We’ve been talking about remakes, and I was preparing to do a piece on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which was advertised as not a remake, but the first faithful adaption of Bram Stoker’s book. It is certainly not not a remake. And while it is more faithful to the novel than most movie versions, that’s not saying too much.
The novel Dracula is one of the most famous pieces of literary fiction in Western culture. It was written by Irish author Bram Stoker and published in 1897. The character of Dracula was based loosely on the real life jack-assery of Vlad Tepes, the Prince of Wallachia (now Romania). Vlad Tepes was so famous for the grisly torture of his military opponents that he gained the nickname Vlad The Impaler. He had other, less popular nicknames, such as The Vladster, Cap’n and Senior Tep-Tep. The other major inspiration for Count Dracula was English actor Henry Irving, for whom Stoker worked. Irving fits Stoker’s physical description of the Transylvanian Count and, some say, his cold and calculating personality as well. Spill that tea, Bram!
The book was, as we all know, a monster hit (see what I did there?). Stoker died in 1912, leaving little behind, and his widow Florence lived off the book's random and uneven royalties.
In 1921, two German dudes formed a film company name Prana Films. Their first production was to be a film version of Stoker's novel. According to David Skal’s brilliantly researched book, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web Of Dracula From Novel To Stage To Screen, one of Prana's founders, Albin Grau, was an “ardent spiritualist’ who saw the filmic potential in Stoker’s novel. Screenwriter Henrik Galeen took the less-than-wieldy structure of the book and simplified it. He also changed the names of the main characters to make them more Germanic. Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Jonathan Harker was now Hutter, etc. One thing he did not change was the story. Of course, that’s no problem as long as you have obtained the rights to the book, which I'm sure they ..... They what? They didn’t get the… ?? Oh dear.
The film, which came to be titled Nosferatu, was directed by F.W. Murnau and stands today, along with The Cabinet Of Caligari, as a towering cinematic achievement and one of the grand masterpieces of German Expressionism.
The film, starring Max Schrek as Graf Orlok, opened big and splashy in Germany. According to records, and again, this is reported in great and entertaining detail in Skal’s book, Prana founder and professional screwball Albin Grau spent more money advertising the film than he did making it. And he spent a lot making it. The premiere was held at The Berlin Zoo (?!) with an invite that read as follows:
"Nosferatu! - A million fancies strike when you hear the name!'
Best tag line ever! So many fancies! "The Godfather! Enter a world of gangland fancies, Italian style!" "JAWS! What fancies lie beneath??" Again, it’s just a good thing they went ahead and procured the rights from the Stoker estate to make a movie of the novel…. You what? You didn’t get the.. ? But .. ? How can.. ? Dude!
Despite decent box office and a warm critical reception, Prana Films released their first movie and went directly into bankruptcy. This became a problem in the court case. The wha??? Oh, yeah! The court case! The critics loved the film, but one person who was decidedly not a fan was Florence Stoker, the widow of Bram Stoker. The court case was long and complicated, as is often the case when you try to sue someone hiding behind bankruptcy laws, (Again, Skal's book. It's worth the read. All these people were nuts) but eventually a German court ruled that all prints and negatives of Nosferatu be destroyed.
Well, like killing a vampire, easier said than done. Prints of Nosferatu, in some cases even renamed, "Dracula, by FW Murnau," were already circulating England on the film society circuit, and poor Mrs. Stoker would dedicate the rest of her life to a fruitless game of cease-and-desist-whack-a-mole in an effort to quash the film. Good, luck, Flo.
One person she DID grant the rights to was Hamilton Deane, an Irish actor and playwright who had an eye towards developing Dracula for the stage. He did, in 1924. That play was revised in 1927 by an American writer named John L. Balderston. The Deane/Balderston version premiered on Broadway in 1927 and was a super smash hit, making a star of its lead actor, a Hungarian émigré named Bela Lugosi in his first English speaking role. Universal Studios purchased the rights (See? Was that so hard?) with plans to make it as a movie. And they had the perfect actor in mind to play Dracula.
Not Bela Lugosi!