Bram vs. Bela: Dracula (1931)

It’s amazing how much more tolerant I can be towards changes to my favorite book when none of them are that One Big Change That I Hate With Every Fiber of My Being.

The 1931 version of Dracula isn’t perfect and it made a few changes that I didn’t appreciate.  But it also had a scene where Mina confirmed to Lucy that she had no romantic interest in the Count and featured some great performances from the cast, so I like it.

The movie immediately begins with a big change: Renfield goes to Castle Dracula as the Count’s solicitor, not Jonathan.  (In fact, the movie never specifies what Jonathan does for a living.)  According to the “Monster Tracks” included in the 75th Anniversary DVD, this change was made because the first screenwriter…well:

“[Duncan] Murphy correctly realized that the lunatic Renfield was a more interesting character than Mina’s fiancée, Harker.  The writer made the structurally satisfying change of having Renfield instead of Harker travel to Transylvania to sell Carfax to Dracula.”

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Jonathan Harker scaled the walls of Castle Dracula three times to figure out what was really going on with his terrifying host, had no choice but to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the Count by pretending not to know what was happening to him, successfully fought to regain his sanity after the experience, and said later that he was willing to become a vampire himself if Mina turned so that she wouldn’t have to become one alone.  How is that not interesting?!

…okay, maybe he’s not as interesting in direct comparison to Renfield, but STILL!

As a result, Jonathan doesn’t get to do much in the movie except complain to Van Helsing and worry about Mina.  He plays the role of the stoic who refuses to believe Van Helsing’s warnings and almost ruins everything by planning to take Mina away from the doctor’s protection.  In the climax, all he does is follow Van Helsing around and yell for Mina.

Jonathan, to quote the wise words of Go-Go Tomago from Big Hero 6: “Stop whining. Woman up.”

Mina doesn’t get treated well either.  She plays the helpless victim and that’s it.  She gets to say some lines from the book, describing her dreams and a little bit of Dracula’s attack.  But the movie never shows her helping with the investigation, or struggling to regain her composure and facing all of her problems with a brave smile, or coming up with the clever plan to use her psychic link with Dracula against him, etc.  She’s just another damsel in distress.

Mina, stop whining.  Woman up.

I find it interesting that Dr. Seward became Mina’s father in the movie, instead of the young man who courted her friend, Lucy, in the book.  This seems to contribute even more to the change in her characterization into somebody more childlike and helpless.  Now she relies on her father to protect her, not just her friends.

Quincey and Arthur got completely cut from the movie, which is a bummer.  Otherwise, the cast does a good job of playing their characters.  Dwight Frye is perfect as Renfield.  I cannot picture anyone else in the role and I just love the way he delivers his lines about Dracula promising to feed him more rats in exchange for letting him into the building.  It’s so creepy:

He’s great at moving back and forth between trying to please the people at the sanitarium in one moment and then flying into a rage in the next.  Plus, I love his line when he overhears Van Helsing and Jonathan discussing ways to destroy Dracula: “Isn’t this a strange conversation for men who aren’t crazy?”  That’s exactly the kind of thing that book!Renfield would say.  The heroes constantly misunderstand or underestimate him, but the movie and the book show that he’s very clever.

Edward Van Sloan does a decent job as Van Helsing.  At least the screenwriter didn’t turn him into a villain out to get poor, misunderstood Dracula.  I like the scenes where they confront each other, even though they come off a little weird since Dracula doesn’t put up much of a fight against this ordinary human.  For example, after Van Helsing uses the mirror trick to reveal his true nature, the Count smacks the mirror away and then…he leaves.

The professor never forms a bond with Lucy either, because she’s already dead by the time he comes to investigate.

This movie started the trend of changing Lucy from a sweet, innocent girl to a mischievous  flirt.  It’s not a big deal here because she doesn’t appear very much.  That in itself is a problem though.  Unlike the book, her death happens so fast in the movie that I didn’t even realize that the doctors were performing an autopsy on her body when I first saw this movie.  She becomes “the Bloofer Lady,” but she’s never shown getting staked.  She just kind of drops out of the film.

As for the Count himself, he’s good too.  Bela Lugosi’s performance deserves to be famous.  Out of all the actors who played the Count, I think he came closest to nailing both aspects of the character: eccentric gentleman and bloodthirsty monster.  He acts a little too eccentric around Renfield, but ultimately, his performance works.  I actually like the change made to have him interact with the heroes more throughout the story.  In the book, he doesn’t show up much after the first four chapters.  In the movie, he introduces himself to Dr. Seward as his neighbor and pretends to be friendly.

I may not be a fan of romantic!Dracula, but I do appreciate a Dracula who gets out and socializes with high society.  It makes sense that he would want to do this and makes him feel more frightening because it shows him successfully blending in with the crowd while looking for victims. It also strengthens the connection that he has to the heroes. In fact, he indicates in the book that he wants to blend in when he asks Jonathan to stay longer and help him improve his pronunciation of English words.  Unfortunately, we never get to see if he tried infiltrating British society in the book.

There’s one other characterization change that I enjoyed: the addition of Martin and Briggs.  I don’t think I would call them new characters, per se, because the book mentions various servants and workers helping the heroes.  But they didn’t have any individual personalities.  In the movie, Briggs is Mina’s nurse and she’s the one who makes sure that Mina follows Van Helsing’s instructions.  She comes across as a no-nonsense type of person and I would’ve loved to have seen more of her.  Martin’s just funny.  He’s supposed to keep an eye on Renfield and continuously comments on the weirdness of everything that’s happening at Dr. Seward’s house.

Story-wise, the movie’s fine even if the scary moments didn’t age well.  I understand that in 1931, the people behind the movie couldn’t go all-out with graphic scenes.  Still, it’s a shame that they didn’t have a director like Steven Spielberg at their disposal, who knew how to terrify everyone in the audience without showing the shark for the majority of Jaws.

The biggest problem that I had with the movie, apart from Jonathan and Mina’s mischaracterization, was the lack of a good climax.

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula eventually decides to retreat to Transylvania and wait until Van Helsing’s team dies before attempting to invade London again.  The team chases after him, because Dracula infected Mina with his blood, and if she dies before they can stake him, she will become a vampire too.  They split up into three teams and chase him through Transylvania by coach, boat, and horseback.  Just as Dracula’s coffin reaches the castle, they catch up and battle the group of men transporting it.  And THEN, just as the sun begins to go down and Dracula’s about to leap out of his coffin and kill them all, Jonathan and Quincey get past everyone else and stake the bloodsucker!

In the 1931 movie, Dracula takes Mina to Carfax Abbey.  Renfield tries to join him, not realizing that Van Helsing and Jonathan are following.  Dracula sees them coming and angrily throws Renfield down a flight of stairs to his death.  Then he takes Mina to the cellar and goes to sleep in his coffin.  All Van Helsing has to do is break the door down and stake the vampires.  Jonathan runs around calling for Mina and finds her.  The End.

The ending reminds me of how the heroes defeat Lucy, by ambushing her at her burial place and staking her.  But there’s a reason why that scene takes place in the middle of the book and not the ending.  It’s intense, but not as much as a horseback chase to Castle Dracula with the sunset a few seconds away.

Speaking of which, how did this movie handle Stoker’s vampire lore?  There’s actually no indication that Dracula cannot go out into the sunlight because most of the movie’s scenes take place at night.  Renfield tells him that the sun has come down and it’s safe to come out when they’re on the ship, so it’s implied.  But Van Helsing only says that he’s strongest at night and he has to sleep during the day.  The movie never states whether Dracula can control the weather- a skill from the book- but I think it’s implied through the storm that attacks the ship.

According to Van Helsing, Dracula can’t stand the wolfsbane plant or the Crucifix.  (As a Catholic, I love how they use the crucifix to protect themselves from Dracula.)  He confirms that Dracula’s a vampire when he sees that the Count shows no reflection in a small mirror from Jonathan’s cigar box.  In the book, Jonathan discovers this fact when Dracula appears over his shoulder while shaving, but he can’t see the Count’s reflection.  I like how it was done in the movie with everyone there.  It heightened the tension.

The 1931 version of Dracula isn’t a perfect movie or perfect adaptation.  But thanks to the performances of Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan, as well as the story showing that Dracula is a bad guy, it’s one of my favorite versions.  I recommend watching it if you’re a fan of the book, even if you’re likely to find it frustrating sometimes.

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One thought on “Bram vs. Bela: Dracula (1931)

  1. Bravo, Darling, Bravo! You hit every nail on the head and there are a few things I didn’t even know myself! I didn’t know about the part where Murphy stated that Jonathan was not an interesting character! I guess that explains a lot! That GIF of Captain Hook though!! I had to stifle exploding in laughter while at work because it was just so darn funny and I can picture you doing that! This is also the film I used to first educate you in Dracula and to see to it that you don’t make the same mistake I did: watch a parody before you watch the real film! This movie ROCKS! Totes Magotes!

    Oceans of Love,

    Alie

    Like

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