Though looking to put their own twist on pop culture’s most famous bloodsucker, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss confess to watching “a hell of a lot” of previous Dracula adaptations before writing their new BBC series, which takes the form of three 90-minute TV films.
“It has been a lifetime of preparation,” jokes Gatiss – and can’t you just imagine the Count himself saying something similar about his own nefarious quest?
“There’s actually 120 years of accrued stuff from the plays, from the first films, the adaptations, the Bela Lugosi version – lots of different things have become what we now think of as Dracula,” he adds. “But you have to honour them.”
Their lead, Claes Bang, delved into the Dracula archives for similar reasons. “Just to get into the whole mythology of it,” he says. “And perhaps I could steal a little bit here or there! Just for inspiration, really. Like I would probably do if I were to play something really classical and perhaps there was an adaptation that interested me. Just to see if there was something to get there.”
BBC One’s Dracula, kicking off on New Year’s Day, is ultimately its own beast, but does draws on “a combination of influences”, Gatiss says – and if you’re interested in sampling some of those influences, here’s what to watch and how to do it.
The first major Hollywood adaptation of Stoker’s novel (though it actually adheres closer to a 1924 stage version), this Dracula made a star of Bela Lugosi, his iconic Count the true original that inspired countless others.
“I must say I think the Bela Lugosi [film] was truly amazing because it looks so fantastic – the sets,” says Claes Bang, even though he feels this rather melodramatic take on the character goes a “little bit too over the top.”
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“The first Hammer movie…actually, it is actually quite faithful in a very compressed way,” says Moffat. “It goes at about 100 miles an hour and bangs through it, but it’s a very very good film, and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in particular are wonderful.”
One aspect of Stoker’s book that this Dracula reflects is having the Count remain a shadowy figure, as opposed to being at the centre of the action. “Christopher Lee is astounding as Dracula,” Moffat adds. “But he’s a version of Dracula that could only appear for limited periods in the film. Because he’s like a shark. He’s Jaws. He just turns up, offs someone, and there’s nothing behind those eyes except blood lust.”
Bang was a fan of the “sort of seductiveness” in Lee’s portrayal, while Gatiss adds that Lee “used to talk at length about Dracula’s sadness. That was something he was very keen on. If you’re around for 500 years there’s a sort of melancholy to it.”
In an almost spooky bit of symmetry, the BBC’s new Dracula series actually shot in the same studios as the Hammer version. “It’s such an amazing thing to think of…the same sound-stages,” says Gatiss.
This previous BBC adaptation, first aired on 22nd December 1977, stars Louis Jourdan as the vampire and was one of the biggest influences on Moffat and Gatiss’s new version.
“It’s a brilliant adaptation of the book, which is a pretty hard book to adapt, because it sprawls round all over the place,” Moffat says, with Gatiss adding: “In terms of the look, although it’s very respectful to the book, the writer Gerald Savory also includes a few things he’s nicked from Hammer, because they look cool!”
This silent German expressionist horror movie was actually an unauthorised adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula – the author’s heirs sued the makers of Nosferatu and a court ruling ordered all copies to be destroyed, but happily a few prints survived, with the film now hailed as a masterpiece.
Filming on the BBC’s new Dracula actually began at Orava Castle in Slovakia, the same stronghold used as the home of ‘Count Orlok’ in Nosferatu almost 100 years earlier – Gatiss also revisited the castle to film his BBC Two special In Search of Dracula, which will air as a companion piece to the BBC One drama.
A remake of Nosferatu (which was itself an unauthorised adaptation of Dracula), Werner Herzog’s take features his frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski as the Count and was shot simultaneously in English and German, going on to receive a warm critical reception.
“I think that the only three-dimensional one that’s out there is the Klaus Kinski one,” says Claes Bang. “There was an immense sadness about that one that I really loved.”
Dracula (Mystery and Imagination) (1968)
Gatiss cites this ’60s TV adaptation of Dracula – produced as part of the British anthology horror series Mystery and Imagination – as another favourite. Denholm Elliott (later known as Marcus Brody in the Indiana Jones movies) plays Count Dracula, with Susan George as Lucy Weston.
“It’s very clever – it’s all set in the asylum. [as overseen by Dr. John Seward in the original novel]. They sort of do the whole book in about an hour. It’s really quite bold – there’s lots of lovely surprises.”
Another lesser-known take on Stoker’s creation, Son of Dracula is technically a sequel to the Bela Lugosi version – the third film in the series following 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, it sees Lon Chaney Jr. replacing Lugosi as the vampire.
“There’s a very interesting film called Son of Dracula, it’s quite good,” Gatiss enthuses. “It’s set in the Deep South and it’s quite a steamy, Southern Gothic version.”
Not a Dracula adaptation at all, but Ridley Scott’s lauded sci-fi horror flick is one of the key influences on episode two of the new series…
“We’ve taken some joy in expanding four pages of the book, which is what happens on the Demeter, the sailing ship that takes Dracula to England,” explains Moffat.
Stoker’s book explains briefly how a Russian ship, the Demeter, runs aground on the shores of Whitby in the east coast of England, with the captain’s log narrating the gradual disappearance of the entire crew, who are being picked off one-by-one by the unseen threat of Dracula.
“It is literally four pages of the captain’s log,” says Gatiss. “And it’s such a great idea – essentially Alien on a sailing ship. We’ve just expanded it into a whole episode.”