Vampires are perhaps the most iconic (and some might say overdone) villains in modern entertainment. Despite the best efforts of Stephanie Meyer, Anne Rice, and Sesame Street, there’s no other vampire more iconic than Dracula. First, brought into the world by Irish writer Bram Stoker in 1897, Dracula’s influence has infected the cultural zeitgeist for over 100 years. If it wasn’t for him, Edward Cullen wouldn’t be able to dazzle his way into the hearts of tweens everywhere and the tales of Lestat and Louis wouldn’t have been portrayed on the big screen by 90’s heartthrobs and mega actors Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, respectively.
But the truth about this novel is stranger than fiction – when Dracula was released it wasn’t that popular. It was only after the genteel Count was played on the silver screen in the early 1900’s that Dracula assumed the position as horror movie icon. Here’s how it all went down.
Bram Stoker takes 7 years to write it
Between 1879 and 1897, Stoker spent his days managing the Lyceum Theatre and writing Dracula. Though his exact inspirations are unclear, many historians believe that he took his influence from multiple sources including European folklore, The Vampyre by John Polidori, Carmilla by J.S. Le Fanu, and Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer. Though Stoker named his title character, after the infamous Vlad Dracula, there’s little evidence that Stoker believed Vlad Dracula to be a blood-sucking vampire. Dracula’s personality and grandiose mannerisms were inspired by Stoker’s frenemy, Henry Irving, the head actor of the Lyceum Theatre.
Dracula was released to moderate fanfare
Despite the novel’s success in modern times, Dracula was not as much of a critical success upon its publication. However, the novel was lauded by critics who found Stoker’s writing prowess to be superior to Edgar Allen Poe or Mary Shelley. Stoker did not make much money from the book’s publication, and he had to request a grant in the last year of his life. Stoker died in 1912, leaving his wife, Florence, penniless. In 1913, she sold his notes and outlines for Dracula for 2 pounds, which is roughly $300 in today’s USD.
Nosferatu and the impact of silent film
Dracula may well have faded into obscurity, if not for a 1922 German silent film directed by F.W. Murnau and produced by the short-lived Prana Film. Nosferatu brought the vampire to the silver screen, played by Max Schreck,who is all long nails and pointy ears and wide-open eyes. But the film was created without securing the rights to the story or crediting Stoker. Though attempts were made to contact Florence to obtain her permission for the film, the writer and filmmakers did not receive a response. Despite changing the location of the film and most of the names (Count Dracula became Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, etc.), the basis of the story was still very much the same.
Florence Balcombe secures the bag
Stoker’s widow was not happy with the unauthorized adaptation of her husband’s novel, and so the estate sued Prana Film for copyright infringement. To avoid the legal battle that would no doubt ensue, the studio declared bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the court ordered all copies of the film destroyed. By that time, though, a copy of the film had already been made and distributed. This paired with the fact that it was Prana’s one and only film added to Nosferatu’s cult following.
Dracula goes to Broadway
After the debacle with Prana Film, Florence granted production rights to playwright Hamilton Deane, who debuted an adaptation of Dracula on the stage. The play was a hit, and toured the UK for years before catching the attention of American taste makers. A version of the UK play premiered in New York, with the iconic Bela Lugosi playing Dracula. In 1931, Lugosi reprised his role for the film, where he brought the quite possibly the most popular version of Dracula ever to the big screen. His widow’s peak, slicked back hair, and Eastern European accent has inspired vampire lore and costumes the world over.
After the success of the film, Dracula’s legacy was secure. To date, the book has never been out of print. It has continued to inspire adaptations, some great (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula: Undead and Loving It), and some questionable (Dracula 2000 and Dracula Untold). More than anything, the character has lived in the minds of people as the very definition of a vampire.
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