Believing in “The Polar Express”

Merry Christmas, everyone!  THIS IS MY REVIEW OF THE POLAR EXPRESS!  ALL ABOARD!

The Polar Express holds a special place in my heart, ever since my aunt read it to me one Christmas.  It’s a wonderful children’s book.  Yet, for one reason or another, I never got around to watching the movie the whole way through.  This year, I put my foot down, set a reminder in my iPhone, and tuned into Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas to watch it.

As an adaptation, it obviously presents a different challenge than The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.  Those books were too long to fit completely into a movie’s typical running time.  The Polar Express is too short.  So, going into it, I knew the movie would have many additional scenes and would need to expand on the story beyond “a nameless boy visits the North Pole on Christmas Eve.”

Visually, this movie is PHENOMENAL.  It successfully captures the art style of Chris Van Allsburg, who wrote and illustrated the book.  The only big problem, which has brought up multiple times, is the character animation.  Their faces aren’t as expressive as they ought to be because of the limits of motion capture animation.  Although it does hurt the movie overall, you get used to it after a while.

Then we have the story and characters.  The movie begins with a subtle change from the book.  Instead of the boy ruminating about whether Santa’s real based on something his friend said, we see that he’s come to this conclusion on his own.  His parents wonder if this will be his last year believing, he’s collecting newspaper evidence in his room, and he tells his sister about his doubts instead of a friend telling him.

The book begins and ends with the question of belief in Santa Claus, while the middle focuses more on the journey and the amazing things that the children see. Movies generally provide some kind of problem that the protagonist needs to overcome. The problem in this movie fits the spirit of the book.  It’s a great adaptation decision.  I also like the little moment when the Polar Express passes a department store with a mechanical Santa, and the boy shakes his head.

Unfortunately, when the Polar Express arrived and the boy climbed aboard, that’s when I felt the film begin to drag.  Although I get that the screenwriters needed to add things to the plot, I wasn’t a fan of most of the additions.  I don’t know why, but I could feel this sense of padding throughout the film.  It felt like these scenes existed just to make the movie longer.  Moreover, The Polar Express didn’t need to be 100 minutes long.  Most Disney animated movies aren’t even that long.  I think it would’ve worked a lot better as a half-hour Christmas special, or even an hour.

Two scenes particularly bugged me: 1) the boy losing the girl’s ticket and 2) the boy and his friends getting lost in the North Pole.

First, the lead girl realizes that a lonely boy didn’t get his mug of hot chocolate, so she and the conductor go over to the next train car to give him one.  Then the lead boy notices the girl’s ticket on her seat and realizes that the conductor forgot to punch it.  So he takes the ticket, tries to cross over to the next train car to give it to them, and then the wind blows it out of his hands.

Why didn’t he just wait for them to come back?!?  There was absolutely no reason for him to leave the train car.  They came right back after delivering the hot chocolate.

Losing the ticket starts a chain reaction where it looks like the girl will get kicked off the train, the boy chases after her, and eventually finds out that the girl just got sent to work in the engine room.  So they get a front-row seat and a chance to help out when things go wrong on the train’s journey.  Therefore, the ticket scenes serves a purpose in the plot.  It’s just a weak way to get them from the train car to the engine room when the whole problem could have been so easily avoided.  I found it harder to get invested in the story as a result.

The second scene happens right after the train finally arrives in the North Pole.  The kids line up to meet Santa, and the boy and girl realize that the lonely boy, Billy, never left the train.  They decide to sneak back on board to convince Billy to come with them.  Unfortunately, the boy slips and accidentally hits something that separates the car from the rest of the train.  The car rolls away and they get lost in the city.

At this point, I’d gotten happily sucked back into the story, in awe over how good the North Pole looked, psyched that it was almost time for the scene where the boy meets Santa- and then groaned when I realized the kids had to face another long obstacle before they could get to the end of their journey.  Although I liked that they got to explore the North Pole and Santa’s workshop, I still felt like the sequence only existed to make the film longer.

(Gif found on GIPHY)

That said, the scenes where the kids tried to find their way back to the train introduced another positive change to the story.  The lead girl guides them based on the sound of sleigh bells- but she’s the only one who can hear them.  Eventually, Billy hears them too.  But the boy can’t.  Even after experiencing so many magical adventures, he can’t decide whether he truly believes in Santa or not. He wants to believe, but he’s afraid of being disappointed.  So it feels all the more triumphant when he finally declares that he believes, shakes the bell, and hears it ring.

For the record, I also love the song, “Hot Chocolate.”  It’s still padding, but unlike some of those other aforementioned scenes, it’s so much fun that I don’t care.  The song’s really catchy and the impossible choreography of the waiters is cool to watch.  Plus, the kids do drink delicious hot chocolate on the train, so it’s faithful to the book.

(Gif found on GIPHY)

Overall, The Polar Express makes a decent attempt to adapt a beautiful picture book, and while I think it’s flawed and doesn’t come close to the book, it’s worth watching once or twice at Christmas.  I will always believe in the book!

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Dracula: Dead and Loving It

Wow.

It’s hard to believe, but at the end of the day, the most faithful version of Jonathan Harker came from the parody of the Dracula movies.  Can you explain zat?  I cannot explain zat.  NO ONE CAN EXPLAIN ZAT!

But yeah.  After watching two movies and a television series that portray Dracula as a sexy beast who just wants to be loved, I get to watch a movie that makes fun of that idea, and boy does that feel refreshing!  Unfortunately, Dracula: Dead and Loving It doesn’t take the opportunity to also do justice to Mina’s character.  But at this point, I will take whatever I can get.

Adaptation-wise, this one’s a unique entry because it’s an adaptation of Stoker’s novel but also an adaptation of the Dracula movies, in a way.  Do parodies count as adaptations?  Eh, I say they do. They’re certainly not original stories.  They’re just a different kind of adaptation- taking the story and making changes to it that kind of examine and poke fun of it.  Like A Very Potter Musical, this movie doesn’t come off as mean-spirited, which is good.  It’s not as funny as Team Starkid’s parodies (and oh, how I would love to see Team Starkid do a parody of Dracula), but I enjoyed it.

It starts out following the same story beats as the 1931 film: Renfield goes to Transylvania to help Dracula move to Carfax Abbey instead of Jonathan.  The villagers warn him not to go and he ignores them.  He meets Dracula, who creeps him out, they go over the purchase, Dracula gets excited when his guest gets a paper cut, the Brides visit Renfield at night, etc.

There are references to the Coppola version too, namely, Dracula’s ridiculous wig and his attempts to turn Mina into his bride.  Also, unlike the 1931 film, this movie draws out Lucy’s illness and includes the part of the plot where she dies, becomes a vampire, and gets staked.  After that, the plot reverts back to the 1931 movie except for a new scene at a ball.  But even the ball is just a version of the mirror scene on a bigger, funnier scale.

The climax happens in London, not Transylvania.  Luckily, it’s a lot more dramatic than the Lugosi one, involving a battle between Dracula, Van Helsing, Jonathan, and Dr. Seward.  And instead of fleeing every time Van Helsing holds up anything resembling garlic or a crucifix, Dracula actually fights back and almost wins!  Seriously.  How come the films that are trying to be dramatic and frightening let the heroes stomp all over him and the parody is the one that pits them against each other almost like equals?  How?

NO ONE CAN EXPLAIN ZAT.

Although the movie pokes fun at Jonathan’s chastity, he’s nothing like the 1931 or 1992 versions of his character.  Instead of challenging everything that Van Helsing says, he tells Dr. Seward that even if he’s not sure what he believes about vampires, he wants to watch over Lucy’s grave just in case the professor might be right.  Dr. Seward becomes the one who questions everything (and he’s back to being Mina’s father).  That’s actually more accurate to the book because Dr. Seward still had doubts after seeing Lucy disappear and reappear in her coffin.

I love the scene where Undead Lucy tries to seduce Jonathan in the graveyard.  It’s funny its own, but after watching the episode in the TV series where Lucy successfully cheated with Jonathan, it became so much more beautiful to watch her fail miserably in the movie.  She may be undead, but he’s “not un-engaged,” as he puts it.  That’s right, Mr. Harker, you aren’t!

Mel Brooks is very entertaining as Prof. Van Helsing.  He acts more like a parody of the movie versions of Van Helsing than the book version, since there’s nothing about him that comes exclusively from the book.  He’s zany, like you’d expect from a parody, but he’s also kind-hearted and passionate about defeating Dracula.

Peter MacNichol does a very impressive impersonation of Dwight Frye’s Renfield.  He has some funny scenes, i.e. trying to convince Dr. Seward that he doesn’t eat bugs as he’s eating them.  But unfortunately (probably because it’s a parody) we don’t get to see Renfield’s cunning here, the way we did in the book and a bit in the 1931 film.  Here, he’s just an “imbecile,” as Van Helsing puts it.

Leslie Nielsen would not be the person I’d imagine in the role of Dracula, but he does a great job.  His facial expressions when things don’t go his way are hilarious and I like all of the jokes where his attempts to hypnotize people go wrong.  He schemes to turn Mina and Lucy into vampires but also seems to genuinely enjoy the times when he socializes with regular people.  He’s a nice exaggerated form of Dracula.

Sadly, there’s not much to say about Mina and Lucy.  It’s a shame; Mel Brooks could have gone farther and poked fun at the differences between Mina in the movies and Mina in the books.  He could’ve had Mina constantly suggest the right thing to do, only for the men to talk over her and then decide to try her suggestion.  He could’ve shown her fighting back when Dracula kidnaps her and holding up just fine until the rest of the heroes showed up, to everyone’s shock (especially Dracula’s).  He could’ve gone the Blazing Saddles route to mock sexism the way he mocked racism.

Nonetheless, I appreciate what he did for poor Jonathan’s character and I think it’s a pretty funny movie.  I recommend checking it out.  However, I also recommend reading the book or watching one of the movies first.  Otherwise, it’s difficult to appreciate all of the jokes.

And so ends Dracula Month!  HUZZAH!  Thank you to those of you who read all of these posts!

 

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula

There were so many of them, but no one ever did the book! And I knew what the book was ’cause I read the book! And I could see that in most of the scenes, Harker is called Renfield and Lucy is the one in love but she’s married to Harker and they just totally played havoc with Stoker’s novel, you know, just to suit whatever God knows the reason was. – Francis Ford Coppola

Mr. Coppola was correct.  So…what happened?

In a special feature about the making 0f Francis Ford Coppola’s interpretation of Dracula, he mentions the entire cast reading the book together, how happy he was to add characters like Quincey who don’t normally appear in the movies, and the above quote.  Yes, his version does have scenes and lines that don’t usually appear in the movies, but the characters’ personalities get twisted around, and the plot focuses on a love story that simply didn’t exist in the book!  Isn’t that “playing havoc” with Stoker’s novel too?

Well, about a month or so ago, I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the Dom’s episode about this movie in his “Lost in Adaptation” web series.  Check it out here if you’re interested.

Towards the end, he made this comment: “So I guess this film did better than most Dracula movies in sticking to the book, but much like Watchmen, that actually turned out to work against it ultimately by bringing the changes into more painfully sharp contrast.”

I didn’t agree at first, mostly because I didn’t want to agree with any statement that implied the film did a good job of sticking to the book.  But when I re-watched the movie for this blog and then re-watched the pilot episode of the Dracula TV series, I realized that the Dom was 100% correct.

For example, Quincey finally got to appear alongside Dr. Seward and Arthur in this movie.  Like the book, they all try to win Lucy’s heart, and we get to hear Quincey making the heartfelt speech that he made to her in the book.  Unfortunately, Lucy’s personality got warped into an over-sexualized flirt who shamelessly plays with the emotions of her three suitors.  So she cuts Quincey off mid-speech to run squealing to Dr. Seward.  It was nice to hear lines from the book, but the way the scene played out was all wrong.  It felt like a punch in the gut to both of their characters.

But the Dom’s critique really comes into play when looking at the romance between Dracula and Mina.

Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault and rape

Okay.  First things first, I don’t mind when people ship Dracula/Mina.  I understand that many people probably became acquainted with both characters through this movie, the TV series, or any other adaptation that shows them having some type of attraction to each other.  The authors of the “official” sequel considered this issue when they wrote Dracula: The Un-Dead and decided to rewrite their relationship in the original book into a romance.

However…when I think about their relationship in the original book, I wonder how this even happened in the first place?  The authors of Dracula: The Un-Dead admitted in an author’s note that Bram Stoker never “clearly” wrote a romance, but that’s like saying that J.K. Rowling never “clearly” wrote a father/son relationship between Harry and Voldemort.

As you know by now if you’ve read my other Dracula posts, the Count imprisons and psychologically tortures Mina’s fiancé, Jonathan Harker.  She spends most of the summer worrying about Jonathan because she doesn’t hear much from him except one curt message that doesn’t sound like him at all.  Then, the Count arrives in London and murders her best friend.  So, even if they had never interacted at all in the book, why would anybody believe that Mina could fall in love with a man who almost killed her husband and killed her best friend?  (FYI: no, she wasn’t the reincarnation of his dead wife in the book.  She had no relationship to him at all.)

But it doesn’t end there.  Aside from a scene where Mina spots Dracula feeding on Lucy, she and the Count don’t interact at all until the male protagonists start the vampire hunt and leave her behind.  They think she’ll be safer at home.  They’re wrong: the Count breaks into Dr. Seward’s house and secretly feeds on Mina’s blood for a few nights without anyone realizing.  THEN, when they finally figure it out, the men burst into the Harkers’ room, where they find Jonathan unconscious and Dracula forcing Mina to drink his own blood.

After they chase him off, Mina screams and cries, but quickly pulls herself together to tell her friends what happened.  Behold, some of the charming and romantic things that Dracula said to her while he attacked her (yep, sarcasm):

“Silence!  If you make a sound I shall take him [her husband] and dash his brains out before your very eyes.”

“First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions.  You may as well be quiet; it is not the first time, or the second, that your veins have appeased my thirst.”

“Then he spoke to me mockingly: ‘And so you, like the others, would play your brains against mine.  You would help these men to hunt me and frustrate me in my designs!  You know now […] what it is to cross my path. […] And you, their best beloved one, are now to me flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin; my bountiful wine-press for a while; and shall be later on my companion and helper. […] But as yet you are to be punished for what you have done.  You have aided in thwarting me; now you shall come to my call.”

So, in conclusion, their big scene together involves the Count invading Mina’s bedroom, threatening to kill her husband if she fights back, tells her that there’s no point fighting back anyway because he’s drunk her blood before and he’s about to do it again, mocks her for thinking she could ever be smarter than him, forces her to drink his own blood, and tells her that by doing so, he has put her under his control.  The book also describes him using one arm gripping both her hands so hard that he leaves red marks on her wrists, and using the other to smash her face into his chest.

Does anything that he says or does remind you of anything?  Maybe a felony crime that involves non-consensual sex?!?

And now here’s how the scene is done in the movie:

Somehow…some way… for some reason…somebody looked at this passage in the book and apparently decided that it was hot romance material.

WHY?

As I watched the special “making of” features for 1979 Dracula and 1992 Dracula, I felt like I must be missing something here, because the weirdness of Dracula/Mina never got addressed.  Nobody gave any indication that they knew the romance was inaccurate, but wanted to try something different with the characters.  Instead I heard things like this from the 1992 screenwriter, James V. Hart: “The idea was to portray Dracula finally as a charismatic, tragic hero that he really was, not just another bloodsucking monster that we have to do away with.”  I don’t see anything “heroic” about that attack on Mina in the book.

So, because this issue never gets addressed, the romance on screen seems even more confusing.  I appreciate that Coppola wanted to be more faithful to the book, but by allowing the romance to be a plot point, we now see Dracula imprison Jonathan in his castle, travel to London to hit on Jonathan’s girlfriend, and said girlfriend doesn’t seem to care as much as she should.  When she finds out that the man she’s kissing did in fact kill Lucy, she cries and smacks him…and then goes right back to kissing him.  What the…?

To make matters worse, the movie’s romance between Dracula and Mina is pretty creepy even without the context of the book.  He introduces himself to her as a foreigner and asks if she’d show him around.  She brushes him off and says to go find a map.  Ok, that was a little rude, but this doesn’t justify his attempts to keep following her and making comments about how she shouldn’t wander around London by herself.  Mina actually threatens to call the police on him!  AND THEN…he apologizes, and she assures him that it’s okay because she was the one being rude to him, the poor stalker.

So they go on a date immediately afterwards, and all of a sudden, his desire for her overcomes her, and so he drags her off into a corner while she struggles and protests.  He considers sucking her blood, but manages to restrain himself.  Meanwhile, she’s still struggling, but stops when she realizes, “I know you!”

Ah, so it’s okay to assault somebody when it’s the reincarnation of your dead spouse.  That’s good to know.

 

As for the rest of the movie…

Keanu Reeves isn’t who I would have picked to play Jonathan, but to be honest, I don’t hate his performance.  He seems like he’s really trying to do well, and the movie didn’t give him much to do.  He’s important in the beginning, but after getting left to die in the Count’s castle, he takes a backseat to the romance between his girlfriend and his captor.  Technically, this is somewhat accurate to the book.  In the opening four chapters, we only hear from him.  After he comes back, he’s just one of several different characters who write down their perspectives of what’s happening.  Nonetheless, he’s still important.  Out of all the men in the group, he is the one who hunts the Count the most relentlessly to save his wife.  He has a bit of a character arc, going from terrified survivor to vampire hunter.  The movie doesn’t let him shine or show the other two times he climbed down the castle wall to get away from the Count.

Again, it is so nice to see all three of Lucy’s suitors: Dr. Seward, Quincey, and Arthur.  Unfortunately, they don’t get to do much either, to the point that their character entry on TV Tropes refers to them as “Lucy’s Suitors.”  I guess that’s why their roles get consolidated into one or two roles for the movies.

I’ve already mentioned the whole issue with Lucy’s personality change.  Then there’s the way Dracula attacks her.  You could argue that Dracula’s attacks on women have sexual subtext in the book, which is why I get mad about the misinterpretation of the big scene between the Count and Mina.  But there’s no subtext in the movie.  When Mina finds Lucy at night, she sees the Count in his wolf form having sex with her.  Yes.  As a wolf man.

Later, when he comes to kill Lucy, it looks like she’s having sex with a shadow.  Then a wolf comes throw the window to basically bite her neck off.  It’s so over-the-top and bizarre that I can’t find it scary.  It made me uncomfortable in all the wrong ways.  I prefer the Count Dracula version or even the Frank Langella version that shows Lucy struggling for air with no apparent reason for her illness.  When it’s filmed as described in the book, that is when I winced and couldn’t look at the screen.

In the book, Dr. Van Helsing came to help Lucy as a favor to Dr. Seward.  He initially cares about her the way that he cares about all of his patients, but it doesn’t take long for him to consider her a friend too.  When Mrs. Westenra accidentally interferes with the treatment for her daughter, Van Helsing actually breaks down and cries, knowing what will happen to Lucy if they don’t save her.

In the movie, Dr. Van Helsing doesn’t care about Lucy at all.  He’s just excited to find an actual vampire victim that might lead him to Dracula.  He doesn’t even care about the feelings of his friend, Dr. Seward, casually calling Lucy a whore and saying nonchalantly that he wants to cut off her head and drive a stake through her heart.  His attitude is a little funny, but it’s also cruel and completely out of character.  I know Sir Anthony Hopkins is a great actor and normally I would call him a good choice for this role, but the role itself is not written well.

Oh, and what about Renfield?  Somehow I always leave him out.  But that’s because he never gets to really do anything.  I don’t have any strong opinions here.

The set design, the costumes, and the music are gorgeous, so that’s well and good.  The movie also brings back the diary entries by showing Jonathan and Mina writing and hearing them narrate their adventures.  I can’t remember if Dr. Seward is ever shown talking into his phonograph.  I think so, but not for very long.  Sometimes it’s awkward, i.e. Jonathan saying how unnerved he is by what’s happening at Castle Dracula, when we should be able to deduce that ourselves, or Mina reflecting on how “sweet” Lucy is even as she’s emotionally manipulating the three men at her house.  However, overall the diaries are well-incorporated into the movie when they do appear.

And finally, on a happy note, Dracula doesn’t burn in the sunlight in this movie!  HUZZAH!

The movie did do some things right.  But I’m still not happy about that romance.

Tomorrow, on Halloween, I will put up two posts: one for Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and one for the NBC series.  The dramatic conclusion to Dracula Month awaits us!

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (2006 Masterpiece Theater)

(I’m posting this review before I post the review of the 1992 movie because I’m still trying to get my thoughts in order about that one.  Sorry, guys!)

Once again, we see Stoker’s Law of Inverse Adaptations in play.

My friend, Alie, warned me about this one ahead of time.  I figured I was in for the same old mistakes: Lucy acting like a flirt, Mina falling in love with Dracula, Jonathan being a jerk, Dracula being a sympathetic antihero, etc.  But that’s not quite what happened here.  All of the typical mistakes got exchanged for brand-new ones.

In this version, the plot is set in motion by Arthur Holmwood and an evil cult that wants to bring Dracula to London.  Arthur wants to marry Lucy, just like in the book.  Unlike the book, he learns after proposing to her that he inherited syphilis from his late father, and if he has sex with Lucy, she’ll get it too.

Since there’s no cure except prayer, Arthur decides to contact an evil cult, who give him the idea of bringing Count Dracula to London, because an immortal vampire might be able to cure him of his syphilis.  They contact the firm of Mr. Hawkins, who sends Jonathan out to meet the Count, and as you can imagine, things don’t go according to Arthur’s plans.

I can’t help but wonder if the screenwriter, Steward Harcourt, looked at Coppola’s Dracula and said, “Okay, instead of making Lucy a jerk, why not make her boyfriend the jerk instead?”  That’s basically what happened.  Lucy’s not as innocent as she acts in the book because she makes it clear that she wants to consummate her marriage to Arthur as soon as possible.  But she is a very kind-hearted character who comforts Mina while the latter cries and worries about the missing Jonathan.  It’s easy to see why these two are friends.

Part of me feels bad for criticizing Arthur because he’s clearly under a lot of stress, but boy did his character take a beating.  In the book, he is a man who loves his fiance so much that he leaps at the chance to give her a blood transfusion when she’s sick.  He’s close friends with Quincey (who is missing in action once again) and Dr. Seward, so much so that he feels embarrassed about asking Dr. Seward for help because they both wanted to marry Lucy.  In the movie, he refuses to tell anybody about his syphilis or his connection to evil cults, to the point that he holds poor Dr. Seward at gunpoint until Seward agrees to give his own blood for the transfusion.  Wow, Art.

The syphilis also affects his relationship with Lucy;  he constantly makes excuses for why he doesn’t want to be around her and snaps at her every time she suggests sex.  I know that sounds like it makes sense on paper, but the way he constantly tells her to do what he says, without explaining why, is verbally abusive.  Here I was, ready to root for this Arthur since he’s played by Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley.  But he’s too hard to like until the very end when he goes through some character development.

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Sorry, Matthew.  I still like you!

The involvement of the evil cult is the biggest change to the story, and it bleeds into other plot changes as well:

1) Jonathan does not survive his trip to Transylvania.  Fortunately, this is not an example of Murder the Hypotenuse, because Mina never stops loving him.

2) The evil cult also kills Jonathan’s boss, Mr. Hawkins, to cover their tracks.

3) Van Helsing is not Dr. Seward’s mentor.  He’s a man with an interest in pre-Christian religions whom the Evil Cult hires to find out if vampires still exist.  He discovers Dracula and goes from being the Count’s prisoner to a prisoner of the Evil Cult.  Neither of the groups can kill him because he has the protection of the Cross.  Dr. Seward eventually rescues him and that is their first meeting.

4) The mystery isn’t, “Who/what killed Lucy Westenra?” because she dies in the span of two nights.  It’s more like, “What was Arthur doing that caused Lucy’s death and what’s this evil cult doing?”

5) Arthur eventually repents after Lucy’s death and dies trying to protect Mina from the Count in the final fight.  Dr. Seward stakes Dracula in the back while Van Helsing uses the Cross.

6) Mina never drinks Dracula’s blood.  He almost forces her to do it, but gets distracted when he realizes that Lucy got staked.  So Mina kicks him and runs away.  THAT’S MY GIRL! 😀

7) WHEREFORE ART THOU, MR. QUINCEY P. MORRIS???  Mr. Renfield doesn’t appear either. 😦

So, with that in mind, it was interesting to pick up on all the bits that they did include from the book.  These include: Dr. Seward being Lucy’s suitor, not Mina’s father, that Lucy and Mina like to vacation in Whitby and that’s where they first encounter Dracula, Dracula has the ability to change from an old man to a young man, Hawkins has a sweet, fatherly relationship with Jonathan, Mina and Jonathan are deeply in love, Lucy and Mina like to sit in the Whitby cemetery and Lucy even tells Mina a variation of the story that Mr. Swales tells them about one of the graves in the book.

There’s also a stronger religious theme in this movie than in other versions.  Dracula cannot attack anyone wearing a Cross around their necks.  When he first goes to attack one of the women, he picks Lucy over Mina because Mina is praying the Rosary.  The evil cult is basically a group of devil worshippers and Dr. Seward says they have a “black altar” in their headquarters.  (And by the way, the inverted Cross is the Cross of St. Peter.  It’s not supposed to be an evil symbol.  If people, especially moviemakers, could please stop treating it like one, that would be beautiful.)  When Arthur asks Seward and Van Helsing how they can possibly defeat Dracula, Van Helsing replies that their best weapon is their faith.  I’m not a perfect Christian or anything, but I love my faith, so I actually appreciated the symbolism for the most part.

I feel like Marc Warren, who played Dracula, did his best with the material given to him.  The problem with him is that he’s so over-the-top creepy in the beginning.  He doesn’t give Jonathan much of a welcome; he just shows him to his room and tells him not to leave it.  In another scene, he sniffs Mina’s picture in front of Jonathan.  This might just be my own personal interpretation, but I felt that Dracula was always subtle around Jonathan, so that it took him a couple of days to suspect that something was wrong.  That’s not the case here, and I prefer the book version.  The gradual descent into the Worst Business Trip Ever while constantly questioning one’s sanity strikes me as a lot scarier.

Finally, surprise, surprise, I’m still not completely satisfied with this version of Mina.  She’s better in a lot of ways, but she refuses to help the heroes for a long time because she’s grieving over Jonathan and Lucy.  At least I can understand her motive this time around and she does get to participate in the final fight.  She gets captured during said fight, but at least she’s involved and not actively trying to thwart the other heroes.  And, to be honest, I almost cried at the end when she decided to honor Jonathan’s memory by traveling to places he would’ve liked to have visited throughout Europe, instead of grieving.  That’s beautiful.  It also suggests some positive character development for Mina.  Previously, she admitted to Lucy and Dracula that she liked to revisit old places where Jonathan went and even slept in his bed to feel close to him.  By the end of the movie, she’s moving on while still remembering him in a healthier way.

A lot of the changes are weird.  The scene where the heroes stake Lucy is a little goofy since it ends with Lucy stretching herself out and kind of…letting Arthur stake her, I think?  Did I see that right?  I wouldn’t call this movie a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.  But it could have been so much worse, as you shall see…

Count Dracula (1977)

This BBC two-part series from 1977 was an unexpected detour in Dracula Month.  I’d seen just about every other movie on the list before, but not this one nor the BBC remake from 2006.  When I read the description of the 1977 version on Wikipedia, I got excited.  It was said to be considered one of the most faithful adaptations ever made and didn’t mention anything about a romantic liaison between Mina and the Count.

So, I got the DVD from the library and began to watch.  Count Dracula acted suave and often chilling.  His solicitor was Jonathan, not Renfield.  Mina acted like the kind, hardworking, intelligent character that Stoker created.  Lucy acted sweet and loving and didn’t flirt with anything that moved.  Quincey got to make an appearance!  Dr. Seward wasn’t Mina’s father!  Van Helsing was smart, witty, and kind!

Basically, this was my reaction as the first episode unfolded:

FINALLY!  A FAITHFUL ADAPTATION!  IT ONLY TOOK ALMOST A HUNDRED YEARS TO HAPPEN!!!

Well…almost faithful.  But I can’t jump too far ahead here.

First things first: despite its faithfulness overall, we still see character roles condensed and relationships switched around.  Mina and Lucy are sisters in this version and Lucy wants to marry Quincey.  Arthur doesn’t appear at all, although Dr. Seward does and Lucy mentions to Mina that he did propose to her.  Poor Quincey gets left out of these adaptations so often that I think it’s only fair that he got to play the love interest this time around.  Plus, his upbeat personality makes Lucy’s death sadder.  Even after it’s obvious that she won’t survive Dracula’s attack, he sits by her bed and tells her all about the house that he bought for them where they can live after the honeymoon that he knows will never happen.  That hurt to watch.

Meanwhile, it’s nice to see Jonathan act as Dracula’s solicitor.  Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Bosco Hogan’s performance as Jonathan.  Most of the time, he sounds unemotional and uninvested in what’s happening to him.  Granted, in the book he tries to hide his fear from Count Dracula, but this Jonathan sounds detached regardless of whether he’s talking to Dracula or Mina.  When he sees the vampire in London and exclaims to Mina, “It’s the man himself!” I always imagined that he would’ve sounded terrified, but his tone in this production sounds mildly puzzled more than anything else.  Boo.

There’s a similar problem with Louis Jourdan’s performance as Count Dracula, where he sounds a little too calm at times.  Fortunately, this works in Jourdan’s favor for most of his scenes because it correctly suggests that Dracula is a powerful villain and it will take all of the heroes’ combined skills to challenge him.  My favorite scene involves Jonathan angrily accusing the Count of keeping him prisoner, demanding to know what was up with the brides, etc, etc.  Each time he makes an accusation, the Count provides a rational explanation, and it’s so creepy to watch.  We, the audience, know that Jonathan’s right about the Count, but the Count doesn’t care.  He’s one step ahead of Jonathan the whole time.  Anyone staying in this vampire’s house would definitely question his/her sanity after a week or two.

But then during the scene with Jonathan and the three Brides, Dracula walks in on their attempt to eat his solicitor.  In the book, he practically rips the blonde bride away from Jonathan and goes berserk on them.  In the miniseries, he kind of sweeps them back and doesn’t sound angry at all.  He’s so nonchalant that I’d expect him to say, “C’mon guys…you know better…just go away…go on now… shoo…”  That’s really not very scary.

I’d really love to see somebody portray Dracula the way that Tilda Swinton played the White Witch of Narnia in the live-action The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from 2005.  She could’ve easily decided to go the hammy route, but she didn’t.  When she wanted Edmund to trust her, she treated him kindly.  When he failed to give her what she wanted, she would alternate between screaming at him and talking in a cold, calm voice.  It was effective because you knew that she could fly off the handle and turn people into stone, but you didn’t know when she might do it.

But, going back to Count Dracula, it is unnerving when Jonathan casually tells Dracula about Mina’s plans to vacation in Whitby and then sees Whitby circled on a map in a later scene.  Now, that’s an adaptation change that I can embrace.  Here, Mina’s first encounter with Dracula doesn’t feel like a coincidence anymore, without betraying their characterizations in the book by adding a reincarnated dead wife plot. (ARGH!!!)

Best of all, this adaptation showed me just how disturbing Stoker’s novel really is.  I’ve never had to look away from the screen as many times as I did with this one.  Viewers get to see the Brides lift the baby out of Dracula’s sack to eat it.  When Jonathan goes to the crypt, he sees Dracula sleeping in his coffin with a wide-open stare and eyes full of blood.  Dracula’s attack on Lucy, her illness, and her death, all look painful as she writhes and gasps for air.  It’s one thing to read about her pale face and her struggles to breathe, and another thing to see and hear it.

If only the movie could’ve maintained its fear factor for each scene.  Unfortunately, there are many cheesy and confusing moments as well.  When Dracula goes into vampire mode for several scenes, nothing about his costume or makeup changes.  Instead, the camera switches to a negative shot where the colors on his face reverse.  It doesn’t look scary; it just looks weird.  Other shots overlap images, i.e. Mina’s face during the scene with the Brides.  It’s confusing rather than unsettling or disturbing.

This adaptation also uses an inordinate amount of mysterious chimes in place of a full musical score.  Van Helsing and Jonathan are investigating one of Dracula’s lairs when the monster walks into the room- cue the chimes.  (It’s also unintentionally funny because they pay no attention at first, causing me to think, “They didn’t hear the chimes, Count, try again.”)  Jonathan cuts his face while shaving and the camera dramatically zooms in on the blood while the chimes play.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think chimes sound very dramatic or scary and they didn’t fit Count Dracula.

But as far as adaptations go, this is pretty good!  Everyone’s acting in-character, despite Jonathan being a little dull.  WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

“Dracula Seduces Mina”  Oh no.

“Do you know the significance of the kiss?”

No.  You can’t.

“…flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, my beautiful winepress…”

He said “bountiful winepress” in the book, because he wants to suck her blood, not kiss her!

“We shall cross land and sea together!”

Don’t you dare, BBC.

“Come. Drink.”

So she comes.  And she drinks.

YOU HAD ONE JOB, BBC!

This was not a sexy, romantic scene in the book.  He grabbed her arms with one hand so that she couldn’t fight back, then he smashed her head into his chest so that she would either swallow his blood or suffocate.  She does not smile.  She screams and cries the whole time.  It is horrible and violating and disgusting.

But with that said, when the scene ends and Dracula leaves, Mina does scream that she is “unclean” and cries.  This version implies that she was hypnotized into drinking from Dracula’s chest.  To be completely fair, this happens to Jonathan in the book when the Brides appear.  Part of him wants to back away, but he can’t resist them as one of them draws closer and closer to his neck.  Lucy’s journal entries suggest something similar: she’s afraid to go to sleep, but once Dracula gets in her room, she’s powerless to stop him from sucking her blood.  And I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression here: as far as sexual metaphors go, if you’re incapable of giving consent, then you’re still a victim and deserve as much love, support, and help as the victims who fight back.

My issue with the damsel version of Mina is that she did get to fight back in her own way.  She couldn’t completely resist Dracula’s control, but she found ways.  So why take that away from her in the adaptations?  Isn’t that an empowering message for women?

Still, compared to the other adaptations this isn’t too bad.  Mina does get to go with the group for the climactic battle and defends herself with a rifle.  I think I’d be a lot more accepting of the change in tone with that one scene if it weren’t for the fact that I know what’s to come between Dracula and Mina in future adaptations.

That’s going to start next week, as I cover the 1979 adaptation starring Frank Langella and the 1992 adaptation starring Gary Oldman!  What wonders and horrors await us?  Let’s take a look at the back of the DVD cover for the Frank Langella movie:

“Throughout history, Dracula has filled men’s hearts with fear- and women’s hearts with desire.”

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Oh boy, it begins…the coming of Sexy Count…plug your ears, because I am going to be ranting and screaming next week.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Ladies and gentlemen, Sir Christopher Lee:

I love him for understanding that the Dracula in the movies wasn’t Stoker’s character.

But with that said, I really enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would!

I’m noticing something bizarre as I watch all of the Dracula movies/shows/mini-series for this blog: when the title of the movie differs from the book, i.e. “Nosferatu,” “Horror of Dracula,” and even “Count Dracula,” it actually follows the story beats, the spirit of the book, and everyone’s characterizations better than its counterparts. But when it’s got Bram Stoker’s name in the title or otherwise associates with him, it screws up the characters and the plot almost beyond recognition. I think I will call this phenomenon “Stoker’s Law of Inverse Adaptations.”

This particular movie opens with the diary of Jonathan Harker, just like the book.  He narrates the early scenes in the movie as they happen.  Normally, I don’t think this is a great idea, but it works here because we find out afterwards that the diary was given to Van Helsing and he’s reading it.  After that reveal, the narration stops.

In this version, Jonathan isn’t a solicitor helping Dracula move to London.  He’s a librarian.  One of my favorite characters in the book has the same career as me!  YAY!

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Dracula hires him to work in his library.  It’s never explained why the Count needs a librarian, but within a few scenes it becomes clear that Jonathan’s not just a librarian: he’s a vampire-hunting librarian!

This movie is hitting all of the right notes with me even if it’s not necessarily great adaptation-wise.

So, in this version, Jonathan and Van Helsing are colleagues who hunt vampires.  Jonathan went undercover to investigate the Count and meets a woman who claims to be his prisoner.  Maybe she is, but she’s also a vampire who tries to turn Jonathan.  Like the book version, Jon tries to kill Dracula while he sleeps in his coffin, but fails.  Unlike the book, he does stake the Bride, but then Dracula wakes up and turns him into a vampire.  Van Helsing finds him later and stakes him.

I guess a vampire-hunting librarian was just too cool to live.  Note to self: stick to the Reference Desk.

Even though Jonathan wasn’t a solicitor, the Count still goes to London because he wants revenge against Jonathan for killing the Bride.  I like this idea because it explains why he obsesses over Mina and Lucy while also maintaining his monstrous personality.  It’s similar to his motivation for attacking Mina in the book- to punish the men trying to hunt him down.  Also like the book, the Count doesn’t appear very much except for a few key scenes.  It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear Christopher Lee talk very much, but he does a good job with the scenes that he gets, as he always does.

So how does poor Madame Mina fair?  Well…better than other movies, but still not perfect.  She and Lucy swap love interests in this version: Lucy is engaged to Jonathan and Mina is married to Arthur Holmwood.  I’m not sure why, but I guess they wanted to keep Mina as the married protagonist and couldn’t do it with Jonathan because they’d already killed him off…?

The film has one of the few versions of Lucy who acts mostly in-character: an innocent, naive young woman who doesn’t flirt with everything that moves.  Mina acts more in-character too, although we don’t get to see her awesome secretary skills or deductive reasoning.  When she realizes that Lucy isn’t getting any better under Dr. Seward’s care, she is the one who goes to Van Helsing for help.  Throughout the film, she comes across as a sensible woman who’s willing to believe Van Helsing before her husband does.  But unlike the book version of her character, she doesn’t get to do anything to save herself when she gets attacked by Dracula next.  Boo!

Hammer’s version of Van Helsing combines his character with Dr. Seward’s: he uses a phonograph to create audio diaries, knows all about vampires, and doesn’t need help pronouncing English words because he’s English here.  Even though he’s not the most in-character version of Van Helsing, I think he might be my favorite.  He really feels like a formidable foe to Dracula without coming off as insensitive to his friends or unbearably smarter than them.

It helps that he’s played by Peter Cushing, aka Governor Tarkin.  That man could keep Darth Vader under control.  Dracula never stood a chance.

Arthur is a combination of his book character and that jerk version of Jonathan in the 1931 movie.  He blames Van Helsing for everything that goes wrong at first, but after they stake Lucy, he accepts that Van Helsing’s telling the truth and becomes a good ally.  There’s a really funny scene in this movie where they try to find Dracula’s location by interrogating a clerk that transported his coffin.  The man swears that his customers’ confidentiality is more important to him than anything else…while Arthur calmly keeps taking bills out of his wallet until the man admits that he can always make an exception when it’s an emergency.  That is in fact how the heroes get a lot of things done in the book: Arthur’s nobility and money gets them access to whatever they need.

As a film, I find Horror of Dracula very engaging.  While the 1931 version basically had Dr. Seward and Jonathan following Van Helsing around and either absorbing or arguing over everything he taught them, Arthur’s interactions with Van Helsing show steady character development.  The Bride gets to be a more ambiguous character.  We never really know for sure whether she wanted to bite Jonathan or if she struggled against Dracula for control over herself.  Her dialogue implies that she might’ve been like Mina once: an unwilling victim who can no longer leave the Count because of what she’s become.  I wish the movie showed more about her backstory.

The castle looks great and I love the surrounding scenery.  There’s something about the movie overall- maybe the set design, maybe the music, or maybe the mood- that makes me think of Halloween and that I’d like to add it to the list of movies that I watch around October.

It cuts a lot from the book and still doesn’t do Mina Harker justice.  But the rest of the movie makes up for the changes.  At least it successfully demonstrates the conflict of good vs. evil, a fantastic Van Helsing, a slightly stronger Mina, and a more complex Bride.  I’d happily watch it again.

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.