“The book was better!” It's an often-heard refrain when great pieces of literature are adapted into motion pictures. That is because great books don’t necessarily make great movies. Great literature takes you inside a character’s mind the way a film never could. Why do all the movie versions of The Great Gatsby leave you dissatisfied? Because the Great Gatsby is about longing and loss, material wealth and spiritual poverty. It’s hard to put feelings on film. Now look at Peter Benchley’s JAWS. Great literature? Nope. Great cinema? You bet.
Which brings us back to Dracula. It’s not great literature, but it is a great book. A big one too, coming in at 418 pages. It was adapted into a German silent film in 1922, a popular Broadway play in 1924, and an early talkie starring Bela Lugosi in 1930, but it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that someone “broke the back of the story” and really figured out how to make it a movie. “Breaking the back of the story,” is the expression used when a writer takes a story and breaks it down, rearranging scenes or eliminating them entirely, losing characters, subplots, what have you, until it flows in a brisk, traditional, two, three or four act structure. Read the novel JAWS and then watch the movie. There’s a whole other movie in there regarding organized crime, marital infidelity, etc, that was cut from the script before the story worked as a film. According to producer David Brown, it was Howard Sackler who broke JAWS’ back. It was Jimmy Sangster who broke Dracula’s.
Born in Wales, Sangster began his film career as a “clapper boy” at Ealing Studios. According to his very entertaining memoir, “Do You Want It Good Or Tuesday?” he was working at Hammer Productions as a production manager when he got an offer to write the screenplay for X The Unknown. His response was, “I’m not a writer, I’m a production manager.” To this, Hammer replied, basically, “Well, we’re already paying you. Give it a shot.”
Sangster’s success with X The Unknown lead to similar duties on Hammer’s Frankenstein remake, The Curse Of Frankenstein, which led directly to Dracula (known in the U.S. as The Horror Of Dracula). Perhaps it was Sangster’s work as a production manager, combined with his awareness of Hammer’s budgetary and running time limitations, but for the very first time, Stoker’s four hundred plus page novel was telescoped down into three tight acts, propelled by a stripped-to-the-bone narrative that gets its hands around your throat right at the jump and does not let go until the final frame.
Aware that Hammer had no budget to film miniature ocean crossings, Trannsylvania became Klausenbourg, which was, apparently, convenient by carriage. Renfield and the real estate deal for Carfax Abbey were tossed, replaced by Jonathan Harker (also from the novel), who was traveling to Castle Dracula to work as the Count's librarian. Only… he was lying! Jonathan Harker is vampire hunter on a mission to destroy Dracula. This eliminates rom the story an entire act’s worth of set up and shoe leather. Ten minutes into the movie and we are already eyeball deep into the main conflict: vampire vs. vampire hunter.
And this vampire was unlike any previous Dracula seen on film. Christopher Lee, all 6’ 5” of him, eschewed the courtly tuxedoed gentlemen of Universal’s horror series. Christopher Lee was to Dracula what Sean Connery was to James Bond. "Yep, this is the guy." They both moved like panthers, with presence and menace you could not tear your eyes from. And remember, this film was in color, bright, bold, blood red, color. You not only saw Dracula’s mouth smeared with crimson, but his eyeballs grew blood red as well. And, unlike Lugosi and – unless I’m mistaken – every other Universal Studios Dracula, this guy had fangs. Big scary fangs. He was NOT messing around.
Harker’s attempt to kill Dracula fails and he is imprisoned in the castle. This alerts Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing. What Christopher Lee did for Dracula, Peter Cushing did for Van Helsing. Good thing too. Edward Van Sloan, the avuncular old doctor from Lugosi’s Dracula would have been eaten alive by Christopher Lee’s feral predator. Luckily we have Cushing’s athletic, running, jumping, quick-thinking vampire assassin.
The action bounces to the nearby city of Karlstatd (again, no budget for London. "Let’s just go down the street") and before you know it, Cushing is chasing Lee back to his castle at top speed. Their final fight, with Van Helsing’s surprising and clever method of killing the Count, no small thanks to Cushing’s Errol Flynn acrobatics, is still thrilling today, and Dracula’s destruction is not easy to forget.
Hammer’s full color, brilliantly acted, bombastically scored Dracula was far and away the most visceral and dynamic interpretation of Stoker’s book to date. For my dollar, it is the finest example of how to turn that particular book into a movie. Hammer films showed how to make a movie of Stoker's novel. Don't write a script based on the book. Write a script based on the idea of the book. The novel's narrative is too long and wandering to be treated as a some sacred text to be held inviolate.
Which is probably why, the biggest-budgeted Dracula film ever, Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 "Bram Stoker's Dracula," did exactly that!