“Dracula”: an Adaptation that Lacked Everything


“Dracula” (1931), directed by Tod Browning and Karl Freund, is a film adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel of the same name. It is the first sound adaptation of the film and is also the first sound film in Universal’s Classic Monsters Franchise. While watching “Dracula,” I noticed that there are significant differences between the film and novel. While it would have been nearly impossible to have adapted a 400-page book into a concise 75-minute film, the end result was still an extremely underwhelming adaptation of an incredible novel. 

The film “Dracula” is about a solicitor named Renfeild (Dwight Frye) who travels to Transylvania to finalize the real estate purchase made by the mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), who is in fact a vampire. Upon returning to England, Renfeild has been driven to insanity by Dracula and is thrown into Dr. Seward’s (Herbert Bunston) sanitarium. Meanwhile, women begin to die mysteriously at the hands of the Count. Among the women is Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). After the death of Lucy, Dracula attempts to drain the blood of Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), daughter of Dr. Seward and fiancé of John Harker (David Manners). Dracula’s plans are thwarted and he is eventually defeated by Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and John Harker. The film adapted the novel’s most basic plot. Elements of a few characters from the novel were combined to form the film’s characters, as a result stripping them of what made them memorable and engaging in the first place. 

In the novel, it is Jonathan Harker (John Harker in the film) who goes to Transylvania. He stays in Dracula’s castle for nearly two months, rather than one night in the film. When Dracula leaves for England, he leaves Jonathan to be killed by his three vampire wives. When Dracula arrives in England, he drinks the blood of Lucy Westenra (Lucy Weston in the film). Her fiancé, Arthur Holmwood, and her suitors, Quincy Morris and Dr. John Seward (who is 29 in the novel), not understanding what is going on, attempt to cure her with the help of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. They fail, however, and Lucy is turned into a vampire and drinks the blood of the local children. After killing Lucy for good, Van Helsing, Arthur, John and Quincy meet up with Jonathan Harker – who managed to make it back to England alive – and his wife, Mina. Together, they figure out what Dracula is, what his plans are and how to defeat him.  

The novel is written in diary entries, newspaper articles and telegrams and is purposely slow-paced to build up suspense. As the book goes on, events start to get creepier and creepier and the suspense builds. From the reader’s perspective, what is happening is obvious, but for the characters, the only information they have is what is in their own respective diaries. It is not until Mina thinks to write down everyone’s entries in a cohesive narrative that the characters get a better grasp on the situation. The film, however, does not have that suspense. All of the information is thrown in the audience’s face. For example, the fact that Dracula is a vampire is obvious to both the audience and the characters. In the novel, the characters do not realize there is a vampire until halfway through, and they do not even realize that Dracula is in town until Van Helsing gets in contact with Mina. 

That leads into the film’s biggest fault: the treatment of Mina and her relationship with Jonathan. In the novel, Mina is an intelligent and independent woman and is one of the smartest and most influential characters in the novel. She is the one who pieces everything together and figures out what is going on. When the men in the novel shun her from doing any more work to protect her woman’s heart, Dracula immediately starts turning her into one of his wives. This sends a message to the men: “protecting her” just made her more of a target and they almost lost their best brain. In the film, however, Mina is a doormat. She is just the damsel who the men must save from the monster and has no agency whatsoever. She does not do anything to advance the plot other than being the MacGuffin the villain wants and the heroes want to save. Meanwhile, John (Jonathan’s film equivalent) dismisses Mina’s concerns about Dracula, calling her crazy, and refuses to believe that there is anything strange going on. This is nothing close to Mina and Jonathan in the novel. In the novel, the Harkers are very loving and supportive of each other. Mina does whatever she can to help Jonathan through the trauma he endured after living with Dracula. Meanwhile, Jonathan is willing to turn into a vampire – essentially giving up his soul – if Mina is not cured so they can stay together. That is a healthy, loving and supportive relationship. 

One of the few similarities between the film and the novel is Renfield. Despite him taking Jonathan’s place in the beginning, Renfield being a patient in Dr. Seward’s asylum, being obsessed with eating flies and spiders and being a servant to Dracula is consistent between the novel and film. Whenever Renfield came onscreen it was a breath of fresh air and a break from the cold, stiff and unnatural dialogue. The few remaining similarities of vampires, Transylvania and England is what excuses this film as a “Dracula” adaptation.  

Overall, this film is a poor adaptation of the classic Bram Stoker novel. “Dracula” (1931) completely erased what made the novel so good and turned it into a cheap, poorly acted, cookie-cutter monster movie. Just read the book instead.