Queer Coding in ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’

Columbia Pictures

“LOVE NEVER DIES,” declares the tagline of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation of the 1897 novel. While the tagline refers to the film’s romance between its titular character (a scene-chewing Gary Oldman) and Mina Murray (Winona Ryder at the height of her ‘it girl’ phase), it might as well refer to Coppola’s dogmatism for the novel itself. As Vincent Canby notes in his New York Times review, Coppola’s adaptation, penned by James V. Hart (HookContact), is an “unusually faithful.” In an interview-retrospective for Entertainment Weekly, Coppola said he “went back to the source.” The goal was not to simply make another film featuring the character of Dracula, but to make Dracula for the screen – to make Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 

While the film is long by 1992’s standards (127 minutes), there was no way the film could ever truly possess the space required for the novel’s entire story. Individual ideas transmute easily across contexts, which partially accounts for its manifold adaptations, but the thematic tapestry as a whole does not. Bram Stoker’s anxieties are abundant and deeply knotted within the novel’s epistolary structure. To adapt it, Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart had to streamline. Moreover, they had to congeal the novel’s disparate story; after all, cinema demands cinematic structures. Their solution was to overlay an additional narrative on top of the existing one. The original story is present and accounted for, but the subtextual hints of gothic romance were turned into a central narrative thread around which the otherwise unwieldy story could be cinched.

 

While this decision lends the film shape and an emotional spine, it took precedence over all existing elements of the novel. The film is authentic to its spirit, but many nuances are altered or lost entirely — one such aspect being the thing Stoker feared most about Dracula: his queerness.

 

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Columbia Pictures

 

In the novel, Dracula is polysexual: men and women (and even children) are objects of his desire. Intercourse is never what he seeks; the desire is not to penetrate with his penis but with his fangs, making the act inherently de-gendered, and therefore queer. Coppola’s film, however, depicts Dracula biting female characters exclusively. He leans into the inherent sexuality of vampires – aesthetics of the erotic and gothic are equally prominent – but he removes their sexual deviancy. Dracula is a poster child for the fetishist movement of the late 80s-early 90s — a subculture that was propelled into the mainstream by its use in fashion and music. In the process of curating the movement for a mainstream audience, its origins in the LGBTQ+ community went largely unrecognized, and this is equally true of the Count.

 

This is embodied in what is arguably the film’s most iconic scene. While staying in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan Harker (a miscast Keanu Reeves) is approached by three female vampires who begin to make sexual advances. They draw him onto a silk-sheeted love bed and begin undressing him. The foreplay builds as they bite and tease; lick and grind. But before they can penetrate him, an act that would upend the heteronormative order, Dracula bursts into the room and admonishes them. In the novel he says:

 

“How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I have forbidden it. Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me.”

 

However, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is replaced by untranslated Romanian dialogue, and even then, Dracula only speaks the first half of the line. To successfully refocus the film around Dracula and Jonathan’s competing feelings for Mina, any indication that Dracula might be attracted to Jonathan had to be culled. While this decision protects the narrative core of the film, it also strips Dracula’s persona of his sexuality. 

 

It is worth noting that Stoker’s sexuality is a point of some debate. It is a well-known fact that Stoker had a nearly sexless marriage with his wife, Florence Balcombe. Some scholars attribute this to the values of Victorian-era England, where sexual expression was taboo, and intercourse was perceived as an act only meant for the production of children. Others speculate that Stoker was a closeted gay man, drawing attention to the fact that he held an “intense adoration” for Walt Whitman, Henry Irving, and Hall Cain, even going so far as to write a love letter to the former of the three. Stoker was also friends with the notoriously homosexual Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to hard labor for sodomy a year before Stoker finished writing Dracula.

 

If Dracula’s queerness is a reflection of how Stoker felt Victorian England perceived people like Wilde (and maybe himself), then the novel’s female characters can be read as an extrapolation of Stoker’s own strangled feelings toward women. The two female characters, Mina Murray and her friend, Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), are emotionally open in a way that Stoker famously was not. They write to each other constantly, take coastal walks together, and frequently express their “love” for each other. Their dynamic has been interpreted as romantic, which while anathematic in Victorian society, fits perfectly into Stoker’s paranoia over deviant sexuality. This is an angle that Hart’s screenplay elevates, and Coppola’s directing drives home. Mina and Lucy are constantly framed together, the delivery of their dialogue is openly flirty, and when Lucy is first hypnotized by Dracula, Mina breaks the spell by kissing her.

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Columbia Pictures

Lucy also reads as interested in polyamory. She is pursued by three suitors (an apt parallel to Stoker’s three real-life adorations), each of whom asks for her hand in marriage. She dreams of a world where she could love all three men openly, and while Lucy ultimately picks one — Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), the most ‘traditional’ of the three — she constantly expresses that she “didn’t have to choose.” The film continues to lean into this reading, as despite accepting Arthur’s hand in marriage, Lucy remains openly flirtatious with the other two men, making her acceptance of one over the other feel like the fulfillment of a perfunctory social contract more than a decision with any meaning.

 

On top of this already heavy coding, Coppola layers in the public alarm about the then-ongoing AIDS epidemic. When Stoker wrote Dracula, he was deeply fascinated by the latest scientific breakthrough: blood transfusions. They’re a key plot device used to counteract vampiric infection – removing the bad blood and replacing it with clean blood. Where most adaptations briefly acknowledge transfusions before breezing onwards, Coppola spotlights them. His camera lingers over afflicted victims, the process of injecting needles, and the imagery of blood flowing from one person to another. The sight of Lucy languishing, as she is consumed by the vampiric blood, is particularly evocative of the AIDS epidemic. It’s little wonder that audiences gravitated toward Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, despite industry projections claiming it was certain to flop. Coppola did what vampire fiction does best — reveal the allure in that which is frightening.

 

While initially called “the gay plague,” by 1992, HIV/AIDS was a disease no longer restricted to the LGBTQ+ community. Anyone could get it and transfer it, most commonly through unprotected sex or unclean needles, blades, and sex toys. Therefore, Dracula’s de-queering could be read as Coppola playing to the times. It is no coincidence that Lucy and Mina seek Dracula out the first time they are bitten, and not the other way around. Dracula is the dark side of sexual liberation — the fear that as fetishism spilled into the social mainstream, dangers and diseases that were once reserved for the marginalized LGBTQ+ community were spilling too.

 

But even if Dracula’s de-queering is an attempt to capture the increasing universality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it is textually undermined as the only two characters to contract disease on-screen are the ones who are queer coded, Mina and Lucy. The film is caught between two mindsets; it seemingly aims to move beyond the stigmatic relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and HIV/AIDS in the public consciousness, but that intention is not supported by the framing. The fact that Mina and Lucy contract it only because they sought it out recalls the “I don’t have it, do you?” mentality that led to the spread of the epidemic in the first place.

 

By hueing so closely to the original novel, Coppola is restricted by the values inherent to the text. He makes efforts to recalibrate the coding – to push against Stoker’s worldview – but this is still Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and much like the added romantic subplot, Coppola’s changes don’t alter pre-existing ideas, only neaten them. By enhancing the queer subtext, Coppola only worsens the messaging. Lucy indulges in a mere fantasy of queerness and dies; Mina rejects it for traditional values and gets to live. Coppola even goes as far as to intercut Mina and Jonathan’s marriage with footage of Lucy succumbing to vampirism. The messaging of this, intentional or not, is clear: HIV/AIDS can affect everyone, but it will only punish those who pursue a queer lifestyle.

 

During the scene where the vampiric Lucy is killed, the novel and film’s divergence reconnects, resuming its parallel tracks. Arthur, Lucy’s once husband-to-be, drives the phallic stake into her body, penetrating her, and restoring the traditional sexual order. Only with the symbolic elimination of the queer does Lucy’s undead soul know peace.

 

Ironically, a result of this tangle is that Coppola succeeded in his attempt to make a film that is not just another Dracula story, but instead Bram Stoker’s Dracula. By shifting imagery and ideas around, his thematic myopia pushed the film into ideological flux; but these changes are only surface level, as the ideas that form the core of the novel are the same as those which form the core of the film. Coppola’s thematic ecology is strikingly similar to Stoker’s — the fear of queerness and the dangers of sexual deviancy are all accounted for, updated but intact.

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Joshua Sorensen

Josh is a Film Daze staff writer and undergrad at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Movies starring Holly Hunter are to him what lamps are to David Byrne.

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