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Two important things you should know about Carnival Film's recent series "Dracula":

Nonso Anozie wears a red bowler hat and smartly tailored grey check suit, with a tie that matches his hat as Renfield


This is Nonso Anozie. He plays R. M Renfield.

headshot of a blonde Katie McGrath with a large red flower in her hair which matches her lipstick and earings playing Lucy Westenra


This is Katie McGrath. She plays Lucy Westenra.

I assume you are now powerless to avoid this show. Cool. Come share my pain.



Jonathan, Mina and Lucy in formal atire at Dracula's first ball - they are each holding a glowing lightbulb


First, a warning: if you’re a canon purist then this version of "Dracula" may drive you to distraction. It opens with a plot point from Bram Stoker’s novel, as Dracula arrives in London, but it generally gives absolutely no fucks about canon and is often far removed from Stoker’s original story.

Good.

I am a big fan of Stoker's "Dracula". Its mixed media approach, evocative descriptions and compelling storyline are all wonderful, but it is also full of quite terrible plot points. See, I’m a Lucy fan and I have been holding a grudge for quite some time. Fuck your sub-textual destruction of female sexual desire, book. Just, fuck it. And while we’re about it, fuck the way you later undermine Mina’s wonderful agency. Fuck breaking up these two best friends with vampirism and gruesome decapitation. I'm always happy to see new adaptations mess about with Stoker's novel, even though many parts of it are dear to me (pre-dead Lucy; Mina and Lucy’s friendship; Mina/Jonathan; the descriptions of Jonathan’s time in the castle).

In this British made adaptation, all the familiar faces from Bram Stoker’s tale are present but many details of their characters, relationships and storylines have been re-shaped. Mina, for example, is training to be a doctor. Hells yeah, Mina! Hells yeah. Meanwhile, Dracula is pretending to be Alexander Grayson, an American entrepreneur (whether you find Rhys Myer's twangy fake accent adorable or infuriating will, I suspect, depend on which side of the pond you’re from). Lucy is in love with Mina. Van Helsing is, wait, helping Dracula? Ok, we are really through the looking glass here. And Harker is far less of a hero than in the original novel. If you’re going to break from canon, go big or go home.

Then there’s Renfield. As you can see above, Renfield’s character has been race flipped in this adaptation and is played by a black actor. In contrast to the novel, where Renfield is one of Dracula’s creatures and has ended up in a lunatic asylum, Anozie’s character maintains a non-murderous grip on reality in series one. Fly eating and bar rattling are all absent. I think fandom’s second biggest fear before this show aired was that because Anozie was cast in the Renfield role he would be playing a ‘wild man’ character enslaved to a white master – its first biggest fear, of course, being that the whole show would be like this horrendous trailer. Instead, he is a lawyer whose career was destroyed by racial prejudice. Now, he travels as Alexander Grayson/Dracula’s man-servant, acting in his business and providing sound advice which Dracula often takes.

I’m not saying the dynamic between Renfield and Dracula is extremely progressive, but the show has (so far) avoided the obvious pitfall that race-bending the original Renfield character could have caused. And as the series continues, the show clearly demonstrates a desire to expand beyond the all white, all straight cast of the original novel; it not only race-bends Renfield, but adds two gay characters and makes Lucy Westenra a lesbian. It also adds two memorable female characters that do not appear in Stoker’s novel. And several episodes strive to show under-represented groups exerting agency in the Victorian world. Mina’s medical studies are often referenced and are a central subject in at least one episode. And there’s a fantastic sequence where Renfield gets a racist to call him 'Sir' and then tells Jonathan Harker:

gif shows Harker's face and caption reads And Harker? which is spoken by Renfield gif shows Renfield pointing angrily and caption reads Never again presume to defend me to anyone

(source)


"Dracula" also makes its main characters show support for underrepresented groups. Dracula makes it very clear that he doesn’t care who anyone sleeps with when he sneaks into a gay gentleman’s club, even if he will use society’s prejudices for his own ends. He employs Renfield and places great importance on his counsel. When Renfield is abducted it’s clear that Dracula is concerned for his safety. And people are queuing up to show support for Mina’s career dreams. When Jonathan Harker fails to do the same, the program comments on the unacceptable nature of his behaviour and views by having Mina show him the door. This sends Jonathan on a soul-searching exercise and eventually he has to apologise wholeheartedly in order to win her love back.

However, "Dracula" is also one of a vast number of TV shows that struggles to fully support its diverse cast of characters. In short, the characters that make the cast more diverse are eventually subject to a lot of painful, often deadly, violence. Lady Jayne, one of the new, recurring female characters, ends up dead in the finale. Lucy is pushed into her canon fate and becomes a vampire. Of course this is only after she’s been through some serious emotional violence; accused of 'friend-zoning' and banished by Mina, manipulated through her sexuality by Lady Jane, and sent off to get her revenge by seducing and bedding her foe Jonathan. Renfield gets it twice; excruciatingly tortured in one episode, then knifed and left to bleed out in the final episode. And in the background, chromatic characters, gay characters, and white, female characters are decimated by Dracula, Van Helsing and his favourite smashy hammer, and vampire hunters. This all looks terribly familiar.

It is depressingly easy to divine why a TV crew might add diversity to its cast, but then push those characters to tragic, standard narrative endings. If creators put white, straight characters into all the main roles of their program, then it’s more than likely that most of their straight, white characters will survive. Main characters are generally protected, at least in a first series.

Then there are the joys of basing a supernatural work on classic canon. No matter how many changes an adaptation makes to canon, well-known canon plotlines still provide some protection for the main characters of that adaptation (she says, nervously remembering that "Robin Hood" adaptation where Marian died – don’t kill Mina, show). Canon deaths can also get carried over, because excluding them seems like too much of a departure even in adaptations that break up with canon in other ways.

Finally, "Dracula" exists in a genre where death is a staple dramatic tool; it’s almost expected that death, pain, or a violent transition to undead status will be used to tug the viewer into an emotional reaction or to reinforce the ‘edginess’ of a program. Ok, so the show needs some character death, but the creative team have got to be careful about who they kill off - they'd like to ensure the longevity of their program after all. How are they going to make a second season of "Dracula" without Dracula? So, when showrunners are looking to create an emotional viewer reaction who are they gonna kill? Easy - the secondary characters. And if a program’s bit parts are filled with diverse characters in an attempt to keep the background of the program from being full of a male, straight, white blur, there’s a chance that these expendable, one scene characters will die too.

Deeply embedded social ideas about narrative inevitability also play a part in the way programs like "Dracula" progress. So much media tells us that some kind of torture/punishment is part of stories about LGBTQ and black characters, and that affects how a lot of creators write stories about these characters. A show can race-bend its characters and carve all kinds of new paths in canon, but it can still be overtaken by the narrative inevitability deep inside the creator’s brains.

Plenty of white, straight male characters do die in "Dracula". What about Lord Browning and Davenport? What about the billiard room massacre? Surely the program is balancing out the pain and death of the diverse cast with these deaths.

gif of Dule Hill saying Uh No


Let’s shut that noise down right now.

In a world where so many stories include the torture of chromatic characters, the death of chromatic characters or unhappy stories about LGBTQ characters, you can’t balance the deathly scales with sad straight romances and dead white men. And when a show has a white dude take a hammer to the heads of two black characters; when the only two gay characters in the show are forced to commit suicide; when a white vampire hunter causes the suicide of the only other black woman in the program; when an episode is dedicated to a black character’s extensive torture by a white woman - that program is feeding into the narrative inevitability that I talked about above. There’s a chance its structure will influence showrunners and lead them to create more stories where chromatic and LGBTQ characters meet sad ends. Just, keep chromatic and LGBTQ characters alive, creators – it can’t be that hard. "Dracula" is still walking around at the end of the series even though sunlight sets him on fire. He doesn’t even have a daylight ring! If you can make that work it should be a cinch to keep other characters alive.

Of course, this show also gave the world Nonso Anozie as Renfield; Dracula’s ‘swiss army knife’ and advisor. Renfield is such a great character: solid, smart, carefully sardonic and political. And on a shallow note: Anozie has a very alluring voice and looks good in a suit. If it turns out Renfield isn’t dead there is just no question about whether I will watch series two.

I am more conflicted about the thought of having to a second series featuring the newly transformed Lucy. Like I said, in the penultimate episode, Lucy becomes a vampire. Programs have given viewers some fantastic female vampire characters, from the brutal and amoral Darla to the heroic Caroline Forbes, but I’m not yet quite sure what’s going on with vampire consciousness and morality in "Dracula" so I'm a little worried about what the future holds in store for Lucy. Once they have been turned, both Browning’s children and Lucy seem to mindlessly revel in killing members of their family, as if their human self has been totally replaced by a vampire self (which feels similar to the image of vampires in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). Dracula, on the other hand, can exert control over himself and chooses who he kills. Are newborn vampires just slaves to their blood drinking urges (as in "The Vampire Diaries"), learning control as the years go on? Or are sired vampires more animalistic and less conscious than original vampires? My interest in watching vampire Lucy really depends on the answer to that question. Once turned, Stoker’s original Lucy is shown to be full of uncontrollable, vampiric desires which handily stand in for society's fears about female sexual desire. Her staking and dismemberment is a brutal, sub-textual punishment of active female desire, and a way of “saving” men from their attraction to “dangerous” women who inspire desire:

My dear it never rains, but it pours. How true the old proverbs are. Here I am, I, who shall be twenty in September, and yet I have never had a proposal until to-day, not a real proposal, and today I had three. Just fancy! THREE proposals in one day!


In the novel, once vamped Lucy becomes actively ‘carnal’. The link between vampirism and sexuality reflects discomfort with female interest in sexuality and acts as punishment. It is no coincidence that all the boys Lucy has drawn to her yard later form a hunting party and conspire to kill her with a big symbolic stake. (A very simplified, paraphrased version of ideas in Jennifer Wicke’s essay ‘Vampiric Typewriting: Dracula and Its Media’).

So, I have no interest in watching a new adaptation where Lucy is a shell propelled on to increasingly exuberant, passionate killing by the hungry demon inside of her. Representation of female desire linked to vampiric killing, which results in stakes - it’s been done. Putting a lesbian character in this situation does not change anything about the subtext here.

I’m more interested in watching a conscious Lucy struggle with her knowledge of humanity and her desire for blood. In this version of the Dracula story, Lucy has been given a more extended outing and her friendship with Mina is just as important as in the book. Their scenes together are one of the best things in this series, and "Goblin Merchant", the episode where Lucy and Mina cruise around fixing Mina’s broken heart with alcohol, is an absolute riot:

Mina and Lucy are in a bedroom - caption reads And what do we do with these delicious officers Lucy says May I?

Mina turns to look at Lucy - caption read It would be my pleasure Corporal Westenra Lucy is shown reflected in the mirror - caption read Captain Westenra

(source)


I adored the fact that she and Mina were friends, rather than simplistic opposites and enemies as would have been the case in many shows. See, sometimes a little canon does keep creators on the straight and narrow.

In general, Lucy is a dazzling darling, able to organise a complex event at the drop of a hat, and a lady wields a clear dagger of a personality when displeased. I like Katie McGrath’s idea that Lucy is a woman who has so much to offer, but has been bred for marriage - that she stuffs all her abilities into managing social life. And this is why I want to see her as a complicated vampire character, not as some blank slate monster with no connection to her humanity. She’s too interesting a character to lose, and I’m not sure I will be able to handle watching her so changed.

Back to what makes Lucy such a wonderful character in this version before she gets vamped: when the program started hinting that Lucy had a secret, and fans started producing Mina/Lucy gifsets, I wasn’t too hopeful that she would actually turn out to be a canon lesbian. We’ve all been here before, wishing relationships into canon that never come no matter how strong the subtext seems. And then it turned out she was in love with Mina. The "Dracula" creative team had taken a Stoker character and made her a lesbian. It was magical - like watching vidders take control of a major TV series.

Of course, everything goes to hell from there on. Lucy can’t get her girl, because Mina isn’t a lesbian or bisexual. And the show must be careful to avoid cock-blocking her canon partner Jonathan with another relationship. Oh wait, Stoker’s canon got pushed overboard and Mina is making eyes at Dracula? Huh. INTERESTING. Interesting how the creative team can change the central romantic relationship of the novel, but it can’t accommodate a female pairing. Instead we get Lucy sobbing on the stairs. And, in the end, Lucy is still turned into a vampire as punishment for being sexual. ‘If you’re going to act like a monster, I’ll make you a monster’ seethes Grayson/Dracula as he makes her into a vampire upon finding that she has slept with Jonathan, now Mina’s fiancé. Great.

There’s only so far you can praise a program for including a lesbian character if it’s ultimately going to do things like this. If she gets staked by Jonathan in the next series then this show and I are breaking up.

You may be wondering, if I saw so many problems with the treatment of my two favourite characters, what kept me watching his version of "Dracula" all the way to the end of the series?

I think my first answer is that I like adaptations that change things. "Dracula" is a TV adaptation of a classic book that is brave enough to drastically depart from canon. I like classic, canon-close adaptations, but there’s something so exciting about the possibility of an adaptation that changes 90% of the original story. I know some people aren’t keen on that approach. I seem to remember a lot of the early criticism of "Elementary" centred around the idea that the show was far removed from the original Holmes stories - surely it was merely using the Sherlock brand, along with a couple of character names, to draw the franchise’s huge, existing audience to a completely unrelated police procedural. I think criticism like this misses that drastic reinterpretations of a classic works, which still cling to essences of those classic works, are fun, exciting, and sometimes expansionary.

There is a certain set of classic stories that never seem to go out of fashion. I imagine we’ll be seeing Sherlock Holmes adaptations for a while yet. As long as creators and networks remain interested in these few well-known classic stories, there’s a chance that viewers could continue to see many, many stories full of white, straight, male casting. That casting is written into the original works. So, even with all the problematic elements of their storylines, it is still heart-warming to see characters like Lucy and Renfield in an adaptation of a classic work. It’s great not to see the fact that "Dracula" is based on a classic piece of literature full of straight, white people used as an excuse to create a piece of modern media that only contains straight, white characters.

And to see these two characters in a supernatural drama, which is set in a historical period, is lovely. Historical TV dramas are especially bad at including chromatic and LGBTQ characters. And while paranormal shows with important, secondary chromatic characters are growing ("Grimm", "Person of Interest") the genre is still generally cagey about adding central LGBTQ characters ("Lost Girl" and "Teen Wolf" are really the only current examples I can think of that include LGBTQ characters). Increasing representation in these genres it still crucial. Add in Mina’s choice of career (which has a basis in reality) and the show is also offering cultural commentary that the book very much did not. Stoker’s story would probably have seen a medically minded Mina shunned as one of the ‘New Women’ his characters take down.

Adaptations which depart from book canon are also free to offer other new, exciting elements aside from increased diversity or cultural commentary. An adaptation that stayed 100% faithful to the book wouldn’t have given us some of the other interesting parts that this adaptation handed down: Lady Jayne – vampire hunter, the wireless electricity scenes, and Van Helsing’s uneasy partnership with Dracula:

Dracula gets in Van Helsing's face and stabs a finger in his chest - they are standing very close


It’s true, not all of the places where "Dracula" departs from Stoker’s canon provide interesting fruit (the Order of Draco’s business ventures are snooze worthy). I still feel that invention and experimentation with existing canon is to be encouraged, because it can bring viewers exciting new stories. And these stories can still explore the relevant and interesting themes of the original work, even while dressing it up in different substance.

The most obvious link between this version of "Dracula" and the original novel’s canon, aside from the characters this story is based around, is the storyline about Dracula’s attempted revenge against the Order Draco. Stoker’s story uses the Count Dracula figure to subtextually critique the corrupt nature of the upper-class. His arrival on English soil, his penetration of English subjects and the intermingling of English blood with foreign blood all present popular concerns about foreign influence disrupting the power of the Empire. In Carnival Film's version, this criticism is both presented and countered, as "Alexander Grayson" tries to defeat the Order who killed his wife and turned him into an undead monster.

At the beginning of the series, Dracula arrives and falsely presents himself as Grayson the American entrepreneur; "new money". He is immediately written off by English society and snubbed by the titled members of the British Imperial Company. 'Mr. Grayson, the British Imperial Company is in the business of selling our products to British industry, not our underlying patents to interloping colonials.’ A very British burn there. It is time for some stiff upper lip nationalism – somebody kindly show that American and his black man of business to the door.

Oh wait, you’re insulting him in his house, which he has kindly invited you to. Awkward.

As the series progresses, the British Imperial Company (the Order Draco’s public, capitalist face) shows itself to be corrupt and violent. Sabotaging your competitors = illegal. Taking their employees and torturing them = illegal. The Company is run by Lords and Ladies of England, who so rudely snubbed Grayson in the first episode and who continue to mutter about his American brand of snake oil behind his back. The viewer sees the program making a clear link between the upper classes, snobbery, and villainous, anti-competition capitalism. And sure, destroying murderous vampires is good, but it doesn’t automatically give you leeway to control industry or be rude to foreign business men. Grayson's path of revenge is to destroy the Order through business, by making his wireless electricity so successful that it removes the need for petroleum and bankrupts all the members of the British Imperial Company. This storyline, and the Order’s violent reaction against Grayson’s American nationality, includes Stoker’s commentary about foreign powers, but flips the perspective and critiques this Imperial struggle to hold on to power.

I can’t finish this post without talking about the program’s title character, and Jonathan Rhys Myers:

Dracula's shirt appears to be missing


I would watch this man sell soap. His voice slithers and hisses in a way which just conjures up sex. And I love to hear his character reach fits of rage, because he manages to make the space around him crackle with vicious energy.

Anyway, on to the character he is playing. One of my favourite things about this adaptation is that Dracula remains solidly a villain. A villain battling villains; a villain loved by the most wonderful woman in Victorian England; a villain who wants to walk in the light, and yes, even a liberal villain, but always, at heart, a manipulative, murderous character.

I so enjoyed seeing a liberal villain by the way – they’re so rare. Usually villains are either aligned with the far right (misogynistic, homophobic, racist) or members of underrepresented groups who appear to hold no political opinions. In rare cases, villains are shown to work towards a liberal goal for equality, but they generally end up perverting liberal politics. Or they use methods that let the heroic characters of the piece align their actions with terrorism - see Amon from "The Legend of Korra". It is incredibly unusual to see a villain, who remains villainous in other ways, show respect for members of underrepresented groups or appear disinterested in making negative comments about these groups. I also liked that Grayson’s political opinions were never aligned with his villainy – he’s not killing people in the service of some twisted version of a liberal good. He simply respects people and their choices, but at the same time will do anything to further his own ends even if it hurts those same people.

Yes, Grayson destroys the lives of people who, flawed as they may be, really do not deserve to be used so. Jonathan Harker may be a sexist young ass, but he is also a servant of truth who is loyal to Grayson right up until the moment Grayson throws him under a bus. Harker's entire life is twisted by Grayson, which causes him to fling himself into the amoral arms of the Order. They manipulate him into participating in a plan which causes an industrial accident resulting in massive loss of life. The accident also kills Harker's best friend and truly fucks his chance of marrying Mina. Lord Davenport’s son kills himself because of Grayson’s actions. And several other decent, flawed people are collateral damage as the vampire seeks his revenge. Sure, he walks away with Mina at the end of this series, while Jonathan appears to be the villain in Mina’s eyes. The viewer still knows that Dracula isn’t a hero, even if Mina doesn’t..

Will there be a second series? Will Renfield return? Has the whole first series really just been a circuitous ploy to get Harker and Van Helsing on the same vampire fighting team without going the conventional, canon route? This year, you can find me watching the Lucy Westenra Tumblr for news and replaying old gifs. Remember to come say Hi.

Supplementary Material

The Lucy Westenra Tumblr
"Occupation Girl" - nbc dracula tag
My favourite image of Lucy
"ScreenSlam" - Youtube playlist including "Dracula" cast interviews

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