Gothic Horror at Its Finest: A Review of 2020's Dracula
Updated: May 26, 2021
Why did no one tell me that Netflix has the best adaptation of Dracula that’s been made in a long time?! Why was I supposed to find this out for myself? Why did I have to stumble across it late one night when I was not mentally equipped to handle it? I’m very upset about this. I’m very upset that no one told me about this adaptation.
In 2020, before the world shut down, BBC released a three-part mini-series out of the most iconic piece of gothic literature of all time. You know I’m talking about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, baby.
The mini-series premiered January 1-3 before being fully released on Netflix. It stars Claes Bang as the one and only Count Dracula, Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha Van Helsing, John Heffernan as Jonathan Harker, Morfydd Clark as Mina Murray, Lydia West as Lucy Westenra, and Matthew Beard as Jack Seward.
This mini-series is simultaneously the most faithful adaptation of the original source material that I’ve ever seen while also being something completely new. It gets the little details right while managing to turn many well-known plot points on their head. The creators managed to include a Texan suitor, Dracula’s less discussed powers such as controlling and turning into wolves, and his need for 50+ boxes of soil; just to name a few things that I feel often get overlooked. Although, much to my chagrin, this adaptation failed to include Dracula crawling around on the roof like a crazed gremlin.
As far as differences go, there are quite a few major ones. The most prominent one being the Dr. Van Helsing character being portrayed by a woman in this adaptation. She also receives a major character overhaul that I’ll talk about shortly. There is also a massive change in time period for the third part of the mini-series. Not to mention, the mystery theme in episode two. None of these changes were expected, but they certainly weren’t unwanted upon arrival.
Oh yeah, a spoiler alert is in order. Guess it’s a little late for that, but when have I ever not given spoilers? Shall we talk about the characters now? I think we shall. But given the large cast of supporting characters Dracula sports, I will only be talking about the two most pertinent characters.
I want to start with Sister Agatha Van Helsing. Much like her literary counterpart, Agatha is knowledgeable on the creatures of the night and will stop at nothing to end them. She actually learned about these creatures thanks to her uncle: a one Dr. Van Helsing. That tidbit is just a bit a fan service courtesy of the mini-series’ creators, viewers never see him and he’s only ever mentioned this one time, but I too felt like including the detail because I deeply appreciated its inclusion.
Anyway, Agatha is a highly intelligent spitfire. She’s pretty much everything you would want in the Van Helsing character. She’s brave, witty, cunning; she’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes since she’s always trying to be three steps ahead of Dracula. Agatha is a good character, I appreciate her and enjoyed having her as the main heroine. I just had issue with the use of modern day feminism to build and develop her character.
The majority of the mini-series takes place in the late 1800’s; just like the original source material, yet Agatha reads as a modern day feminist. Her character doesn’t fit in with the world around her. More often than not, I expect her to rant about the lack of women’s rights with every new character she meets, which she does do every once in a while, instead of discussing how to stop Dracula. As a 2021 feminist, I deeply appreciate her. As someone who nit-picks though, I have to say she doesn’t fit into the world around her and doesn’t work at times. Don't get me wrong, I still really liked Dolly Well’s performance . My eye was continuously drawn to her when she was on screen.
As far as Dracula goes, Claes Bang gave my favorite performance. He gave Dracula all the markings of a classic antihero in a story where viewers are expected to view him as nothing more than a villain. Bang made me hate Dracula at points, but he also made me feel for the character in the end.
Let’s be real, Dracula can be a disgusting little shit. I don’t have to tell Dracula fans about all the nefarious misdeeds he gets into. Making the character of Dracula into a full on crazy, power-hungry villain could have been very easy, and incredibly lazy. Thankfully that did not happen. Instead Dracula had depth. He had moments of being a crazy, power-hungry villain, but he was still a tragic figure who feared the world around him and hid those fears through his supernatural abilities and endless charm. I applaud Claes Bang for his performance. He’s the only person I will accept as Dracula from now on.
But my favorite thing about the mini-series was neither of these knockout performances. Nay, nay. My favorite part about the mini-series, and perhaps the best thing about it as a whole, was the second episode.
Listen, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is great, but the whole incident regarding the Demeter is very lackluster when compared to the rest of the novel. Everything that happens in the novel regarding the ship is over within a few pages. Not with this adaptation though. The entirety of episode two is spent on the ill-fated ship. Dracula fans get to see what occurs on board. They get to see this version of Dracula make his way through the crew and passengers like snacks in a fridge. They get to learn about what Dracula has in store for the English countryside. And above all, viewers get to watch those on the ship play a giant game of Clue.
I did not expect a Whodunit when I came into this series, but I ain’t mad at it. As a viewer, I obviously knew who the ship’s murderer was, but watching the other passengers run around like chickens with their heads cut off was highly entertaining. Some of these passengers were total idiots, others rivaled Hercule Poirot, some were just trying to save their own skin. Again, not expected but certainly not unwanted.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still some unwanted aspects in Dracula. Namely the bad CGI vampire baby in episode one, the creepy looking zombie child in episode three, and honestly the entirety of episode three. The creepy children are another reason why episode two was my favorite. I don’t need creepy, nightmare inducing children in my life. Although at this point, I think the bad CGI baby was a deliberate choice; it was so bad that it's laughable.
Some things, like these creepy children, were added in in attempts to grab viewers’ attention, but the show doesn’t need them. The cast give solid performances, aside from episode three, but I think that was more a writing issue as some beloved characters are turned into stock characters.
For the most part, the writing keeps viewers on the their toes. The show also manages to blend multiple genres—i.e. horror, drama, mystery—together in ways I would never think of when thinking of Dracula. But the usage of the creepy children for cheap scares is still wholly unnecessary. They truly do not fit into this story. Especially considering there are some amazing looking visual effects early on in the series. I screamed when multiple characters began ripping their fingernails off, and when a fly walked on Jonathon Harker's eye and then behind it.
Aside from the creepy children, and episode three, this adaptation of Dracula kicks ass! I think I told half of my friends to watch it. There were moments that messed me up! There were many times where I had to pause the show to fully comprehend and take in what had just happened. Fans of Dracula and horror have to watch this! It is a modern day adaptation while still paying homage to the original source material. The creators managed to make this their own thing, but you can still watch it and say: “this is Dracula.”
I can’t wait to re-watch this series. I’m one hundred percent going to watch it again soon, and then probably again during spooky season.
And on that note, I must bid you adieu. I shall see you again next week with something I haven’t done in a long time. Until then, stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask if you aren't vaccinated yet, and read some good books for me.