I was watching a movie called “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” the other day. I remembered seeing it in a theater, and I remembered buying a dress a few months later (in 1992 or 1993) and finding that the only one that fit me looked awfully like one Winona Ryder wore in that movie (the high-necked collar and cut-out obviated neck and shoulder fitting problems). I thought it was directed by Kenneth Branagh, and watched it for a while, fruitfully, with this misimpression in mind, but the director was Francis Ford Coppola. (Branagh did a Frankenstein adaptation about the same time. Scorsese, again using Ryder, did Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. It was the best of times and the worst of times for filming nineteenth-century novels. Poor Merchant and Ivory have a lot to answer for.)
I don’t think I left the movie theater thinking, “That was one of the worst movies I ever saw,” though maybe I did. What’s certain is that the movie has aged badly, and not because it’s difficult now to take the major actors (Ryder and Keanu Reeves) seriously, or that Anthony Hopkins seems to be in a different film altogether some of the time, and that movie is a running commentary on his own role in The Silence of the Lambs. It owes something to David Lynch’s Dune, I think, and there are rather too many scenes that suggest someone was watching Star Trek (TOS), stoned, for the first time, having no previous exposure to science fiction, and thought, “Wow! That’s really Deep!”
Then it started just becoming dull.
Was it supposed to be a cautionary tale, or what? The idea that a late twentieth century audience would see anything but hilarity in Mina’s worry that flirting with a man made her an evil person is, well, hilarious.
Noah Millman, writing about Leo Strauss at The American Conservative (via, ultimately, Arts & Letters Daily), oddly, suggests a reason why the film doesn’t work. He writes (responding to a review by Damon Linker of a new book by Arthur Melzer on Strauss’s idea of “the esoteric”):
“Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, sounds to me like a textbook example of what Linker, citing Melzer, calls ‘pedagogical esotericism.’ Assuming I’ve understood Fish correctly, his argument is that while on the surface Paradise Lost appears to be a story about the Fall of Man – and in that story, appears to make Satan a surprisingly sympathetic figure (which is how Blake read it) – in fact that very experience, of being surprised by sympathy for the devil as a dramatic character, recapitulates the Fall within the heart of the reader.”
But, Millman says later,
“Unless you already are oriented in a Christian manner, and understand sympathy for the devil’s party to be an index of sinfulness, you won’t be ‘surprised’ in the manner Milton intended.”
Similarly, if you think the sexual desires of a twenty year old woman—or man—are inherently sinful, Dracula might make some sense. If you don’t, a literal adaptation like Coppola’s is bound to seem silly. He tries to make it more believable by introducing the idea of illicit drugs: Mina doesn’t have sex with the Count, merely absinthe-inspired conversations and reveries at his prompting, yet when these have ended, she feels a loss of innocence so deep that she wonders if her actual self has been replaced by another. Unlike The Hunger, where vampirism is compared to addiction, here the effect of the drug is to induce Mina to be both permanently infatuated with a mostly imaginary idea of the man, and horrified at the uncharacteristic way she yielded to him. But the fact that she’s flirting with Count Dracula triggers exactly the same surprise, in the viewer, as is felt by the reader who initially looks at Milton’s Satan as if he were the main character in a novel about a young man done to unfairly by the local magistrate. I don’t know whether this was Coppola’s intent—I turned the TV off at the point when Mina and the grizzled, distracted post-Transylvania Jonathan are finally married, and he ignores her light banter to stare at the apparition of the Prince of Darkness he thinks he sees—but the intended effect seems, reasonably, to be to lead the viewer to feel horror at the idea, not only of absinthe-use, but of premarital flirting. In other words, The Question of Female Sexuality.
(On the other hand, Fish in some ways represents the opposite of an esoteric reading. His whole argument—at least in How Milton Works—turns on the fact that Milton named the God character “God.” God is God, and so the character who represents God is unmitigatedly Good. Jesus is God, and so the poem is in favor of Jesus’ point of view in the plot, regardless of how much rhetorical weight the poet loads on the other side. Lucifer is Satan, as we all know, and Eve sinned, and so on and on. Fish’s reading is all on the surface. It’s Blake’s reading that’s esoteric, and we forget that fact only because we’ve forgotten that Milton’s explicit intention could absolutely not have been to depict Satan as the hero.)
(John Holbo, here, mentions an influential screenwriting book, the effects of which one can often easily observe in actual movies. I don’t think we’d want filmmakers to take Surprised by Sin as a cookbook, either.)
It seems to me that esotericism always leads to the same place. An adaptation of Dracula that celebrates sexuality is certainly possible—The Rocky Horror Picture Show comes to mind—but not very likely—so unlikely, in fact, that it’s easy to find traces in Rocky Horror of a rejection of its own argument. The lies a writer’s society tells (which Millman tells us Strauss was concerned to oppose) are usually baked into the books he or she writes. It’s possible to raise the example of Dracula in order to question its views of sexuality and foreigners. But Dracula isn’t scripture. An attempt to read a novel “esoterically” in Strauss’s way will overemphasize social assumptions that are true only for the writer’s own time and place.
Strauss might have wanted to claim that Plato is, in a sense, scripture. But like Millman, I see no reason why.