Updating Dracula for Modern Audiences
Stephen King tells a story. He mentioned the idea of Count Dracula in a modern setting, and his wife Tabitha said Bram Stoker’s most famous creation would be run over by a New York taxicab in minutes. Somehow the idea seems right. Arguably the most successful translation of the Count into the 20th century was a comedy–Love at First Bite. Certainly that seemed to work better than Hammer’s two attempts at putting Christopher Lee’s infamous vampire into 1970s London! Or the slightly-off adaptation with Patrick Bergin.
But it brings to mind an interesting challenge, a thought experiment if you will. How would one translate the elements of the novel Dracula into our own time and elicit the approximate same reaction? Think of how Ian McClellan shifted his film version of Richard III into the 1930s, an alternate fascist Britain. Or how Leonard Bernstein turned Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story.
To begin, forget Transylvania. Victorians viewed Eastern Europe as a fundamentally different place than we do. Far more exotic, far away (given the technology of the day), repressive, primitive, even dangerous. Our image of the world doesn’t see any possible danger coming from the Balkans (rightly or wrongly). We aren’t worried about Eastern Europeans sneaking into our homeland to corrupt the very fabric of society. Hence let me suggest a different native soil for our modern Dracula surrogate.
Egypt. A place both familiar yet alien. With an association to the occult, the mysterious and to half-forgotten history whose echoes we find in popular entertainment. Likewise a source of real discomfort, even fear to the general public (again, rightly or wrongly). Our version of Jonathan Harker–presumably some kind of junior executive or very minor member of the diplomatic corps–visits that unstable (but not too unstable) region to arrange for a wealthy gentleman’s relocation to the United States (the superpower of today as Britain was in 1897). Easy enough to imagine this person’s home built near or on top of some ancient ruin, a tomb where this Undead had been originally entombed.
Consider now the brides. Three sexually aggressive young women coming on to a modern man lacks the frisson of the taboo. Sounds too much like something you’d read in Penthouse magazine. No, if this is intended to get the same combination of thrill and horror as Stoker’s novel invoked, we have to push the idea further. Not three voluptuous young women. How about half a dozen brazenly sexual children? Or at least waifs–boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 16. Old enough to have entered puberty, to be attractive yet forbidden by law and tradition. Stuff of our darkest fantasies made flesh.
For that matter, given Victorian attitudes towards women, we need to make Lucy and Mina much younger. Part of the horror of the original rose from the image of women as both innocent and helpless. Make Lucy about fifteen and Mina not quite eighteen. Yes, this echoes Lolita. Somewhat. Because that is the blend of the exciting with the horrific. We don’t think of sexuality as corruption anymore. But we do (rightfully) equate it with anything even hinting at pedophilia. To create similar connections for plot purposes, Lucy and Mina would most likely be Harker’s daughters. He’s probably a widower, with the elder girl having taken over much of the house-keeping duties. Some might find that old-fashioned, but hardly unusual. Likewise the equivalent of Arthur should be about Lucy’s age–a totally appropriate one. Dr. Seward might be his father, a friend of Harker’s.
In the novel, Dracula’s arrival in his new home is via the doomed schooner Demeter, which beaches itself empty of crew save for the dead captain. Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro already translated this into a modern equivalent in the first novel of their trilogy, The Strain. A jumbo passenger jet lands at JFK, and all communication immediately shuts off. When investigated, everyone on board is dead. It made for an eerie start of the story. Frankly, I doubt that can be topped. But a variation might be what happens to the crew hired to prepare and/or deliver our Vampire Lords boxes of earth. Maybe the police trace the sudden disappearance of several laborers, eventually finding their way to the equivalent of Carfax?
Here’s another thought. Van Helsing in the novel actually was actually more upsetting to Victorians than he seems to us. Recall that when Stoker wrote the book, Roman Catholics had been given the right to vote in living memory–and doing so sparked caused riots! His use of a crucifix, of the Host, his references to such (heretical) superstitions marked him as no less an outsider in some ways than Dracula himself! To keep that idea, methinks our Van Helsing figure (an FBI profiler maybe, on the case of those vanished laborers, victims of a presumed serial killer?) should be Muslim. As I write this, what comes to mind is an older, Arab-American version of Dr. Reid on the t.v. show Criminal Minds. Make of that what you will!
And to complete the iconography, one major source of clues should be some poor schizophrenic homeless person, a modern day equivalent to Renfield.
So what is your reaction? Would you go see this? Or, if you were going to update the story of Count Dracula, how would you recreate the kinds of feelings Victorians had?