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A Critique of Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" and F. W. Murnau’s "Nosferatu"

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

Dracula is a cornerstone of gothic literature. One of the first films adapted from the book is often looked at as a prime example of silent filmmaking.

Dracula is a cornerstone of gothic literature. One of the first films adapted from the book is often looked at as a prime example of silent filmmaking.

The Origins of Vampires in Pop Culture

The 1922 silent film Nosferatu is based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Unfortunately, while making the movie, the director, F. W. Murnau, was unable to get the rights for the movie from Bram Stoker’s late wife.

Since the director had already produced most of the movie, there is suspicion that he and his crew made slight changes to the film in hopes that it would change the story enough to bypass copyright laws.

Film historian David Karat, on a commentary track of the film, notes "No source has ever documented" the claim that subtle changes were made to prevent a lawsuit. He argues Nosferatu was "a low-budget film made by Germans for German audiences... setting it in Germany with German named characters makes the story more tangible and immediate for German-speaking viewers". The takeaway: Nosferatu was likely adjusted for audience reasons, not to avoid copyright issues.

Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Stoker, saw the movie and sued the film studio, Prana—she won. The legal case lasted two to three years. In part of the settlement, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed; however, a few copies survived. This is one of the first movies based on Dracula, and it was made 25 years after the book was first released.

FYI: The first film based on Dracula was Károly Lajthay's Drakula Halála (The Death of Dracula). It was a Hungarian silent film created in 1921. The film has mostly been lost to time.

Dracula vs. Nosferatu

DraculaNosferatu

Created

1897

1927

Setting

Victorian England, 1890s

Wisborg, Germany, 1838

Creator

Author: Bram Stoker

Director: F.W. Murnau

Antagonist

Dracula, wants to create a vampire army

Count Orlok, kills victims and causes people to think there is a widespread plague

Sunlight Problems

Weakens Dracula

Kills/destroys Count Orlok

Monster Traits

Attractive, smarmy, charismatic. Devil in disguise

Monster-like, disfigured, horrifying (more like Frankenstein)

Length

Pages: 418

Running Time: 63-94 Minutes. It depends on the version and transfer speed.

Comparing and Contrasting the Book and Movie

The movie tried to separate itself from the book by making changes, but they are so subtle, especially in the English translation, that it is laughable. For instance, in some translations, the movie changes the name "Mina" to "Nina". And in other translations, the man who goes to Dracula’s castle is still called Jonathan—it's Jonathan Huttler instead of Jonathan Harker. As well, Reinfeld is in the film version, and, just like in the book, he tries to escape an insane asylum to confront Dracula as his master.

Besides the characters, the plot is pretty similar to Dracula. Jonathan finds Count Dracula hidden in the chapel part of his castle inside a coffin. Both the book and the movie introduce the vampire without actually telling the audience that it is Dracula—or Nosferatu. In both stories, the vampire is introduced as the driver of the pram that picks up Jonathan. He doesn’t find out till later that Dracula, or Nosferatu, was the one bringing him to the castle.

Nosferatu hides in coffins throughout a German city. He can't survive without a coffin. He is more vulnerable than Dracula to sunlight: it causes imminent death.

Even though Nosferatu is a noticeable adaptation of Dracula, and it retains the core characters—Jonathan, Mina, Reinfeld, and Dracula—a lot of the secondary characters are omitted, likely due to time constraints. Nosferatu is basically a fast-paced, compact version of the novel. The setting is modified from Victorian England to 1830s Germany, which makes sense considering Bram Stoker was of Irish descent and lived most of his life in England while F.W. Murnau was from Germany.

One noticeable difference from the novel: Nosferatu doesn't make people his victims by turning them into vampires, instead he murders them, causing hysteria over a widespread plague breakout. The book ends in a somewhat anticlimactic way: Mina almost turns into a vampire, her friends (vampire hunters) track down Dracula to his castle to assassinate him, and they stop Dracula before he starts a vampire uprising. A large battle takes place in front of Dracula’s castle. Quincey dies of his wounds after stabbing Dracula in the heart. Dracula crumbles to ashes, freeing Mina from his vampiredom.

Van Helsing—the doctor turned vampire hunter—tracks down Dracula, explains the history of vampires, and does all he can to try to save the women in the story who are victimized by Dracula—he goes through Dracula’s castle in the end and is approached by some of Dracula’s remaining vampire supporters. The ending in Nosferatu is completely different. Instead, Nosferatu is found in Mina’s bedroom readying himself for an attack. He is unaware of what time it is, so when sunlight comes in through the window, Nosferatu dies instantly.

Other similarities between the book and movie include:

Helping the Count Purchase a House

  • In the book: Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor, meets with Count Dracula at his castle in the Carpathian Mountains. He helps the Count purchase a house near London.
  • In the movie: Thomas (sometimes referred to as Jonathan) Hutter goes to Transylvania. He is sent by his employer, estate agent Herr Knock. He meets a new client: Count Orlok. Hutter helps the Count buy a house across from his own home in Germany.

Ship Mysteriously Loses Crew

  • In the book: Dracula takes a ship to England. He takes with him boxes with dirt from his castle. The captain's logbook notes the crew's strange disappearances. He ends up being the last person on board, bound to the helm to keep the ship's course. An animal, something akin to a large dog, leaps to the shore when the ship gets to Whitby.
  • In the movie: Orlok takes his coffins with him and boards a schooner. All of the sailors and captain die. Orlok takes control of the ship. It arrives in Wisborg, and Orlok leaves unnoticed. He takes one coffin with him and moves into the house he bought through Hutter.

The Vampire's Next Moves

  • In the book: When Dracula arrives in Whitby, he stalks Lucy Westenra. Lucy gets very ill. Professor Van Helsing examines her. He diagnoses her with acute blood loss and suspects she is the victim of a vampire. He places garlic flowers around her and makes her a garlic necklace.

    Her mother doesn't know the purpose of the flowers; she removes them. While Professor Van Helsing and Dr. Seward are gone, Lucy and her mother are visited by a monstrous wolf. Her mother dies of a heart attack; Lucy dies soon after. This sets up the events for the vampire hunters to go after Dracula.
  • In the movie: Many people die when Orlok reaches Wisborg. The town's doctors blame it on the spread of an unknown disease.

Vampire's Plot with Mina/Nina

  • In the book: During the hunt for Dracula, the Count becomes aware of the protagonists' plan. He uses Dr. Seward's patient, Renfield, to get to them. He secretly attacks Mina three times. He drinks her blood each time and then forces her to drink his. She is cursed to become a vampire unless Dracula is killed. (Mina ultimately lives.)
  • In the movie: Nina (in some translations Ellen) is used to lure the Count. She opens her window to invite him in. She faints and her husband wakes her. She requests that he get Professor Bulwer, a physician. After her husband leaves, Orlok enters the room and drinks her blood, but the sun rises... the sunlight comes into the room and kills Orlok. The husband comes back into the room and embraces his sick wife. Then there is an image of the Count's destroyed castle in the Carpathian Mountains.

One of the new plot devices the movie introduces is the correlation between the vampire and rats that bring upon the plague. In Nosferatu, the vampire appears repulsive, rodent-related, disfigured, and inhuman. But Dracula is depicted as alluring, sexual, and striking. He is seen as more of a predator than a monster. Academics often analyze and critique Dracula for the way it handles sexuality and gender, and how this plays into the horror genre.

What makes Dracula dangerous is his power to be attractive, charismatic, insightful, and intuitive. The way the antagonist is portrayed in the two mediums is probably the biggest contrast. Despite the contrasts, it is evident that Nosferatu was built off the work of Bram Stoker. Because of the obvious plagiarism, the company that made the film was unable to make any other films—it went bankrupt after Stoker’s wife sued for copyright infringement and won.

History and Zeitgeist around Dracula

Dracula was written in 1897, and until it was released in a theatrical version, for the most part, the novel was a flop. As time passed, more people became interested in the novel, finding it to be innovative, horrific, and perverse. It was more exciting than the other books of the time.

Dracula portrays many of the problems of Victorian society. The book touches on problems with gender, particularly that women were treated as second class and meant to take on submissive roles. The vampires in Dracula have been interpreted as fears of "racial pollution", negative stereotypes of Jews and Eastern Europeans, and xenophobic fears evoked by folk superstitions.

Author Stephen Arata argues the book is a case of "reverse colonisation", a fear of "non-white groups invading" England. There are also fears of the British Empire declining as an unease blossomed in Victorian England over the morality of imperialism. Dracula is seen as an alien other who invades Britain and disrupts the current order.

There were also major concerns during the Victorian Era of a disease epidemic whether spread by rats and animals or by humans themselves, especially in a time when there wasn't a lot of knowledge about STDs and how to handle them.

The novel is now a cornerstone of literature with hundreds of movies, books, and other media stemming from the original. It is almost strange that the idea of “Dracula” has only been around for a little over a century. However, the idea of vampires has been around for many centuries and has made appearances in nearly every culture. In the novel, there is some history given to the folkloric beliefs of vampires. Nosferatu doesn't go into the history of vampires, likely because it would come off as a nonsequitur and due to time constraints for films made in the 1920s.

Nosferatu Is an Important Silent Film

Regardless of the fact that Nosferatu is a copycat, it is an astounding film for its time. It was created near the end of the silent film era—the first full-length film with sound, The Jazz Singer, premiered in 1927, just five years after Nosferatu.

Nosferatu played with innovative effects such as fast motion, jump cuts, and even an inverted image to inspire horror. Even though today this film may seem laughable and cheesy, especially the part where Nosferatu appears on a pram and suddenly the violins sound like terrible squawks and fast motion occurs, these parts were considered too horrific during its release. In fact, in Sweden Nosferatu was banned until 1972, a whole fifty years after it premiered.

The 1927 film helped inspire the Dracula lore that is prevalent on Halloween, in horror movies, and even on cereal boxes. Dracula is considered one of the most horrific novels of all time. It has reached audiences all around the world, and it has been celebrated in several different art forms including film, tourism, roller coaster rides, television shows, ballets, costumes, and video games.

Nosferatu helped spread the story of Dracula, so it is unfortunate that the film studio was unable to get the rights to make the film. Since then, several Dracula movies have been made along with a 1972 remake of Nosferatu. Bram Stoker’s novel made Dracula the most infamous vampire in literature; in fact, I doubt any other vampire story matches the worldwide fame of Dracula.

Works Cited

  1. Arata, Stephen D. (1990). "The Occidental Tourist: "Dracula" and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization". Victorian Studies. 33 (4): 621–645. ISSN 0042-5222. JSTOR 3827794.
  2. Nosferatu. Dir. F. W. Murnau. Perf. Max Schreck. Prana-Film GmbH Film, 1922.
  3. Stocker, Bram. Dracula Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence