The BBC’s new adaptation of Dracula breathes new life into old material

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By Jemima Mehigan, Second Year Film & TV

On New Year’s Day the BBC premiered their most anticipated new show, a three-part series adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.

Dracula is one of the most prolific stories told with over 200 film adaptations- second in the ranks only to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The writers of Sherlock (2010-17), Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat become the ultimate power-couple once again but this time confronting our greatest fears in gothic horror. Since the vampire has bitten into the jugular of popular culture and created a monster so synonymous with British Horror, originality is rather difficult.

If Dracula knew of his extensive screen time, his already protruding ego would reach terrifyingly new heights. And that’s exactly what Gatiss and Moffat manage to do. Through the brilliance of casting Claes Bangof as Dracula and the razor-sharp writing that explores the meaning of vampire fantasy. The adaptation reaches above audience expectations of the Count and creates a crucially fresh, contemporary feel to a well-known story; a love letter to the novel and adaptations alike featuring references to its predecessors.

Claes Bang is convincing as the Count, he conducted extensive research into Dracula's rich cinematic history - IMDb / BBC

Hammer-style scarlet red lettering fills the screen, it is Hungary, 1897. The sounds of a convent’s chiming bells and singing nuns reassure us of faith, salvation against the horrors of Dracula. We know we are in safe hands, at least for now. Faith; whether placed on the side of good or evil is an inherent theme in Dracula. Adaptations are firmly set on the two as polar opposites.

Yet, Gatiss and Moffat develop their characters subtly, achieving a sense of internal conflict, a duplicitous nature in all. This works especially well as our modern day consciousness understands to be flawed is to be human. Now, monsters can grapple with loneliness and Nuns can take faith in their own hands, stakes at the ready.

Since the vampire has bitten into the jugular of popular culture and created a monster so synonymous with British Horror, originality is rather difficult

'Are you hungry, Mr Harker?' Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) sensitively asks the lifeless looking Johnathan Harker (John Heffernan). We are surprised with the fierce attitude of Sister Agatha as she tests Johnny on his sensitivities to sunlight and teases us with a wooden stake in her possession. All within the very few moments on screen.

Johnny questions why Sister Agatha is there, since he has met all of the nuns residing in this convent. Sister Agatha explains she has been sequestered to study Mr Harker upon his harrowing accounts of a Transylvanian castle. All of our ears prick up with familiarity with such a trope, knowing who resides in such a place.

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The story flips between the present and 1897 during the shows three episodes - IMDb / BBC

In an attempt to expel Sister Agatha of her predispositions over the legitimacy of Johnny’s account and the terror he was subjected to, he recalls his final moments.

'He is a monster… he is the devil himself' says a spooked Johnny.  Sister Agatha in her request for truth asks why he feels safe within the walls of the convent. 'A house of god is it?' she says abruptly, smirking at his unaltered faith. Sister Agatha is scene-stealing. Johnny might have been reduced to a mere possession by the Count but instead of feeling deep sympathy, as we’re always made to feel towards Dracula’s victims; we’d prefer to be singing feminist anthems with the sisters.

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The writing is incredibly witty and bites back through Sister Agatha’s pessimism. We examine her breaking faith as she examines Johnny’s confidence in the presence of God. Sister Agatha creates a unique duplicity in character through her endearing comic humanism. The show blends tradition through the metanarrative of the presence of god so heavily seeped into Gothic horror itself whilst exploring humanism through self-doubt and desire for knowledge.

We are reminded of human accountability- our actions can prevent horrors as well as endure them. Sister Agatha most definitely aligns with modern feminist values of self-growth yet remains critical of a higher presence expelling 'God doesn’t care' when she is challenged for her lack of faith by a dumbfounded Johnny.

Dolly Wells has a star turn as inquisitive Sister Agatha in the BBC's Dracula - IMDb / BBC

The narratives then split into the present and Johnny’s account. Johnny arrives in frostbitten Transylvania and when locals refuse to take him any closer to the castle, obvious hints of what is to come appear. Johnny receives a crucifix -he’ll be needing that -a good amount of scare by terrified locals writhing at the very sight of the castle in the distance and thunder for good measure. Of course, he takes no notice and reaches the desolate labyrinth of Count Dracula’s castle.

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The very first words in Dracula are Sister Agatha’s. She is a distinctively characterised powerhouse of self-sufficiency. We don’t dare question her authority, a fiery learned woman with a purpose. We can only thank Dolly Wells for her excellent characterisation.

This immersive feel Gatiss and Moffat give to the audience allows Dracula to reach heights it never dared before. I hope my brief summary of the set-up allows a glimpse of the horrors yet to come. Binge watch all three 90-minute episodes on BBC iPlayer and you can forget about grabbing the nearest garlic bulb - it doesn’t work on the cosmopolitan vampire.

Featured - IMDb / BBC


What did you think of the Sherlock creators' take on Dracula? Let us know!

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