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.


Oliver Parker’s Importance of Being Earnest

By Taryn Hakala, University of California, Merced

From the very opening of Oliver Parker’s 2002 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, we are aware that the filmmaker is not interested in fidelity to the text. Unlike Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film adaptation, which is effectively a filmedimportance of being earnest stage production, complete with a curtain opening onto Algy and Lane in Act I, Parker’s film opens with Algy, played by Rupert Everett, emerging from the shadows of a dark London alley, the law in close pursuit. This is just one of the many liberties Parker takes with Wilde’s text – liberties that some audiences do not approve of but that I find make the film an especially useful text for the classroom.

One of the liberties that has provoked negative reactions from viewers, including some of my students, is Parker’s choice to set the “cigarette case” scene not in the private space of Algy’s flat but rather in the public space of a cabaret. Such a private conversation, some of my students expressed, should not be held in such a public place, with so many people listening. Oliver Buckton suggests that this scene “emphasizes the heterosexuality of the men and dilutes the homoerotic frissons of the dialogue” (330). While I agree that the scene includes the performance of heterosexuality, I would argue that it nevertheless challenges heteronormativity in subtle yet important ways. I invite my students to pay particular attention to small details in the scene that bring to the fore the queer subtext of Wilde’s play. Yes, Algy is shown ogling showgirls, but when one throws a rose in his direction, it is caught by a man’s hand, soon revealed to be that of Jack. We might say that at this moment the showgirl’s attempt at heterosexual flirting is intercepted by a homoerotic encounter. What’s more, as Lucia Krämer has pointed out, the scene includes both female and male prostitutes, and Algy is played by the openly gay Everett, casting that contradicts his role of heterosexual philanderer. I would add that the presence of cross-dressed women further complicates any easy heteronormative reading of the scene. For example, the showgirls’ can-can is quickly followed by a drag king show, and while Algy questions Jack about his cigarette case, he is flanked by a feminine woman dressed in a black and white dress and an androgynous woman dressed in a tuxedo. In these ways, the scene simultaneously challenges and re-inscribes heteronormativity.

The other liberty that students react to strongly is Parker’s decision to change the play’s ending. Jack does not learn that his name “naturally is Ernest”; instead, he discovers that his name has been John all along. A close-up of a page in the army lists reveals to the audience what only Jack and Lady Bracknell have seen: that his father’s name reads “Moncrieff, John.” As Krämer discusses, Parker extends Wilde’s text by elaborating on the “theme of ambiguity of language” (145). Indeed, in Parker’s adaptation, Jack’s lie further emphasizes that there is no inherent link between the signifier and the signified. His name is not and cannot be “naturally” Ernest.

Other of Parker’s liberties include the use of Pre-Raphaelite imagery to animate Cecily’s fantasies and the depiction of Gwendolen driving a car and visiting a tattoo parlor. Initially puzzled by these choices, students eventually see how they allow us to explore both the play’s historical context and the cultural moment that produced the adaptation.

Questions for Discussion

Critics have argued about the role of queer subtext in Wilde’s play. Pay attention to the small details of the “cigarette case” scene. What strategies (narrative or filmic) does Parker use to participate in this debate? In what ways do the strategies suggest a heteronormative reading of the scene? What strategies suggest a homoerotic reading? Are there any other scenes that contribute to this debate? How so?

One of the themes of Wilde’s play is the unreliability of language. How do Parker’s choices emphasize or elaborate on that theme?

What can Parker’s adaptation tell us about the cultural moment in which it was made? Think, for example, about the characterization of Cecily and Gwendolen. What do you make of the use of Pre-Raphaelite imagery to animate Cecily’s fantasies? What do you think of Gwendolen’s choices and/or behavior?

If you were to adapt Wilde’s play for the screen, what choices would you make? For example, would you change the setting? Whom would you cast? Choose a short scene and imagine how you would film it. Why would you make these choices?

Further Reading

Asquith, Anthony, dir. The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952. Criterion Collection, 2010.

Buckton, Oliver S. “Oscar Goes to Hollywood: Wilde, Sexuality, and the Gaze of Contemporary Cinema.” Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Krämer, Lucia. “Subversion in Disguise: Oliver Parker’s Adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.” Janespotting and Beyond: British Heritage Retrovisions Since the Mid-1990s. Ed. Eckart Voigts-Virchow. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004.

Parker, Oliver, dir. The Importance of Being Earnest, 2002. Miramax Lionsgate, 2011.

J.P. Burnett’s Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts

By Julianne Smith, Pepperdine University

J.P. Burnett’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House was a global sensation in the late Victorian period. The play makes Jo the central character in the story and comes to be more commonly billed as Jo, or Bleak House or alternately as Poor Jo.[1] Victorian actress Jennie Lee, also the wifeJo image of the playwright, popularized the eponymous character through her evocative performance of Dickens’s waif at his melodramatic and pathetic finest. Drawing on Dickens’s most affecting scenes of extreme poverty and death, Lee made a career playing Jo in repertoire in such far-flung locations as New Zealand and America as well as repeating her performance in provincial theatres across Britain.

Burnett’s adaptation had its genesis in America. Both he and Jennie Lee were in San Francisco in 1875 when tragedienne Fanny Janauschek brought her version of Bleak House, adapted by Henry Rendle sometime in 1871, to the California Theatre. This version featured Lady Dedlock as the central character, and its claim to fame was that Janauschek played the roles of both Lady Dedlock and Hortense. Jennie Lee was cast in the part of Jo, and she quickly stole the show from Janauschek with her emotional performance. Burnett then adapted Bleak House to make Jo the center of the story. The couple returned to England and premiered their version the following year.

Burnett’s adaptation was never published nor has it been digitized, making it currently inaccessible as a classroom text. As well, scholarship on this play is scarce, but what follows here is a brief description of the play that may help situate it within a larger discussion of Bleak House themes, such as treatment of the poor and working classes, or other Dickens adaptations. The play’s dialogue is both a loose paraphrase of Dickens’s original text and wording directly copied from Dickens, though not always very carefully. Burnett often combines and compresses scenes from the novel in a way that roughly follows Dickens’s chronology but necessarily leaves out many characters and events. Dickens’s plotline featuring the Dedlocks, Hortense and Tulkinghorn has been preserved in abbreviated form; however, the play opens and closes with an emphasis on Jo (spelled J-o-e in the manuscript); the first scene features Jo at the “inkwich,” and the final two scenes draw out his death in great detail. One interesting historical feature related to Jo’s death at the play’s end is the truncation of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jo repeats as he dies in the novel. In Burnett’s play, Jo’s last words are “I’m movin on,” where as Dickens kills off Jo mid-prayer as he utters the words “Hallowed be—thy—.” As is evident in crossed out lines in the manuscript, Burnett had to make some changes to the scene because the Lord Chamberlain forbade scripture references on stage as irreverent use of sacred text. So in adapting the novel for the stage, other forces were at work that at times prevented a more faithful representation of Dickens.

Burnett also adds other elements to justify Jo as the tragic hero of the story. For example, just before he dies, the Snagsby’s epileptic maid Guster kisses him, and the two become star-crossed lovers destined to part. Inspector Bucket (instead of Mr. Woodcourt) attends Jo as he dies, and the final tableau features Bucket mourning over Jo’s dead body. Burnett himself sometimes played the role of Bucket to his wife’s performance of Jo, so the play showcased the talents of husband and wife at the same time it moved the tragic climax away from the Dedlocks, whose denouement occurs at the beginning of the last act and mostly in line with Dickens’s plot. Once the Dedlocks are resolved, the play’s last two scenes feature Jo as he dwindles toward death.

Questions for Discussion:

Dickens’s novel Bleak House features more than a hundred characters, but its title does not identify a main character as some of his other novels, such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, do. What cultural or literary elements might a playwright be responding to when Jo or Lady Dedlock become the focus of the storyline? Why is Esther, who is one of the novel’s narrators, not a central character in this stage adaptation of Bleak House? What does the treatment of Esther tell us about the difference between fiction and theatre?

When a playwright adapts a novel with so many characters and events for the theatre, what are some considerations of time, place and action that go into staging it? Since the entire novel cannot be staged, is an adaptation that leaves things out inauthentic?

How do actors’ strengths affect the script of a play? Can you think of a modern actor who has played a minor role in a film that ended up making him or her famous? Or one who perhaps ended up playing a more memorable role than the film’s major stars?

Further Reading:

Burnett, J. P. Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts. February 1876. Lord Chamberlain’s   Collection, British Library. Add MS 53162 B.

Bolton, “Bleak House and the Playhouse.” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 81-116.

—-. Dickens Dramatized. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.

Fitzgerald, Percy. “On Some of the Old Actors.” The Gentleman’s Magazine 276 (February          1894): 170-181.

Shaw, George Bernard. Our Theatre in the Nineties. Vol. 2. London: Constable, 1932.

Sherson, Erroll. London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century. London: John Lane, 1925.

Sample Reviews:

“Footlight Flashes: The Record of a Week of Triumph.” The San Francisco Chronicle 13 June      1875: 5.

“Jennie Lee.” The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) 18 March 1892: 2.8.

“The Drama: Globe Theatre.” The London Reader 18 March 1876: 472.

Wedmore, Frederick. “The Stage: Bleak House at The Globe.” The Academy 26 February 1876:    203-204.

[1] Licensed 16 February 1876
London premiere at The Globe, 21 February 1876
Last known performance at The Lyric Theatre, 7 February 1921

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Carrie Sickmann Han

DodgerThe Artful Dodger, arguably one of Charles Dickens’s most beloved characters, abruptly appears and then disappears in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), leaving both his past and his future tantalizingly untold. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) provides readers with a glimpse into the street urchin’s early history, when he lived alone in the attic of Solomon Cohen—a Jewish watchmaker modeled after “Ikey” Solomon (the original Fagin).  Pratchett’s Dodger remains the swaggering, streetwise, but lovable rogue we so fondly remember. In the first few pages, he interrupts his thievery to rescue a defenseless young lady, Simplicity, from two assailants. When two additional gentlemen enter the scene to assist the damsel in distress, readers watch fictional and historical worlds collide: “Charlie” Dickens, a journalist at The Morning Chronicle, becomes Dodger’s employer and advisor. Pratchett embeds the novel with many such impossible “twists.” In this literary and historical pastiche, the Dodger hobnobs with Benjamin Disraeli, thwarts the plans of Sweeney Todd, poses for John Tenniel, and meets Queen Victoria.
Mayhew, Tosher illustration2Pratchett acknowledges that the book “is a historical fantasy—and certainly not a historical novel” (359-360). But for a fantasy novel, the story conveys a surprising amount of historical information that’s usually reserved for graduate courses on the Victorian period. Pratchett dedicates the novel not to Dickens, as the title might suggest, but to social advocate and author Henry Mayhew, whose detailed survey of the London working class, The London Labour and the London Poor (1851), provides the foundation for Dodger’s setting and characters. Pratchett’s Dodger is a “tosher,” or a sewer-hunter—one of the subjects of Mayhew’s study. He uses a crowbar to slip through drain covers and enter the grimy underworld of the London sewage system, where he battles the stench, the rats, the dangerous waters, and other toshers for the treasures that dropped through the drains above into the filth below. Pratchett brings Mayhew’s working-class type to life, using the Dodger’s occupational expertise to expose the “layer[s] of dirt” and “dirty deeds” that abounded in Victorian London (1). This young adult novel—a Michael L. Printz Honor Book—serves as a bridge between popular fiction and Victorian history and literature. “If you like fantasy,” Pratchett promises, “in a very strange way fantasy is there [in London Labour and the London Poor] with realistic dirt and grime all over it,” and  he insists that Mayhew’s work “ought to be in every library” (356). This attempt to introduce fantasy fans to Victorian social issues, history, and literature is a fitting legacy for one of the last novels that Pratchett published before his death in March of 2015.  This quick and fun read would be a great addition to a British literature and culture syllabus—particularly if paired with Dickens’s Oliver Twist and/or excerpts from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Questions for Discussion:

Pratchett investigates what Thomas Carlyle calls the “Condition of England Question.” How does he represent the Victorian working-class poor? What are some of the social problems he identifies? Who are the victims and who are the perpetrators? Who is able to effect change?

Pratchett dedicates Dodger to Henry Mayhew. How is this novel in conversation with London Labour and the London Poor? Which of Mayhew’s types of workers does Pratchett represent? Which characteristics does he emphasize and de-emphasize? How do those creative decisions alter or enhance Mayhew’s social agenda?

The title, Dodger, is one of several allusions to Dickens’s Oliver Twist. How does approaching Dodger as a prequel to Oliver Twist change the way we interpret Oliver Twist? How does this backstory affect our understanding of Dickens’s characters (Fagin, Dodger, Oliver, Nancy)?

Pratchett blends his original characters (Simplicity, The Outlander, Grandad) with canonical characters (the Artful Dodger, Sweeney Todd), Victorian authors (Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew), and political figures (Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, Angela Burdett-Coutts). How does he represent these figures differently? What does he suggest is the relationship between contemporary fiction, canonical fiction, and history? What are the different functions of these different genres? How does he represent authorship? fictionality? politics?

Pratchett is known for his fantasy fiction (particularly the Discworld series), and he calls Dodger a “historical fantasy” novel. What characteristics of Victorian literature and culture correspond with the fantasy genre? Why do you think the Victorian period is often depicted in contemporary films, video games, and television shows?

Further Reading:

Carroll, Rachel, Ed. Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Kate. History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Saler, Michael. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.