Dracula as Hero of His Own Story

The latest production from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss is a revamping of Bram Stoker's venerable Dracula. Unlike their retooling of Sherlock for the modern-day, this version promises to stay in its late 19th-century setting. 

But what caught my eye in the Radio Times announcement is this passage, which hinges on what makes their adaptation unique:

...[T]heir big pitch to the BBC and Netflix has been to finally make Dracula “the hero of his own story” – the central focus of the narrative rather than a shadowy villain for more traditional heroes to overcome...

“Because we sort of made a promise to ourselves and the people who are making it, paying for it, that we’d make Dracula the hero of his own story, and less of a shadowy presence...[said Gatiss].

In Bram Stoker’s original epistolary novel of 1897, Dracula is only ever seen through the eyes of humans trying to escape him or bring him to heel, with the Count representing a malevolent threat to humanity without any real sense of his inner life or perspective.

According to Moffat and Gatiss, their new Dracula – played by Danish actor Claes Bang – will bring that interiority on screen. Though, as noted above, it’s not been quite as easy as they anticipated when they first pitched the reinterpretation…

“We quickly found out why he’s often kept a shadowy presence!” joked Moffat.

If Moffatt or Gatiss want to see one take on this approach, then I point them to the marvelous The Dracula Tape, a 1980 novel by the sf/fantasy author Fred Saberhagen. 

saberhagendraculatape.jpg

In it, Dracula tells his story to a tape-recording interviewer and it is an absolutely bloody brilliant retelling. All of the novel's events are told from the other side of the mirror, as it were. Misunderstandings are made plain. Odd events are made sensible. For example, Dracula points out the idiocy of Van Helsing performing a blood transfusion without knowledge of blood types, which of course leads to disastrous consequences.

But, don't forget this is the Prince of Darkness, so he's the very definition of "unreliable narrator." Still, his contempt for Van Helsing is spirited and apt; Van Helsing is such a stick in the novel, so unlike the dashing and heroic Peter Cushing. (Stoker must have had in mind an actor in the troupe he stage-managed who specialized in German or Dutch accents; this is the only way I can comprehend the presence of such a bizarre character).

Saberhagen was a jobbing sf/fantasy author who wrote a similar "what-really-happened" story of The Monster in The Frankenstein Papers and went on to write a series of Dracula-as-avenging-good-guy novels, plus a Dracula meets Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I've not read all of these books; those I have I remember as average stories, competently told, not very memorable.

But The Dracula Tape is different. There is a magic and vivacity, a real grappling with structure, storytelling, and doing something new with this well-worn and familiar tale. For me, Saberhagen never bottled this vintage of lightning again in any of his other work.

As for Moffat and Gatiss's plans: I hope their production is a success. I worry a bit about their going back again and again to the pulp culture well of their childhoods. Moffat's career as a television writer saw him create a terrific series for young people (Press Gang) and several popular sitcoms set in the everyday modern-day where he honed his techniques; he also tried, bless him, to be up to date with the young people in Coupling. His modern retelling of Jekyll was big, colorful, and fast-moving; a great experiment on the way to his more successful Doctor Who episodes but not satisfying all on its own.

After spending so many years working with other writers' and creators' material -- Jekyll, Sherlock, Doctor Who, and now Dracula -- albeit with plenty of his own imaginative juice thrown in — it would be heartening to see Moffat go back and start creating again from whole cloth, maybe leave the toybox of his youth, with its spaceships and vampires, behind. I'd love to see him stretch his wings as Russell T Davies did with Cucumber Banana Tofu and A Very English Scandal