Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: Dracula

Dracula is a story which I am more familiar with as a film. This is not surprising: there are many versions, and wikipedia states that the book was only a fairly ordinary success until a filmed version took the story to the level of modern legend.
The story both loses and gains from the editing process a film requires.

In the gains column:
Van Helsing: A prototype for Yoda, he has paragraphs of grammatically dubious, and self-conciously 'mysterious' exposition. The other characters are given to cry out 'Please explain clearly, Professor!". The reader is also tempted.
Sentimental Scenes: Characters in peril are given to religious speeches expressing boundless selflessness. Strong men weep, but only in the presence of women. Regrettably, the euphemism chosen for this event is for the individual to be 'unmanned'. Sounds painful. In fairness, the softer scenes are contrasted with really quite cold. graphic moments of Gothic horror. The author probably wanted to hold on to his more squeamish readers.

In the lose column:
Technology: The heroes are relentless users of the latest in Victorian technology. They telegram each other all the time. One keeps a diary on a phonograph. The rail service is exploited ruthlessly. If the story were writted today, the characters would all have iPhones. They quote the latest theories of criminology and psychology. Quite a switched on team, I wonder how they came across to their contemporaries.
A digression: at one stage, Mina is telegrammed while on board a train. I had no idea this was possible at the time. I am sure it is impossible now. How was it done? Did each train have a telegraph office on board? Did stations along the route have to flag down trains with telegrams for the passengers? It got me thinking about how early technological breakthroughs are communal, and develop towards the individual. At first, books were only kept in libraries. Then, the very rich could own them. Now, most can afford a good sized library in their homes. Does this hurt libraries? Today, we would text Mina on the train. If she had no mobile phone - tough. There would be no way to communicate with her. In fact, public telephones are under threat because of our technological individualism. Even the train system is now weaker, because most of us own our own cars. Does this make it harder, or easier to travel to Transylvania? It is easier to get in touch with certain people, but harder to get in touch with people we are not already close to. I found myself envying the Victorian infrastructure reading this book.
Post Modernism: The novel is written as a series of diary entries, letters, newspaper reports, etc. Around halfway through the story the various characters get to read the others diaries, to compile a complete report. Thus, the characters get to read what we have already read, and detect clues we have missed, or have been waiting for them to notice. In fact, there are elements in the book of Sherlock Holmes stories.
Mina Harker: The original girl geek, Mina is the real hero of the novel. Always the one to organise the men surrounding her, she is in total command of her environment; taking shorthand notes of other peoples disorganised diaries, typing them up, and memorising train time tables (she calls herself a 'train fiend' at one point). Fearless and indomitable, not above using her charm to get what she wants, she is more than a match for the Count. If Mina had completed her transformation into vampirism, the Count would have had a hard time keeping control of his backward little corner. I often felt that the author is secretly more afraid of this sort of empowered woman than he was of vampires.

In conclusion, a fascinating book, but not always for the plot, which is familiar, in outline, to many. A real debating point for me, is how in the century since the book was published, that Hollywood have yet to present a Mina Harker in film, who is even half the match for the Mina in the book. We still need women to be the victims, it seems.

4 comments:

Thistlechick (Betsie) said...

RE: Strong Mina in film.... how about how they portrayed her in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)?

ChrisHughes said...

I'm afraid I haven't seen the film, although I have read the comics.
You are right though - in the comic she is exactly the same as in the book. I know the author of the comic (Alan Moore) disclaimed all connection with the film, and refused any money. There were many changes made, apparently, for example, in the film Mina is a vampire, and in the comic (as in the original book) she is not, although she always seems to be hiding a scar on her neck.
I can highly recommend the comic book, though. There is even a website (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/7160/league1.html) which lists the truly vast number of victorian literary references in the story. It's like Alan Moore took every contemporary work of fiction he could, and crammed it in.
Thanks for your comment, by the way, which makes me feel like a REAL blogger!

Gesine said...

Loved your review, thank you! Very amusing, and interesting asides!
I'm told that the telegraph signal went along the rail (instead of a wire) - metal to metal contact, they could just pick it up on the train. The data was fairly simple, though, so I'm not surprised they stopped using it when more advanced technology was developed. Apparently, not so long ago they tried using the normal electrical wiring in residential housing for communication - kind of a modern-day equivalent. Not sure why it failed. Of course, these days wireless has completely taken over.

Anyway, thanks for the review; very nice.

ChrisHughes said...

Gesine - Thanks for you kind words. I am amazed that the telegraph signal went via the rails. Who needs http? I wonder when it was phased out...