The most casual of readers of my blog or my books would probably realise that I rather enjoy vampire stories. Those who’ve followed my blog with slightly more attention and regularity may appreciate two things: I have something of a soft-spot for Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel (it’s much better than a modern reader might expect – seriously, read it), and I have a very low tolerance for bad adaptations of novels.
One thing I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned before, however, is that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is my absolute favourite actor, and has been for about fifteen years. I developed the most ridiculous teenage crush on him when he played Steerpike in the late 1990s BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (possibly the best TV show ever – do look for it on Youtube), and loved claiming he was my favourite actor when teenage friends preferred Leonardo di Caprio and had no idea who he was. Because I’m awkward like that. His wonderfully overblown and oversexed portrayal of Henry VIII in The Tudors only confirmed my love.
And then I saw the trailer. A new TV adaptation of Dracula, with Mr Rhys Meyers playing the eponymous uber-vampire. I was instantly torn. I was either going to love this, or I was going to hate it. And in the interests of preserving my delicate emotions, I simply ignored the fact that it existed for several months. Because clearly, it was going to be bad, and clearly, that was going to drive me insane.
And then for some reason, last weekend, I cracked, turned to Sky Go and downloaded the first episode. I settled down to watch it with my fiancé, who, all too aware of my literary purist pretensions, fixed me a large brandy and threatened to tie my hands behind my back to stop me smashing the television screen. For the first thirty minutes, I grit my teeth and bitched about everything. And then gradually, I found myself enthralled. And over the last seven days, I’ve watched the entire ten hour series, in what equals out to more television than I usually watch in a month – let’s face it, I’m fundamentally a book person.
So let’s get one thing straight – I wholeheartedly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys vampire fiction.
And let’s get something else straight – this may be the least faithful adaptation of any book that I’ve ever come across. The connections with the original Dracala novel equate more or less in totality to: there are characters with the same names as the characters in the book; Dracula is a vampire who originated in medieval eastern Europe, it’s set in the Victorian period.
Other than that, put your pre-conceptions aside. Jonathan’s a social climbing journalist. Mina’s an ambitious medical student. Lucy’s a lesbian with an obsessive crush on Mina. There’s an evil secret society called the Order of the Dragon. Dracula is masquerading as an American businessman and has invented a new type of electricity. Renfield is a Black American lawyer who is consciously and faithfully serving Dracula. And perhaps most bizarre of all, Van Helsing (traditional enemy of vampires) has awoken Dracula from his centuries of sleep and they are working together to destroy their mutual enemies. By the end of the first episode, I had absolutely no clue what was going on. And yet somehow, I didn’t care.
I still think that Dracula is an amazing novel, and I still think that it would be brilliant if one day, someone decided to make a genuinely faithful adaptation of it. But let’s face it – over the years, there have been endless versions of . On that basis, I feel as though Dracula (along with a select group of characters including Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein’s Monster) have become public property. And therefore, unlike with something like the Vampire Diaries, where there’s probably going to only be one adaptation, and if its rubbish, that will affect people’s view of the books, each version can stand on its own merits.
I actually prefer this sort of “adaptation”, which is clearly only loosely based on the books and does something new with the characters and basic plot, than a nominally faithful version that takes massive liberties. This may have been nothing like the original, but it was a brilliant piece of vampire fiction, romantic and bloodthirty in equal measure. Dracula is posing as a rich American called Alexander Grayson, and if you’re of a purist disposition, you may be best to forget this is meant to be based on Dracula at all, and think of it as “Alexander the Vampire.”
In the world of vampire fiction, there’s something of a spectrum, with horror stories in which vampires are soulless monsters with no personality, rather akin to zombies, at one end, and the Twilight-esque pretty boy, “vegetarian” vampires who might as well be human at the other. Some people’s preference may veer to one end or the other of this spectrum, and they may find this version of Dracula either too violent or too soppy.
Anyone who had read The Cavaliers knows what I like – vampires who are sexy and capable of real feelings for humans, but who also need human blood to live and are capable of absolute ruthlessness. And this series absolutely struck the right balance for me. JRM’s Dracula is absurdly sexy in certain scenes and bloody terrifying in others, as he seeks his revenge on the society that wronged him through a combination of scheming, violence and seduction.
He’s also distracted by the reincarnation of his brutally murdered first wife. It’s a plotline that seems to be a wonderful bit of Word of Dante from the 1992 film and one that is rather overplayed in modern vampire mythology. Indeed, I tried to deconstruct the plot a bit in Screaming Spires: “My Mother isn’t your soulmate. She cheated on you in a past life.” Nonetheless, the reincarnation romance is beautifully handled here, and despite an initial groan when I realised where the plot was growing, the unrequited romance and longing ended up being my favourite part.
Throughout, this series tetters on a precipice between Serious Drama and hammy overacting. In my view, despite a few first episode wobbles, it generally stays on the right side of the line, and the characters become more and more nuanced and better acted as the series progresses. If you have any doubts, try to make it as far as Episode Five. Watch Dracula’s waltz with Mina and the other characters’ reactions to it, and then his oddly tender scene with an injured Renfield, and tell me that the actors aren’t almost universally giving brilliant performances. Though if you get that far and aren’t sold, best give up – for me, those two scenes encapsulate everything that’s best about this series. They’ve also inspired me to sign myself and my fiancé up for waltzing lessons before our first dance at the wedding – but that’s a different story.
A few other things to note. Firstly, there is a middle-aged amoral female vampire hunter who is simply brilliant. She’s one of the few totally original characters and I loved her.
Secondly, for those who like that sort of thing, the sets and costumes are jawdroppingly beautiful. I want ever one of Lucy Westerna’s outfits, and I want them now.
Thirdly, while the title character didn’t entirely seduce me at first (I prefer Rhys Meyers as a total pretty boy rather than the muscled and moustachioed character we get here), after an episode or two, I was utterly beguiled. He gives real depth to Dracula, keeping you rooting for him and feeling sorry for him while never letting you forget that he’s not adverse to killing innocent people. Besides, I’m only human, and the abs and chest muscles in all the gratuitous “bed n bath” scenes are undoubtedly impressive! And in case you’re wondering, several of the ladies are just as attractive and show themselves off just as much!
Critical reactions to the show seem to have been muted at best, scathing at worst. Some complain that it’s a bit slow burning, others that it’s rather overblown. Honestly, I think it’s subtle rather than slowburning and luscious and dramatic rather than overblown. I primed myself to hate this, but I actually cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a TV show more.
It’s not a faithful adaptation of Dracula, it may end up being too horrifying for paranormal romance fans and too romantic for horror fans, and it treads a fine line between drama and melodrama. So it’s clearly not for everyone, but if you enjoy vampire fiction at all (and if you don’t, what are you doing on my blog?) I’d urge you to give this a go. You might be pleasantly surprised, you might be utterly sucked in.
Have you watched it? What did you think? Please tell me I’m not alone in enjoying this.