Tod Browning’s Dracula

By Kirsten Andersen, University of Virginia Dracula

Bram Stoker intended his novel Dracula to be adapted for the stage, and there was only one man he could envision playing the title role: the legendary actor Sir Henry Irving, famous for his performances in the roles of Shylock, Macbeth, and Mephistopheles. Stoker prepared a dramatic adaptation of his novel, and gave a staged reading at the Lyceum Theatre in 1897. But Stoker struggled to adapt the geographical and narrative sweep of his novel to fit the confines of the stage. The staged reading lasted a painfully long five hours; Irving deemed it “dreadful,” and declined to take the part (Skal, 40-41).

In spite of this unpromising debut, Dracula was destined to have a long theatrical and cinematic afterlife.  Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston succeeded where Stoker had failed; their stage play, which opened in 1924, radically condenses the plot, setting, and characters of the novel. The play enjoyed great success on London’s West End and on Broadway, attracting the attention of Universal Studios, who bought the film rights in 1930. Tod Browning’s film Dracula (1931) is largely based on Deane and Balderston’s dramatic adaptation.

Like the play, the film combines and omits characters, making Dr. Seward Mina’s father, rather than Lucy’s suitor, and removing the characters Quincey Morris and Lord Arthur Holmwood, thus eliminating the triad of suitors who compete for Lucy’s attention in Stoker’s novel. Possibly in order to evade issues of censorship, the film avoids the deviant sexuality depicted in the novel, confining the love interest to the monogamous Mina and her fiancé John (Jonathan Harker in the novel).

Many film critics fault Browning for being “slavish in his faithfulness to the stage production” (Weaver and Brunas, 26). Some iconic visual aspects of the film owe much to the conventions of the stage; the count’s high collared cape was a necessary costume onstage, allowing the actor to disappear beneath a trap door while concealing his head from the audience.  Not strictly necessary in a film version, the costume design nevertheless became a staple of the visual iconography surrounding the count (Skal, 110-111).

The film is sparing in its use of cinematic special effects; many dramatic scenes and supernatural transformations occur off-screen, including the vampire’s transformations into a bat and wolf, Lucy’s blood transfusions, and even Van Helsing’s staking of Dracula. The director instead conveys the horror of Dracula through simple effects of lighting and cinematography. At key moments in the film, a narrow spotlight illuminates Dracula’s eyes, and the camera frequently zooms in on a motionless Dracula in order to suggest his magnetic power.

But the lasting influence of Browning’s film derives not from special effects, but rather from Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the vampire count. Hungarian expat Bela Lugosi is famous for his slow, heavily accented delivery of the lines—including some ad-libbed lines, such as “I never drink…wine,” with a pregnant pause. Our prototypical image of the count is derived from Lugosi’s performance: suave and urbane, dressed in evening clothes, a cape and top hat.

Max Schreck, the star of the silent adaptation Nosferatu (1922), showed us that Dracula could be scary; Bela Lugosi, by contrast, proved that the count could also be sexy. But Lugosi’s performance and the film’s script ignore parts of the novel that depict Count Dracula as terrifyingly animalistic: passages that describe hairs growing out of his palms, or his ability to scale a wall face downwards like a lizard. In this sense, Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula represent two divergent ways of representing the count that influence later adaptations of the novel: either the count is a slightly sinister but sexy aristocrat, or a terrifying monstrous creature. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula has it both ways; Gary Oldman shape shifts, transforming from a long-locked beauty into a hideously deformed beast.

Questions for Discussion:

In Browning’s film, Renfield visits Dracula’s castle in the opening scenes, rather than Jonathan (or John) Harker. What is the effect of this plot change? How does the film revise the novel’s representation of madness? Think of Van Helsing’s statement in the novel, “all men are mad in some way or the other.”

Browning’s film eliminates Lucy’s three competing suitors, making Lucy’s sexuality much less central to the plot. Why is Lucy’s sexuality so important in the novel, and what is the effect of deemphasizing the issue? (If you are teaching the novel with multiple film adaptations, it is fruitful to contrast Browning’s film with Francis Ford Coppola’s highly erotic adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)

Which aspects of Lugosi’s performance have influenced other incarnations of Dracula in pop culture? Can an adaption become a source text in its own right? (If you are teaching the novel with multiple film adaptations, compare and contrast Lugosi’s performance with those of other actors.)

Which aspects of Stoker’s novel are theatrical? Which scenes are particularly cinematic? Close read a single scene from the novel and adapt it, either for the stage or the screen. What would you do differently from Tod Browning’s version?

Further Reading:

Heidt, Sarah J. “Teaching Stoker’s Dracula with Multiple Film Versions: Nosferatu, Dracula, and Pages from a Virgin’s Diary,” in Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation. (ed. Abigail Burnham Bloom and Mary Sanders Pollock.) Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2011.

Martin, Daniel. “ “Some Trick of the Moonlight”: Seduction and the Moving Image in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Literature and Culture 40.2 (September 1, 2012): 523-547.

Rhodes, Gary D. Tod Browning’s Dracula. Sheffield, UK; Tomahawk Press, 2015.

Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: the Tangled Web of Dracula From Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.

Waller, Gregory A. The Living and the Undead: From Stoker’s Dracula to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Weaver, Tom, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas. Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946. McFarland & Co., 2007.