A wildly successful web series, not one but two recent films, a musical in the works–little wonder Audible decided to produce a new audio version of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu‘s last work (and the ancestor of all lesbian vampires since).
Carmilla was offered as a free download for Halloween, not a reading of the book but a full audio play. More, the cast involved certainly would make anyone take notice:
Rose Leslie, from HBO’s Game of Thrones, stars as the narrator/heroine Laura (for once given her proper name–versions such as Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers nearly always change her name for some reason). Likewise Phoebe Fox–perhaps best known for starring in last year’s Woman in Black sequel–portrays the title character. David Tennant of Doctor Who and Harry Potter fame on the other hand plays Dr. Hesselius.
Therein lies a symptom of what is wrong with this adaptation of Le Fanu’s classic. Hesselius appears as an ‘on stage’ character in stories that make up the rest of the collection that contained Carmilla, namely Through A Glass Darkly. The text of the famous vampire tale is just one in theory found among his papers, but he himself never takes part in it. Why does he in this version?
Well, that is the point. He doesn’t. The character may be named Hesselius but is in fact Professor Van Helsing–down to the particular speech patterns from Bram Stoker‘s novel. Like far too many versions of Carmilla, this one eschews the central story of the original and tries to reframe it as Dracula! But LeFanu did not write a mystery/adventure in which good and wise men defend their womenfolk from the evil foreigner. Rather, his work simmers with much more ambiguity, centered around the relationship between Laura and her strange but beautiful houseguest.
As the author of both my own stage version, as well The Annotated Carmilla (with 400+ footnotes) allow me to posit Carmilla‘s narrator proves herself anything but reliable. Laura contradicts herself quite a bit, not least about her feelings regarding the vampire who evidently loved her. Deciding–as the author of Audible’s version does–that her every word should be taken at face value and nothing else, robs the story of the very power that keeps it in print.
Le Fanu’s story is nowhere near as straightforward as the script composed here by Robin Brooks. Like David Compton’s stage version, this reduces Laura into a passive (albeit brave) victim while Carmilla seems nothing but a perverted predator of young women. Gone are the details such as the fact Laura lives in a police state, whose forces invade her life to destroy her only friend. Or the tone of Laura’s protests about her reaction to Carmilla’s passion, which seem frankly defensive in the novella. Deliberately, in my view. Frankly, without those very ambiguities, Carmilla becomes nothing but a earlier, cruder version of Dracula, with lesbians added to maintain one’s interest.
Yet it doesn’t. Not through a lack of effort by the cast, nor the sound design (which honestly qualifies as luscious) but through the writer’s decision to look no further than the surface of this classic piece of gothic literature.