’s mad portrayal of the madman Renfield; and the over-the-edge eroticism of an otherwise repressed-Victorian story…the vampire women’s and Lucy’s unabashed yet discreet seductiveness.
Coppola surely knew how to create a modern, visually exciting story, with its CGI and its misunderstood antihero; and Stoker surely created a Victorian Gothic, conceptually moral story for the ages, with heroes and a heroine and an absolutely Evil villain. But they are not the same stories.