When watching the BBC’s most recent literary adaptations – The War of the Worlds, His Dark Materials and A Christmas Carol – I couldn’t help but compare them to the original source material. His Dark Materials was the most faithful, and the most enjoyable to watch. The War of the Worlds ignored a lot of the logical ideas that H.G. Wells applied to his Martians, and often failed to make sense as a result. A Christmas Carol used little more than the basic plot outline and character names of Charles Dickens’s original work, and had ideas that could have been interesting if it were a completely original story, but was ultimately a joyless, un-Christmassy experience that did not respect the tone and message of the original at all.
With an adaptation of Dracula, however, it feels hypocritical to complain about any lack of adherence to Bram Stoker’s novel, since there are many, many films and TV programmes about Count Dracula out there, and hardly any of them really stick to the novel. The 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola has a whole invented subplot about Mina being the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife, and yet is still one of the more relatively faithful versions. Not to mention, with there being so many other versions, someone creating their own brand-new Dracula adaptation must feel under pressure to do theirs differently (as A Christmas Carol tried to do, though not very well). My faith in creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss happened to be limited, Moffat having used up the goodwill he earned for the earlier seasons of Doctor Who and Sherlock. However, their version of Dracula does stay true to the basic concepts – gothic horror, Transylvanian vampire, plucky humans trying to bring him down, etc – and most importantly, they still make it entertaining.
It’s clear from early on that this is going to deviate a long way from the book. Jonathan Harker is killed off in the first episode – curiously, the BBC’s last adaptation of Dracula also chose to get rid of him early – and Mina Murray has barely any role at all. Then there’s the decision to turn Professor van Helsing into Sister Agatha van Helsing, which felt a bit ridiculous at first, but a fantastic performance by Dolly Wells really sells it. The second episode is devoted to Dracula’s voyage to England on the Demeter, where he travels as a passenger (“What did you think I was going to do, lie around in a box?”) and the voyage plays out like an Agatha Christie murder mystery where the audience is well aware who the killer is.
Given that Dracula makes it to England within the first quarter of the book, it felt like an awful lot was going to be crammed into the third and final episode, unless Moffat and Gatiss had more than one series planned. Instead, for Episode 3, the book is almost completely thrown out the window as Dracula is unexpectedly incapacitated for over a century and wakes up in the present day. A lot of people seemed not to approve of this decision on Twitter, and it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, but I felt that they still made it work. The only real issue I had with it was that after two episodes getting to know Sister Agatha, she is now necessarily replaced by her distant niece Zoe (also played by Wells), a different character whom we only have one episode to get re-attached to.
The whole thing doesn’t feel like it can be taken too seriously, particularly given Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula: he’s a little camp and very charismatic, with plenty of wry remarks. At the same time, though, he is without mercy and gives off a constantly dangerous aura – yet you can’t help but be drawn to him, despite knowing that he’s a monster. In fact, that’s how watching this adaptation feels: strangely compelling even though what’s on screen is frequently disturbing and horrifying. One thing that turned me off the first episode somewhat was that the gore and body horror involved were at very high levels even for a Dracula adaptation; however, the second and third episodes aren’t quite as bad as that regard, though still bloody.
One sometimes sees the touches of the writers trying to be clever and bamboozling like their previous works – for example, after the first episode ends with Dracula menacing Sister Agatha and Mina in the convent as they scream in terror, the second inexplicably begins with Dracula and Agatha amicably playing chess in an unknown location. (And sure enough, there’s a twist behind that.) But that’s not overdone; it’s mostly just straightforward horror with a dash of black comedy. And I liked the ending too, which took a surprising look into the psychology of Dracula, though the final conclusion did feel a bit abrupt. So ultimately, Dracula is a win for Moffat and Gatiss; maybe they just needed something fresh.