The new, PBS adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula is a thorough reimagining of the tale, with an entirely different story line. Those who admire Stoker’s original novel and remember it well will find many of the changes disturbing. Jonathan Harker, the protagonist of the novel, is nearly nonexistent in this version. In addition, this adaptation adds the horrors of syphillis as a major plot point that is entirely (and thankfully) absent from Stoker’s novel. In addition, Abraham Van Helsing is presented as rather weak and cowardly, not at all the way most of those who like the book will want to see him.
In these and other ways, the film is fashionably bad—excessively grim, nasty, dark, and driven by sex—but ultimately it turns out to be very good in its fundamental ideas, and very politically bold in some important ways.
The most interesting of these ideas is the film’s explicit premise that fin de siecle England was the center of the Christian world, and that both the Empire and Christianity are forces for good.
To say that in a classroom would get a teacher fired these days.
The film posits that Dracula wishes to use the great reach and power of England in order to spread his evil through the world.
As in the original novel, the evil Dracula is repeatedly compared to Satan, in this case mostly through visual imagery. In addition, the rising adherence to non-Christian religious traditions at the time is presented as aiding in the unleashing of Dracula’s satanic evil.
To say anything like that even in a pulpit in England or Canada these days could get a person thrown in jail.
Also interesting is the fact that sexual immorality sets all the evil in motion. Lord Holmwood, a young nobleman engaged to be married, hides a terrible secret: he is suffering from syphilis, which he contracted in the womb, his mother having been unkowingly infected by her whore-mongering husband.
Not knowing Dracula’s real nature, Holmwood brings him to London because the Count’s minions in England have promised him that Dracula can cure his congenital syphilis. (Syphillis was incurable at that time, and its effects were truly horrible.)
After a few vampirical murders, Holmwood sees the error of his way and joins with his friend Dr. John Seward and the elderly folklorist Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (played by David Suchet) to avert Dracula’s evil plan.
In the critical scene where the film’s rising action culminates, Van Helsing, holding not one but two crucifixes, says that the three men will fight Dracula’s immense power with faith. When Holmwood expresses doubt, Van Helsing replies, "Faith is everything, Lord Holmwood. Future generations will laugh, yes, laugh, at our science—but not at our faith. Faith gives us the strength not to be scared of what we do not understand—of darkness, of death."
The two young men accept the crucifixes from Van Helsing.
Afterward, Holmwood kneels before a crucifix and prays to the Lord (using that name, specifically), asking forgiveness for his sins and entreating the Lord to "enter my heart and give me strength—the strength you showed in Gethsemane to face death—to face this evil I have raised and cast it out."
This scene not only reinforces the importance of faith in the film, it also continues the emphasis on Dracula’s satanic nature. The fact that Holmwood has "raised" Dracula to earthly power suggests that the latter is from Hell, and the term "cast it out" is commonly used to describe the process of expelling demons from human hosts.
After this scene of prayer, as Holmwood, Seward, and Mina search for Dracula’s crypt, Homewood recites the Lord’s Prayer as they walk through the dank cellars. Homewood ultimately gets an opportunity to show himself as truly wanting redemption, and he does so by offering up himself as a sacrifice. And as the others finally confront the monster, Van Helsing steps forward and recites from the Catholic rite of exorcism while Seward administers the quietus.
It’s all very crazy and weird, and something of a vulgarization of the story, but also very Christian, like a medieval folk tale or Heronymous Bosch painting.
When PBS chooses to inject more explicit Christian content in adapting a novel that is strongly Christian in the first place, maybe some things are indeed changing for the better.