Countless adaptations, reworkings and allusions to the Bram Stoker classic have been offered to audiences through a variety of mediums. There are only so many that can stick out and ingrain themselves in the legacy of Count Dracula. Who better to helm such a project than Francis Ford Coppola? Knowing that the best way to open any adaptation is with the sultry, smooth Welsh tones of Anthony Hopkins, Coppola’s rendition of Dracula adapts the Stoker classic with a finesse audiences should have expected. Here is a director whose finest works are based on the written word, whose first Academy Award came from adapting life into art, and who, when pressed for a rich experience, has no trouble delivering.
Having read Dracula and finding it to be a pleasant enough horror experience, the most surprising aspect of all to this adaptation is the inclusion of diary entries and letters. All of Stoker’s work is presented as a series of diaries, letters and reports surrounding the characters, rather than a story told in real-time. Coppola manages a nice blend of the two, with the retention of such originality appearing alongside the clear vision of his direction. There is an added layer that only film can offer, and Coppola does not skip on the opportunity to add the blood-red colours of the sky into the illuminated terror and unknowingness of Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) as he encounters the harrowing Count Dracula (Gary Oldman).
Surprisingly enough, Dracula is a wholly faithful adaptation. It toys with the less consistent pockets of the Count’s powers, some of which have receded from mainstream view in modern years. The little touches that follow throughout, that slow descent into madness and bloodthirsty anger in the first act is a delightful terror. There is a clear understanding of the law and logic the book provided, but Coppola layers on a grand, terrifying scale. We are rarely allowed to witness Richard E. Grant and Tom Waits share the screen with one another, and their work here is making the most of such a rarity. Together they provide two stellar roles and steal the spotlight somewhat from the magnificent efforts Oldman presents. They are all better than Reeves, who is shackled to an English accent. Bless him and forgive him, for he tries his absolute best.
There is a bleakness to Dracula, one that does capture the gothic horror inherent to this tale. Much of it comes from the literal darkness, the night aesthetic with the maddening Seward and the grand scale of Dracula’s arrival on British soil. Some of the special effects have aged rather poorly. The sweeping camera to signify the quickening pace of Dracula as he ascends and spirals toward Lucy (Sadie Frost) is more Evil Dead than anything of harrowing beauty, but for every brief fail there is sure to be a satisfying shot elsewhere. Coppola’s use of colour and the styling of which he gets away with here is mesmerising. Still, visually pleasing moments can only take Dracula so far, and while it appears, at its heart, to have the right intentions in adapting the work, some changes feel redundant and ill-advised. The relationship between Dracula and Mina (Winona Ryder), particularly, is questionable.
While not entirely faithful, Dracula is the closest to the text Coppola ever managed when adapting. Heart of Darkness was utilised as the foundation for commentary on the war in Vietnam, while The Godfather was spun into a masterful trilogy. His final flirtation with real, mainstream success comes from the style he managed best. Coppola is, at heart, a phenomenal writer. His tweaks and tinges of religious subtext within this piece are monumental, convincing and terrifying. The birth of Dracula is shown with gory clarity, and the demise is equally as befitting of the Stoker classic that brought a beast to Whitby.