Adaptations of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel often reveal more about the adapters — and about their times — than they do about Stoker or his work. Case in point: Mina Harker, nee Murray.
Looking at the novel itself, we find a character who seems very much a yin to her best friend Lucy Westenra‘s yang. One is a recent student, the other a teacher. Lucy enjoys wealth and multiple suitors, including a cowboy and an English aristocrat. Mina remains solidly middle class, engaged to a young solicitor (extant notes seem to hint Mina’s fiancée might have had some earlier dalliance with a character ultimately omitted–one Kate Reed). The younger of the two seems more flighty, prone to sleepwalking and needing rescue from her much-more-practical gal-pal. More, Mina shows various skills including typing and shorthand (in Victorian terms this makes her the equivalent a computer programmer) as well as the analytical ability which leads the male heroes of the novel to their ultimate victory. For all that she remains quietly devout and kind. She insists the vampire hunters–Van Helsing, Seward, Quincy, Arthur and her own husband–approach the vampire Lord with pity. His is a cursed soul needing release, she says. As if to confirm this, in the end she notes that before Dracula’s body crumbles to dust his face suddenly holds an expression of peace, such as she could never before have imagined seeing there.
One would think this a fairly vivid character portrait, all things considered. Building upon this to make an equally good character for the stage or screen shouldn’t prove difficult. Plays and films of the novel do not bear anything like this out, however–with a very few exceptions.
Curiously, relations and names of Mina, Lucy and others get shifted around version to version. In the Bela Lugosi “Dracula” (as well as its Spanish counterpart) Mina and Lucy switch names! The same thing happens in the 1979 version directed by John Badham. The two roles are far from interchangeable. One remains stronger, more forceful and less emotional–she ultimately survives. The other is weaker, more morbid and ends up a vampire to be destroyed. Apart from anything else, the character based on Mina also remains engaged/involved with solicitor Jonathan Harker. Hammer’s 1958 “Horror of Dracula” makes of her a woman whose brother is Harker, but is herself married to Arthur Holmwood (Lucy is his sister). Both lose much of their personalities along the way. They fared somewhat better in 1968’s “Count Dracula” from the BBC, although in that version (as with several others) Mina ends up less interesting than Lucy. Bad girls, like bad boys, tend to grab the spotlight. Yet in Dan Curtis’ television production with Jack Palance, the two women become totally interchangeable save for their hair color (for once accurately portraying Mina as blonde, Lucy as a brunette).
The pattern matches stereotypes of a time pretty easily. Helen Chandler’s dull flamboyance remains little more than a stereotype (especially in contrast to the vivacious Lupita Tovar in “Spanish Dracula”), a victim to Bela Lugosi and nothing more. When the 1950s and 60s came round, new versions of “Dracula” (including some that didn’t use the name) wallowed in all the blood and nudity filmmakers could get away with, but treated females essentially as interchangeable dolls. Not until the 1970s did the character of Mina begin to regain her identity. Kate Nelligan played her as a proto-feminist who’d earned a law degree, daring to choose her own sexual partners as a man would. Judi Bowker in the second BBC version played her very much as she was in the novel. Winona Ryder‘s Mina in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, like most elements of that adaptation, was the original but thrown into sharp relief — a shy and intensely loyal virgin, the re-incarnated love of the mortal man who became Dracula, the key to his final defeat as well as his redemption. No other version yet has dwelt so upon a matter foremost in Mina Harker’s mind — the state of the dread Count’s soul. One result was that Mina, with her blood-red dress and flowing dark locks, became something of an icon. Draculas since then have had to define themselves against that version–with a plethora of Counts in love with Harker’s bride.
Carl Jung described a process of attaining mental health called individuation. By this he meant that people should seek out and encourage what makes them unique, to find themselves first and foremost. Over time, Mina seems to have gone through this process by proxy via writers and directors adapting “Dracula.” From cookie-cutter ingenues she evolved into some avatar very close to who she is in the novel. Little wonder that efforts to go beyond that followed Bowker and Ryder!
Peta Wilson as Mina the Vampire, a steam punk superhero fighting the granddaddy of all mad scientists, Professor Moriarty. Stephanie Leonidas as a melancholy Mina, mourning the disappearance of her Jonathan and the unconsummated nature of their love. Zoe Tapper as immortal demon hunter Mina. Misty Mundae as schizophrenic lesbian Mina, feeling love and life at last in the arms of a dream-like Countess Dracula. Alexandra Kamp-Groeneveld as future cosmonaut Mina, unable to cope with encountering the supernatural in an age that has forgotten religion. A veritable rainbow of different Minas!
Lest we imagine this is a linear progression, recall that the first Mina in the German film “Nosferatu” actually has the Van Helsing role. It is she, played by Greta Shroder, who diagnoses the cause of the city’s plague–the vampire–and gives her life to defeat/destroy him (shades of Quincy as well). That was back in the 1920s! Isabelle Adjani did an almost identical take–including passionate love of her husband coupled with the irony of less-than-total victory–in Werner Herzog’s remake.
Seen in that light, Bella Swan of “Twilight” seems a version of Mina. One has to wonder what future decisions wait to be made in new versions. What will the Mina in Dario Argento’s “Dracula 3D” be like? “Renfield The Undead” should be in theaters soon–will Roxy Cook’s Mina be memorable or a retread? What actors may yet play the part?
More to the point, how will we accept these future Minas when we see them?