It’s popular among trendy chefs these days to present ‘deconstructed’ meals; that’s a popular or well-known dish broken down into its constituent elements and presented separately. For example, deconstructed Shepherd’s Pie would be a serving of lamb mince with a serving of mashed potato and a side-order of grated cheese. Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss’s new BBC adaptation of Dracula is a deconstructed version of Bram Stoker’s novel. It splits the story down into its three main constituent elements: Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, the journey to England on the Demeter and Dracula’s time in England, allocating a full 90-minute ‘film’ to each one. It’s a luxury that only TV can afford; most film versions skimp on one or more of the scenarios, usually the Demeter, but allowed to flesh out every part to this extent, Moffatt and Gatiss treat each episode as a separate entity and explore it in a very different way.
The first part, The Rules of the Beast, starts with an emaciated Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) relating the story of his misfortunes to an inquisitive nun whom, by the end of the episode, we will have found out is Agnes van Helsing. This familiar name tells us right there that although the period setting is apt to the novel, other significant elements have been changed; which is fine because I don’t think that anyone who’d seen Sherlock or Doctor Who would come into this expecting a straight adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. Sister Agnes being a van Helsing though is a set-up for future events – as for Harker’s exploits at Castle Dracula; it pretty much follows the well-trod line, only with a few grisly new extrapolations. Claes Bang is perfect casting as Count Dracula. I can’t say I’ve seen the Danish actor in anything else before, but his dark good looks bring to mind Christopher Lee in the Hammer films and he plays the part in a way that treads a line between suavity and psychopathic.
Dolly Wells plays Agnes van Helsing, another actor I’m not familiar with and, in a way, it really helps the production that they haven’t gone for big names because it doesn’t distract from the action to see a character played by an actor that you’re over familiar with. The action in Transylvania is presented as an account from Jonathan Harker to Sister Agnes and as such is a homage to the novel rather than an adaptation of it, as the narrative in Bram Stoker’s work is conveyed by a series of journals and letters. Having said that, of the three episodes, this is the one that strays least from the core text and much of what happens in Castle Dracula will seem very familiar to anyone who’s seen an adaptation of Dracula before. It starts to shift at a tangent towards the end when the framing narrative becomes the main narrative and Dracula makes an attempt to gain access to Sister Agnes’ convent. The sight of a courtyard full of stake-wielding nuns is very post-modern and lets us know that the female characters in this version of Dracula aren’t just screaming victims.
Episode 2, cheekily entitled Blood Vessel, is also told in the form of a recollection; this time from Dracula himself to Agnes van Helsing. Why are these two mortal enemies cordially playing chess? All will be revealed later in the episode. The action on board the Demeter is told as a whodunit – but a whodunit in which we know exactly who it was that dunit from the very start. On board merchant ship Demeter, the passengers and crew are going missing one by one and it’s no secret who is responsible. It’s our old friend Count Dracula, of course, although he’s trying to lay blame at the door of the mysterious occupant of Cabin 9. Among the passengers on board the Demeter are an Indian surgeon Dr. Sharma and his daughter; Sharma is played by Sacha Dhawan, who suddenly seems to be getting a lot of TV exposure, what with being the new incarnation of the Master on Doctor Who as well as this. It’s an interesting ensemble cast on board the Demeter, but don’t get too attached to them, because most of them won’t make it to land in one piece.
It is eventually revealed that the mysterious occupant of Cabin 9 is Sister Agatha van Helsing herself, who is now Dracula’s blood slave, and the conversation that frames this episode takes place in Dracula’s mind between him and Agatha’s spirit which he incorporated when he drank her blood. He does that, by the way; that’s a big thing in this version. Agatha outwits Dracula and blows up the Demeter, sending the vampire to the bottom of the ocean in a box of soil. After some time, he breaks free and makes his way to shore, looking up to see the distinctive silhouette of Whitby Abbey up above him. Suddenly though, he’s caught in a beam of light and a helicopter hovers above him. Police cars swoop in like the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He’s no longer in Victorian times, he’s in the present day. Noooo! I slept too long!
Episode 3 – The Dark Compass (not to be confused with His Dark Materials or The Golden Compass). When it was first announced that Moffatt and Gatiss were adapting Dracula for the BBC, no-one quite knew whether they would make it a period adaptation or a modern day version. Few could have been expecting that it would be both! Dr. Zoë Helsing, descendant of Agatha van Helsing (via her brother because she was, y’know, a nun) and her team of secret underground army dudes attempt to capture Dracula but he escapes. They track him down and try again, succeeding on the second attempt. There’s something very Kate Lethbridge-Stewart about Zoë and her black ops pals and she’s played once again by Dolly Wells, only this time without the Dutch accent. Of course, they can’t hold him, as his lawyer turns up (another bloodsucker) played by Mark Gatiss and gets him off on a technicality. It’s a bit far-fetched but I think they’re making some point or other.
Dracula becomes obsessed with Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), a morally vacuous socialite who idolises him for kicks, failing to comprehend that her vanity far outweighs her desire for eternal life. When Lucy is cremated alive and realises that is how she must look for eternity, she begs to be released. Dracula does not understand that the world has changed; over a century ago, his victims were happy to embrace longevity as a walking corpse, but 21st century life is so comfortable that things like physical appearance become all-consuming to some. In the end, Dracula submits to his own mortality when it is spelled out to him by Dr. Zoë Helsing that his desire for eternal life is simply a fear of dying in battle like the warrior kings who were his ancestors – his fear of letting go of his life is an act of cowardice. It’s an odd way for Dracula to go, but could they have really had him being killed by any conventional means after they’ve spent most of the last few episodes debunking and explaining away all of the traditional vampire legends?
This interpretation of Dracula is a game of three halves, to contort a metaphor; all of them are fun in one way or another but unfortunately the modern day episode is the weakest of the three, showing quite clearly why the BBC have avoided updating the story in previous versions. The references to Hammer’s modern setting Dracula: AD 1972 (the hospital room in which Zoë Helsing is housed is room AD/072) is telling, because this appeals in the same way that that film appeals – as a rather silly, kitsch commentary on contemporary social mores. By far the better episode, in my opinion, is the second one, which ramps up the tension and has a wonderfully claustrophobic setting, but the first episode is not far behind. As a whole, this version is a success, but ‘deconstructed’, it is less so. It’s better than the 2006 BBC adaptation starring Marc Warren, bet less so than the ultra-faithful 1977 version starring Louis Jourdan. Compared to recent adaptations of the classics, it’s much, much better than The War of the Worlds because although it makes many of the same sort of narrative changes, it stems from a source material that is more open to change. Not perfect, but then what is these days? I’d certainly watch it again.