NBC’s Dracula: Good Awful or Bad Awful?

This is a preview — you can find the actual episode reviews in the Dracula Season 1 tag.

You know the feeling. News about a new show comes out and you get all excited because it’s a character or genre or concept you like and you think, ‘Ooh, can’t wait until it airs!’

And then the trailers roll in, and the promo pics and videos, and the previews and the first looks; until you feel a little nauseated and suspiciously like you’re going to have a terrible case of déjà-vu when it actually airs. Most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. Sure, sometimes you spot something that you have an inkling you might find problematic, but you hope for the best. Sometimes, you like what you’re seeing even more. But then, sometimes, the more you learn about a show before it airs, the more your reason for a prospective viewing is to figure out if it’ll be too awful for you to keep watching after the pilot.

NBC’s new — and very inventive — retelling of the Dracula myth is such a case for me. I was enthusiastic about it when I first heard about it in May, and I put it on the voting list for the 2013/14 review season because I was looking forward to dealing with it here on the blog. But now it’s looking like, for me, Sleepy Hollow stole a lot of Dracula’s thunder in the Gothic/Horror genre. Sleepy Hollow is a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I enjoy that about it. While the characterisations are well done — and I blogged just earlier about the diversity on the show — they’re allowing themselves to have fun with tropes of the genre and with themselves. Dracula, I’m afraid, will take itself dreadfully seriously while exploiting every single cliché the construct of the literary vampire has to offer.

With the advent of Romantic literature came the literary Vampire. Influenced by Lord Byron (and possibly plagiarising), John Polidori wrote the first vampire short story in 1816, introducing the pale-faced and ruthless Lord Ruthven into London society. Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t to see the light of day, er… moonshine of night until 1897. In between, there’d been stories by Edgar Allen Poe, Tolstoi, and Le Fanu — the beginning of the lesbian vampire genre, by the way. The term ‘literary vampire’ has been coined in order to distinguish the vampire of those stories from the Romanian folk tales and myths, which mainly don’t feature blood-sucking dudes with rock-hard abs, but rather dead relatives who’ve come back for a good haunting of the old family homestead because their souls cannot find peace. At some point, the vampire then grew fangs and started abducting local virgins — that’s when the figure became associated with sexual pleasure. Much of the eroticised appeal of the vampire is founded in Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, who left behind himself a trail of ruined young women.

Now, the tales of Polidori, Poe, Tolstoi, and Le Fanu have undoubtedly influenced Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula, but his novel is mostly based on Vlad Tepes, a Romanion/Transsylvanian count who lived in the 15th century. Reported to have impaled his enemies after battle and consuming their flesh, he most likely became the basis of Stoker’s Count. Tepes also called himself Dracul, “son of the dragon,” as he was also, like his father, a proud member of the Order of the Dragon. Of course, it’s being hotly debated whether Stoker really used Tepes as a prototype, or whether he just stumbled upon an inaccurate account, liked the name Dracul, and nicked it. We’ll never know. But seeing as the show is using that mythology, let’s go with it.

As long as we’re sticking with the story, however, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that not only are the NBC producers taking a rather hang-loose take on the adapted novel, but they’re also mixing myth and folklore with what the genre of the literary vampire in Gothic fiction has evolved into over time. Preconceptions and assumptions overlap until we’ve ended up a self-contradictory mess.

Disclaimer: I am here drawing on information that I have read in this preview piece published by the RadioTimes and the few youtube clips that I, not living in the US, can actually access. But more about those in a moment.

Viewing their own immortality as a curse has by now become a staple of the literary vampire, in an effort to make the character more likeable — the classic anti-hero. Hell, Twilight lives off of that. Dracula follows in these considerations as they portray Dracula/Grayson as a Romanian peasant who was cursed with immortality by the Order of the Dragon.

Wait, what? A peasant? Betrayed by the Order of the Dragon, a Catholic order for aristocrats fighting the Osman empire? Who burnt his wife at the stake? (When Vlad’s wife committed suicide to escape the Turks to protect the order.) Who hates his immortality and the Vampiric curse? And yet — which is where the self-contradiction comes in — he doesn’t exactly mind killing dozens of innocents on the way, apparently. So either he’s disassociated from himself, or the producers were scrabbling for some internal conflict that the drama can live on, to give him something to grapple with and accentuate his remaining humanity.

Oh, and Abraham van Helsing is actually helping him. Woke him up 400 years later, the idiot. So, basically, this is every AU fanfic ever written about the character thrown into a blender. Which, generally, I don’t have a huge problem with — but with adaptations I always get to a point where I ask myself whether creating an entirely new franchise wouldn’t have been better, rather than completely changing the parameters of an existing one and then slapping familiar names on it. There is a benefit to such defamiliarisation — namely to confront ourselves with the things about a character or a genre that we take for granted and have accepted as self-evident. On the other hand, this is bordering on the ridiculous. I wouldn’t mind that if the producers owned up to that. But, well, how likely is it that producers said, “Hey, we’re just screwing around with this…” Oh, hang on. That’s what the Sleepy Hollow writers are doing.

But it’s not only the backstory that is getting completely mangled:

The first episode will air on 31 October [in the UK, US premiere is October 25] –  that’s Halloween in case you hadn’t noticed the scheduling wizardy there – on Sky Living, the home, says controller Antonia Hurford-Jones, of “intelligent women”. Intelligent women who like their drama as crap as it is expensive, apparently.

Ben Dowell, RadioTimes

Y’know, I love gory and camp vampire television. I watched one of those leaning-towards-horrible Dracula adaptations with Christopher Lee the other night, and it was fun! Nothing wrong with Hammer films.

But then came this, a preview of the show featuring Dracula in a sea of about a hundred thousand naked women:

So Dracula is drawn to Mina – and this, Rhys Meyers told the press launch of the series, represents the one spark of humanity in his character.

“He never bites a man,” says Rhys Meyers. “He keeps his teeth for women.”


So, our dear Count is obsessed by love. He wants his wife back, and I guess Mina won’t have much of a choice about it. Because it’s fate, and because reincarnations don’t get a new set of brains. Blah. And thus, Dracula has single-handedly reduced women to plot devices and sexual objects. Again. They’ve also ensured that he’s perceived as 1000% straight. In the genre of the literary vampire, the act of sucking the blood is associated with intense pleasure, orgasm, and lust so overwhelming the victims are practically hypnotised. That’s the main reason why blood play is a major kink within the adult genre and subculture. So I’m guessing dear Jonathan has nothing to fear, even if he is an investigative reporter. (With The Inquisitor. Classy.) So, while we play bullshit bingo, steadily crossing off the female characters that will become Dracula’s prey as he tries to rope Mina in, the show thinks it’s being terribly clever and deep. Uh, no. Probably not.

You know the reason I really wanted to watch this? Katie McGrath. And for her, I will watch the pilot, and I’ll probably keep watching. But I’ve got a feeling that I won’t find this fabulously awful. Just awful.

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