Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) demonstrates nicely why film directors should never stay “true to the book.” Film and literature are different media, each with its own characteristic strengths and limitations, and directors ignore that at their peril. A film cannot compete with a novel on the novel’s own terms and vice versa.
Coppola’s Dracula is at its weakest when it tries to stay too close to the book. For example, Coppola retains all five protagonists. Other film versions of Dracula trim this configuration down to achieve the greater unity and focus that is required for basically a two-hour experience in the theater. Coppola would have done well to do the same.
On the other hand, Coppola’s film succeeds spectacularly when he takes the greatest liberties with the story. The first ten minutes of the film is all Coppola’s invention, and it sets up a uniquely interesting Dracula (Gary Oldman). Don’t get me wrong. Each director, wittingly or not, plays on particular facets of the character. E.g. we saw in the Bela Lugosi character (dir. Tod Browning) a kind of metaphysical threat commensurate with the black-and-white medium, we saw in the Jack Palance character of the 1970s (dir. Dan Curtis) more of a flesh-and-blood cruel masculinity, and we see in Gary Oldman’s character a perfect conflation of romantic hero and gothic villain. Despite the title of Coppola’s film, Oldman’s romantic count, who courts the women he loves and is capable of sacrificing his eternal interest for them, is a far cry from Stoker’s character. And this is what makes Coppola’s film great. When Coppola’s Dracula provides a foil for Jonathan (Keanu Reeves), Mina (Winona Ryder) faces a choice much richer and more dramatic than the one faced by the novel’s Mina. Dracula offers the romantic figure, passionate beyond measure but morally dangerous – so dangerous in fact that he is perfectly willing to destroy and violate any number of innocent bystanders in the reckless pursuit of his passion. Jonathan offers the sentimental Victorian figure, morally safe, genuinely kind and trustworthy, but utterly lacking in passion.
This also allows Coppola to put more pressure on female choice in the film, whereas the novel removes choice from women in an exaggerated manner, as Dracula’s power turns women into helpless somnambulists over whose bodies good men struggle against bad. And this unique element of Coppola’s film lends much power to the entirely invented final scene, with Dracula and Mina/Elisabeta in the chapel, where Mina’s power is real power and not just the traditional female power of passive goodness that we see in so many Victorian novels like Dracula.
Now I’d love to go into some of the quirkier visions of Stoker’s brooding count, who exercised such power over the 20th-century imagination – e.g., Andy Warhol’s Dracula (dir. Paul Morrissey), which has the best opening credits ever set to Dracula, but then, after its 15 minutes of fame, becomes either the worst or the most interesting Dracula ever made (or both). Certainly Warhol’s conception of the character is unlike any other. But this is beyond the scope of my own present title, so I’ll save that for another day.
(For further thought, see my comparison of Coppola’s Dracula to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.)