Taste the Unauthorized Adaptation of Dracula!

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Even in strictly human terms, Dracula really isn’t that old. Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897. That’s just 120 years. There’s a woman in France who lived to 122. Yet it has the feel of one of the original legends of humankind, not so much a modern story rooted in a Victorian dude’s anxieties about sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality and male homosexuality, and don’t forget those dirty unchristian foreigners. Doubtless, a lot of Dracula’s credible cobwebbiness follows from Stoker building on the excellent bones of progenitors like penny dreadful favorite Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood (1845) and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871). So, too, Dracula’s legend is enriched by numberless adaptations – you’ll want to read comics editor Carol’s thoughtful appraisal of the many Draculas of page and screen — racking up more reboots than Spider-Man, and that’s not even counting legions of vampire stories that belong to the family Dracul in all but name, from Nosferatu (1922) to  ‘Salem’s Lot (1975). There is a Dracula not only for every age, but really every genre, every mood, and probably every decor. And that’s a big part of his immortality, too. Ever the tactician, Dracula knows how to make the most of whatever world happens to be around him, and that adaptability makes him an ideal antagonist for just about any situation. From Byronic hero to inarticulate monster to muppet: you need a Dracula? We can do you a Dracula.

Turkish novelist, historian, and poet Ali Riza Seyfioglu (writing as Ali Rıza Seyfi) published his own version of Dracula, Kazıklı Voyvoda (The Impaling Voivode or, in one specious English translation found in its film adaptation’s credits, Voyvode, the Poker), in 1928, 6 years after Stoker’s heirs forced Prana Film into bankruptcy for stealing Dracula and calling it Nosferatu. They had a swell case against Kazıklı Voyvoda, too, did they but know it. Kazıklı Voyvoda has the reputation of a Turkish translation, but that’s not really an adequate description of what its “translator” achieved and the degree to which he remade the text. Seyfioglu himself represented it as an original work, but it clearly isn’t that either. It’s really an abridged adaptation, not unlike Nosferatu, harvesting most of the story, renaming the characters, localizing the story in Turkey both by modernizing it and Islamizing it, interpolating a whole lot of contemporary patriotic fervor (Turkey had just gone through a war for independence, and virtually all of the good guys are veterans), and, notably, making explicit connections between the book’s Count Dracula and the historical tyrant Vlad Tepes decades before it would become a pronounced strain in English Dracula adaptations.

Seyfioglu did keep many sections largely unaltered, creating a dislocated sense of déjà vu, like visiting an apartment with an identical floorplan to one where you once lived. Particularly the chapters culled from Jonathan Harker’s captivity at Castle Dracula could be mistaken for a simple translation, replacing Harker with his Turkish doppelganger Azmi. But you can’t ignore the bold edits Seyfioglu did choose, chief among them losing Renfield’s character and the whole last act of the story. While Stoker’s book builds steadily toward an ultimate confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing’s band of virtuous Christians for Mina’s earthly body and eternal soul (and that’s including Mina among those fighting Drac), Seyfioglu just skips it. His Mina character, Güzin, is a witness to the depredations experienced by her fiancé Azmi and bosom friend Sadan at the hands of Dracula, and her secretarial skills are handy, just like in Stoker’s book, but that’s about it. Once the Van Helsing analogue, Doctor Reshui, takes his team of manly, patriotic Turkish ideals and turns them into fearless vampire killers, the book is pretty much done, as though the point for Seyfioglu is less about protecting/controlling ladies and more about conscripting good men into a war against that evil. Far from the epic hunting of the hunter back to Transylvania in Stoker’s novel, with our heroes using Mina’s connection to Dracula against him, Seyfioglu’s Dracula goes out almost as anticlimactically as Bela Lugosi’s offstage grunt at the conclusion of Tod Browning’s 1931 film.

None of that should imply that Seyfioglu’s version is inferior; in some ways, I prefer it. I mean, I love Dracula. My first crush as a little girl was Bela Lugosi’s version in the above-mentioned 1931 film, which put me onto the novel, very likely the first book for adults I ever read. I still have the same copy among my five or six editions, this one featuring Bela’s Count on the cover, snarling in vivid color above the Hammer-blood-red title in big block print. I remember at first being disappointed that Stoker’s story was so different from the 1931 movie,  the only version of the story I knew at the time. And while I felt irritated by the extended story of Jonathan Harker’s captivity in Castle Dracula at first, by the end of that section, I was sorry it was over, because it was an exciting story with lots of spookiness and momentum, and the rest of the novel felt crowded and disjointed to me. Surely I wasn’t sophisticated enough then to understand much of what followed Harker’s time in a Gothic heroine’s slippers, but too many characters standing around cluttering up the works was never an impression of Stoker’s Dracula I outgrew. I expect that is why almost every adaptation razors out a few of Stoker’s darlings or conflates them, privileging the exciting stuff of Dracula’s threat to/relationship with Mina or her friend Lucy over American cowboy Quincey Morris sharpshooting bats or scenes of Van Helsing muting his brilliance by being hilariously foreign.

Seyfioglu keeps this swollen cast of characters, save Renfield, but in the interest of making the novel as propagandistic as possible, he remakes Lucy’s suitors, a white male Avengers team repping all of Western civilization, into Turkish brothers-in-arms, all alike in virtue, handsomeness, and worthiness. One appreciates the difficulty Sadan must have had in awarding a rose in the finale. It makes a lot of sense that Seyfioglu would prioritize this, since the Turkish War of Independence was, in the view of the Turks, a War of Liberation from the Allies post-World War I. Turkey was well on the other side of the British glorification of Empire that might have made Stoker — an Irishman, yes, but a well-placed one — sleep as comfortably as if a garland of garlic flowers had been draped over his window. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but I think having these characters drawn together as former comrades, even if it seems less imaginative, works better because they’re already unified and we don’t spend time worrying about them as distinct individuals, i.e. we get to the good stuff faster with less pretense toward world building. I call it pretense, perhaps unkindly, because I never got the feeling that Quincey Morris really needed to be in Dracula,  and indeed, in most versions, he isn’t. Seyfioglu may have felt similarly about Renfield, or maybe he wasn’t sure how to localize him, given his apparent desire to make the battle against Dracula a platform to exalt the new Turkish nation. Either way, his version has a desperate immediacy and flows in a way the source text simply does not.

What Seyfioglu chooses to highlight, bold, italicize, and underline in his Kazıklı Voyvoda is the battle of good versus evil, and his focus on unifying that with Turkish nationalism vitiates the vampire’s seductiveness. There’s no question, Dracula has lived many un-lives since Stoker unleashed him, and particularly thanks to the movies, the first picture his name summons to mind is unlikely to be the hairy-palmed and forbidding old man in the novel. For Seyfioglu‘s audience though, that picture was already set to the portrait of Vlad Tepes, and like a designer on Project Runway, he made it work. The beauty of repurposing Dracula in a Turkish setting is one of my favorite things about this book. Dracula moving to London to ravish an unsuspecting populace makes a lot of practical sense, but moving to Istanbul to do the same, while taking revenge on the modern descendants of the Ottomans whose opposition was key to your mortal defeat, has the kind of resonance that could make a vampire king throw back his head and cackle. So you’re not going to get a romanticized, tragic Count in this story. You are going to get an unnatural beast that briefly affects humanity in order to ensnare his victims. And lest you get any ideas about fetishizing his power or his loneliness, you are also going to get extended, gory recounts of the historical Dracula’s legendary cruelty, including the agonizingly dramatized story of him ordering the hats of Turkish envoys nailed to their heads. While Seyfioglu keeps Stoker’s sexy bits with Azmi, Dracula’s wives, and Sadan, the explicit unification of the vampire with the voivode really kills the mood. Again, backhanded compliment time, but in the post-Anne Rice world of immortal monsters immortalmonstersplaining their feelings, a threat that’s pure, blunt evil for its own sake can be surprisingly refreshing.

Speaking of killing the mood, let’s talk Doctor Reshui. Seyfioglu’s decision to truncate the story means his Dracula basically gets divided between Azmi’s Gothic imprisonment, which ends with him a broken offstage convalescent, and Dracula preying on Sadan, with our heroes failing to save her life and only just barely managing to save her soul. Stoker’s third act in the final battle for Mina makes Harker and Lucy’s sacrifices more meaningful and gives the good guys at least one in the win column. Most adaptations go that way, too, cutting, if anything, Harker’s imprisonment. Seyfioglu’s choice here creates a different narrative dynamic, and it’s my only negative criticism of this version. Again, largely translating Stoker’s story, Doctor Afif (Dr. Seward) consults his old tutor Doctor Reshui to help with Sadan’s case, and for his part, Reshui immediately smells vampire, just as we’d expect from the local Van Helsing. Several failed transfusions, misadventures with garlic flowers, and one dead-of-shock mama later, Reshui is staking out Sadan’s tomb on successive nights to prove not only the reality of Sadan’s Un-Death and predation of multiple children to her suitors-cum-executioners, but to verify the necessity of his prescribed mutilation. In Stoker’s world, the extent Van Helsing goes to in this section, even if he essentially fails to protect Lucy and several nameless kids, makes sense, as Stoker is rehearsing the way one defeats the vampire without and the vampire within. (It also obviously allows Stoker to juxtapose the virtues and freedoms of Mina and Lucy, which is a dissertation for another day.)  Without that last confrontation to redeem him, it leaves Doctor Reshui weirdly occupied more with proving vampires are real than actually saving anyone’s life, particularly when he allows Sadan to victimize children repeatedly just to make sure her former suitors see what has become of her.

Kazıklı Voyvoda got its own film adaptation, Drakula İstanbul’da (1953), which ends up being less like Kazıklı Voyvoda and more like Stoker’s Dracula. In fact, as Ed Glaser of Neon Harbor (who edited the translation of Kazikli Voyvoda, Dracula in Istanbul: The Unauthorized Version of the Gothic Classic) notes in this episode of Deja View, it’s actually more like Stoker’s Dracula than any contemporary adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula and a good number since. It’s like a weird creative version of the Telephone Game where people mishear each other down the line, but you still end up with pretty much what you started with anyway, except now Mina is a bellydancer. Drakula Istanbul’da also shows the influence of the Universal horror pictures of the 1930s, making it the most Dracula Dracula that wasn’t really Dracula you can get without involving parallel universes.

I received a now thoroughly-highlighted review copy of Dracula in Istanbul: The Unauthorized Version of the Gothic Classic, but it will be available in September from Amazon and the book’s website. I did not receive a review copy of Drakula Istanbul’da, as unfortunately, it barely exists in iffy quality on the interwebs. If you’d like to check out a pretty faithful Dracula movie with belly dancing, you can find it here.

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Angela has devoted her lifetime to the study of many strange things, little-known facts which the world is, perhaps, better off for not knowing.

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