Dracula Interview with Phillip E. Hardy
Bram Stoker published his groundbreaking novel, Dracula, in 1897. It was during the late Victorian era and much has changed since then. The way vampires have evolved in literature and film has also been significant. This includes the recent revisionist BBC adaptation of Stoker’s novel, which in my ‘umble opinion Master Copperfield, barely resembles the original work. Novelists like Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer and Richard Matheson have taken the vampire genre in vastly different directions. And, the Anne Rice beautiful, suave vampire model has had a profound influence on how human bloodsuckers are portrayed in modern cinema.
There have been approximately 80 film and television version of the Dracula novel beginning in Russia in 1920. The first successful “talkie” version was the 1931 Todd Browning film starring the legendary Bela Lugosi. Dracula movies evolved with the Hammer Studio films made between 1958 and 1974, and starred Christopher Lee as an increasingly licentious count. The character became further romanticized with the 1979 Dracula adaptation featuring Frank Langella as a very attractive, sexy count and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version starring Gary Oldman that offered a sensual and dapper Dracula sporting a grey three piece suit, sunglasses and a top hat.
Along with zombies, vampires are still a wildly popular genre for film and television fans. George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead is the gold standard for zombies, and Dracula remains the favorite subject for vampire movies. My assertion is reinforced by the prolific number of film and television adaptations and the recent success of BBC’s production of Dracula, which was recently added to the Netflix streaming service. It’s already received more than 800 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and is netting a generally favorable response from critics and slightly less favorable reaction from fans. However, viewers are still talking about this character after a century of film and television adaptations.
I’ve recently written a pilot called Dracula, the Complete Novel for Television. My goal is to deliver a faithful rendering of the Bram Stoker novel. And, to that end, I’ve developed a differentiation strategy to promote why I think viewers, particularly horror fans, would want to see my version of the Dracula story. For that reason, I was invited to share my thoughts about why the story of Dracula has remained so popular.
What do you think has caused the everlasting popularity of this story?
Dracula remains popular because Bram Stoker created memorable characters populating a story that became a prototype for the modern day vampire genre. With the exception of Varney the Vampire and Sheridan Le Fanu‘s Carmilla, this genre had yet to be mined by the authors of the 19th Century. Stoker’s story, which had its roots in Romanian folklore, resonated with readers because of the suspense elements and the smoldering, underlying sensuality that stood in stark contrast to the sexual repression of Victorian society.
At its core, Dracula is also a story about friendship, love and loyalty and people from diverse backgrounds, uniting to rid themselves of a common enemy. I’m of the opinion Bram Stoker’s Dracula is worthy of being considered one of the great novels of the Victorian Era. Like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, Stoker’s provocative novel continues to generate interest from readers and film makers who can’t get enough of the Count from Transylvania.
What were your challenges on adapting this book?
This is an excellent question and the most important challenge a screenwriter must consider when adapting a popular novel. For me, the greatest challenge is selecting the most relevant and entertaining elements required to convey the author’s intended story in a cohesive way. This is not my first adaptation and I learned a lot from putting three stories by HP Lovecraft into an anthology feature screenplay. I challenged myself further, when for a writing exercise, I wrote a feature screenplay rendering of Harper Lee’s second published novel, Go Set a Watchman (GSAW). Therefore, it was very gratifying when readers at a film festival thought my GSAW adapted script was so good that I should pitch it to Harper Lee’s estate. But that’s another story.
With a film feature, you’re generally limited to 120 pages of screenplay, which equates to approximately two hours of screen time in a film. In adapting Dracula, my challenges were much easier in choosing material for the screenplay. In fact, since my script project is going to be an eleven hour, limited series, I must endeavor to sustain the suspense elements to keep people interested. In other words, I have approximately 690 pages of screenplay that I need to fill. For my pilot, which is already written, I concentrated on the first four chapters of the novel. This material deals with Jonathan Harker arriving at Dracula’s castle and becoming an eventual prisoner. In those chapters there’s so much great material, and in addition to my own dialogue and opening scene I created, I was able to use many parts of the original text.
When it comes to adapting a novel for the large or small screen, it all boils down to condensing parts of the book into scenes that are entertaining and digestible to the audience. However, when delivering material from classic writers such as Stoker and Jane Austen, a screenwriter runs the risk of upsetting loyal fans of the novel that believe the adaptation failed to deliver what was originally intended. This was exactly how I felt while watching the recent BBC version of Dracula. IMHO, this new version has minimal resemblance to the original novel. And, for a lot of viewers that was fine. I am not among them.
Another excellent example of my previous point is the recent interpretation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon by journeyman screenwriter Andrew Davies. This gifted writer has enjoyed much success with his adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace. For these previous works, Davies had complete novels to work with and 6 hours of screen time to deliver them. For Sanditon, Davies has only the original eleven chapters of the novel and more than 8 hours to fill. This has left him to craft much of the story based on his ideas, rather than what Austen might have had in mind. Consequently, this adaptation is receiving mixed reviews with some viewers upset over the adult content that was never depicted in Jane’s original works.
Why did you choose Dracula, and in particular Bram Stoker’s original version?
I chose Bram Stoker’s Dracula because as a viewer, I’ve been left wanting by every other Dracula film or show that I’ve seen. Part of my project proposal for a television show states:
For nearly 100 years, there have been multiple film and television adaptations of the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula. However, there have never been any as ambitious and faithful to the groundbreaking story as Dracula, the Complete Novel for Television. This ten-part series delves into the brilliant backstories and terrifying nuances of this legendary gothic tale that portrays the familiar characters of Dracula, Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, and Doctors John Seward and Abraham Van Helsing, in richly layered ways never before seen.
The last filmmaker that claimed he was delivering Bram Stoker’s Dracula was Francis Ford Coppola, who released his movie in 1992. Though I’ve admired Coppola’s work in several brilliant films, I hated this Dracula because beyond attractive set pieces, the storytelling was subpar, the acting was overwrought and the film failed to elicit the emotional response that I desired. For me, that requires leaving the theater feeling satisfied and entertained.
What are your thoughts on more modern versions of Dracula?
At the risk of sounding disingenuous, I’ve yet to see a film or television depiction of Dracula that’s satisfied what I’m looking to see. Obviously, I have a strong interest in stating this because I’m working with a producer to promote my version of the Stoker novel. However, I wouldn’t have undertaken writing, and now promoting my project if I didn’t feel there was a need to see Dracula as Bram Stoker intended. So if I can write a series that’s close to being on par to what Andrew Davies did with the War and Peace miniseries, I’ll be a happy lad. This endeavor will require the time a limited series can offer. And, the people that believe I’m correct in my assertion that a Dracula story of this scope has yet to be delivered.
If I was to pick a Dracula film I liked, it would be the 1979 hybrid version directed by John Badham and starring Frank Langella. The story for this movie is a hybrid of the Stoker novel and an early 20th Century play written by Hamilton Deane. This film has great acting, tone and helped set the modern standard of portraying the count as handsome and seductive. The BBC writers Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat also stated that part of their recent Dracula series was based on the Keane play. In any case, if you haven’t seen it, the 1979 film is worth a look.
What does a modern audience expect when watching this genre?
I’ve written 35 scripts and have my approach to crafting them. I’ll preface this point by saying there are many screenplay experts out there who will advise writers there’s a specific formula for a successful film that necessitate employing beat sheet elements including an inciting incident, midpoint finale, plot reversals and heroes overcoming their failures. I don’t use an exact formula or beat sheet. I think adhering tightly to any specific recipe can inhibit creativity. However, a film needs a coherent beginning, middle and ending, conflict and things need to happen to propel the story forward. But I digress.
A good way to quantify what a modern audience expects, whether its horror or any other genre, is look at the numbers. Here is a list of the top grossing films of 2019, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/2019/ which indicates that superhero, animated and action films dominate the box office. I could find one horror title in the top 60 films and that one was a horror/comedy, Zombieland: Double Tap. Therefore, I’ll draw the conclusion that audiences watching Dracula or any other genre film are looking for fast paced, escapist entertainment. With all the technology and distraction in our modern world, it’s easy to determine that modern filmgoers probably have short attention spans.
Thank you to Phillip for his time and sharing his expertise. This is the perfect way to kickstart The Mighty Dragon Dracula series.