Several play versions of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu‘s classic novella exist, from the Wildclaw Theater‘s grand guignol adaptation to recent musical in development and even one penned by yours truly. There’s one particular version that has seen several different productions in the United Kingdom since its premiere in the 1970s–that of David Campton (who also wrote stage adaptations of Frankenstein and The House of Usher). I recently finally got ahold of a copy of the script of his Carmilla, had a sit down to read it.
Now let us be up front. As noted, I myself wrote an adaptation of this very same story for the stage and frankly I’m quite pleased with it. So I have my own ‘take’ on the tale, my favorite of all vampire stories. On the other hand, I’ve also seen and enjoyed many a different version, including the Nightmare Classics version, the web series, the motion pictures Styria (aka Angels of Darkness), The Unwanted and The Vampire Lovers. So I’m not whining Campton didn’t do the “obvious” thing and anticipate my lead.
I will say this play version has very little in common with the source material. Like too many adaptations, for example in moves Laura from center stage to the side, introducing a young handsome hero to sweep in and rescue her. This character has no parallel in the novella. In fact Laura’s isolation and lack of contact with anyone her own age helps explain the plot. But this seems tossed aside in favor of what frankly seems like formula.
Frankly, all the female characters end up weakened, save for Carmilla herself–and her aggressiveness (or simple habit of making her own decisions) is used as a way of showing how evil she must be. Even Carmilla’s mysterious mother, the Countess, vanishes to be replaced by a smarmy male servant named Ivan but who really should have been named Igor. The reason I say that is because the whole thing had a distinctly “camp” feel, without ever roaming into the area of actual comedy. Every single character seemed like a type, rather than a person.
Add to this is plenty of small bits liberally lifted from the novel and play of Dracula (garlic, crosses and a visit to Transylvania even!) made me wonder “Why?” Was it because Campton believed we wouldn’t believe in a vampire story without them? What does that say about his view of audiences?
To be fair, some nice touches dot the play here and there. Doctor Spielsberg (a tiny, walk-on character in the novella) becomes a puzzling supporting part, a man manipulated by the vampire in ways that frankly don’t seem terribly clear. But he is interesting. More, I rather liked the description of Carmilla seizing one person with vise-like grip, with directions saying it is as if the arm moves of its own accord. A nice touch, that. Let us give credit where it is due.
Yet in all honesty, Campton’s version doesn’t really explore very much. We don’t dive any deeper into LeFanu’s tale, not really. Instead of Laura being genuinely special to Carmilla, she’s the equivalent of a favorite pet. Laura herself seems (as is all too often the case) without much personality at all.
One particularly vivid example of poor writing is when Captain Field tries to convince Laura’s father that his house guest is a walking ghost feeding off the blood of the living. He does not know this man. Captain Field’s reputation is a very shady one (he desecrated–that is, drove a wooden stake through–the corpse of his late fiancee). Yet all the Captain need do to persuade the father is insist he knows what he’s talking about–and the father agrees to go vampire hunting. Not good writing. Not at all.