Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Dracula-Why, Coppola, why?
I just recently read Bram Stoker's legendary 1897 novel Dracula for the first time and am trying to catch up on a few of the many movie adaptations that've been made over the years. I started with Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. Coppola is a director who has given us 4 of the greatest movies ever made with the first two Godfather movies, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. So it's astounding how he gets nearly everything wrong in this movie. I have no problems with changes between page and screen, books and films are different mediums and things cannot be translated exactly. But I'm not even sure why he put Stoker's name in the title, not even the basic story outline is the same (maybe half of it is).
Coppola never gets the atmosphere correct, something that is essential in a horror/thriller like this. Stoker goes to great pains in the novel (occasionally too much) to set up his characters as real people in a real world dealing with a real threat. Coppola turns it into almost a cartoon. There's little of the tremendous mood piece that is the first 50 pages of the book, as Jonathan Harker approaches and stays at Castle Dracula. The frightening, dream-like encounter with the 3 vampire women in the castle is bungled as well. There's a difference between mysterious and strange, something Coppola doesn't seemed to have grasped. This is especially true in that Dracula is the main character of the movie, even though I'm certain he can't have been in 1/4 of the book's 400 pages. He's kept off screen for a reason, it builds up anticipation for his return. This is actually the biggest flaw of the novel, the interplay between Jonathan and Dracula is terrific, but there's none after that first 50 pages. Still, to make Dracula the main character (or maybe it's just the way he's handled here) is to deprive him of his mystery.
Part of Coppola's problem is the cast that he's chosen. None really display the kind of gravitas needed to pull off their roles in any believable way. Keanu Reeves gets a lot of (deserved) flack for his truly awful performance, but he's far from the only guilty one. Actually, only Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman come out unscathed, and both are nowhere near perfect. Hopkins creates a decently interesting character, but the Van Helsing in the book was far more fascinating. Oldman does what he can with Dracula, but the role is terribly written and he can only do so much with it.
About the only things worth mentioning in a positive light are the costumes, sets, and (mostly unnecessary) make-up. They're truly incredible, particularly everything inside of (and including) Castle Dracula. I just wish they'd been used in a good movie. There was so much potential for someone like Coppola to treat Dracula as he treated The Godfather, with respect and intelligence and a control of his craft. Instead he turned it into a campy mess of disappointment.