Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula has been adapted numerous times on screen and as plays, but never quite like what Francis Ford Coppola released in 1992. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a fever dream of excess, disturbing visions, and hallucinatory imagery. The film goes 110% the entire film from extravagant set pieces to sequences featuring fades, dissolves, narration, text on the screen, and a map visual all at once, and most of all, performances by an ensemble cast that is on the same level as the lush film. The cast of characters includes Professor Dracula (Gary Oldman), Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is inherently a bizarre film as it is over-the-top in every manner, but it is also one of the few adaptations following the letter of Stoker more accurately. Coppola brings the spirit of what Stoker intended the count to be to the screen. Dracula is an epistolary novel; the narrative is related through letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. The rhythm of the screenplay (James V. Hart) follows the structure of the story but at the same time is updated to be of its time.
Ryder initially brought the screenplay to the attention of Coppola. The director had agreed to meet with her so the two could clear the air after her late departure from The Godfather Part III (replaced by Coppola’s daughter Sofia) caused production delays on his film and led Ryder to believe Coppola wasn’t a fan of her. According to Ryder, “I never really thought he would read it. He was so consumed with The Godfather III. As I was leaving, I said, ‘If you have a chance, read this script.’ He glanced down at it politely, but when he saw the word Dracula, his eyes lit up. It was one of his favorite stories from camp.” Coppola was obsessed with Stoker’s novel when he was in high school. The initial plans for Hart’s screenplay were it being turned into a TV movie directed by Michael Apted. Once Coppola decided to sit in the director’s chair, Apted was out of his directing gig, but went on to become an executive producer on the film.
Columbia Pictures gave Coppola $40 million to make Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which soon became one of the biggest movies of 1992, as well as one of the most successful films of Coppola’s career, earning $215 million worldwide. The film ended up saving Coppola and George Lucas’s production company, American Zoetrope, from filing bankruptcy. It went on to win three Oscars; Eiko Ishioka won for Best Costume Design, Greg Cannom, Michèle Burke, and Matthew W. Mungle for Best Make Up and Hairstyling, and Tom C. McCarthy and David E. Stone for Best Sound Editing. For a rated-R gothic horror-romance, the film was a huge hit financially, despite not being totally loved by all critics and audiences. Before the film’s initial release, rumors of horrible test screenings, an inflated budget, and problems on set spread rampant through the industry.
Coppola had a very specific image in mind for the film; he planned every shot very meticulously, with a storyboard with almost a thousand images. He then made a sort of animated movie out of the storyboard, with music, as well as scenes from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast and paintings done by Gustav Klimt. He used this animated storyboard film to show the team of designers so they would get a visual idea of exactly what Coppola was going for. When it came to costumes, he asked the set costume designers to present him with designs that were “weird.” Nothing in the film should have been expected or considered formulaic with vampire imagery or storytelling. He later recalled: “‘Weird’ became a code word for ‘Let’s not do formula. Give me something that either comes from the research or that comes from your own nightmares.’ I gave them paintings, and I gave them drawings, and I talked to them about how I thought the imagery could work.”
Coppola’s adaptation is one of the most loyal of adaptations to the novel as it brings the energy of what Stoker describes to the screen. The various viewpoints are all represented, the imagery feels kinetic, and the performances are up to the task of staying as wild as the film itself. One major change with this film is the introduction of a romantic relationship between Dracula and his chosen one, Mina. Bram Stoker’s Dracula becomes quite a love story, but an erotic and tragic one. The film becomes one of the most sensual films of the 90s as Coppola describes the entire film as ‘an erotic dream.’ There are various sequences from Harker’s sexual encounter with Dracula’s Brides to Dracula and Mina performing a ritual of blood drinking while professing their eternal love for each other.
Oldman brings Dracula to new heights with his performance. His vampirism is not treated as a lifestyle he necessarily takes joy in, but rather a curse he has learned to live with. We’ve seen this take on vampires in later media (True Blood, Twilight), but not quite as often with Dracula as a character. Reeves’s performance was met with quite an uproar of criticism, with complaints ranging from his accent work to him coming across as emotionally stiff. Both Reeves and Coppola have commented on the performance and appear to have nothing but love for one another.
The film overall allows its audience to empathize with Dracula and enthusiastically applaud his love story. However, as a tale as old as time, we know the coming ending will be anything but. The final shots are intense and sensual. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a lush film that not only features some of the most iconic imagery in modern cinema, but also a film that captures the heart, soul, and mind of the most legendary vampire character.
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