Monday, December 21, 2009

Adapting Carmilla

(Note: This is a version of an essay I've written and published online before. However, there are several differences.)

I like vampire stories. I also like adaptations, seeing how a story translates from one medium to another. But what I find intriguing as well as frustrating is the relative lack of adaptations of Carmilla. For those who don't know, this is a novella written by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu and generally agreed to be a classic of the vampire genre (if you're of a mind, the full text is right here). To my knowledge it has been filmed seriously three times--by Hammer Studios as The Vampire Lovers, by Roger Vadim as Blood and Roses and for Nightmare Classics using the original title. There was also Crypt of the Vampire which was reasonably faithful, at least in terms of general plot and had the added bonus of starring Christopher Lee. Three radio plays (one in German). Three known stage productions (one a chamber opera, another an erotic German musical). A pretty good version for Polish television. Another for French t.v. Still another (almost certainly lost) for the BBC in the 1960s (starring Jane Merrow).

And that is pretty much, as they say, it.

Now compare that to the dozens of plays, films, operas, musicals and ballets based upon Bram Stoker's novel! Just a role call of actors who' ve played the lead in straight adaptations make for an impressive list: Shreck, Lugosi, Villar, Lee, Palance, Oldman, Jourdain, Elliot, Langella, Warren, etc.


Methinks maybe I've figured it out.

Dracula has all kinds of mini-dramas going on, not least because the characters have full and interesting relationships. Lucy has three men proposing marriage to her, which everyone wants to keep the fatal illness of her mother secret. Mina's fiancee vanishes then reappears following a journey abroad. There's a madman, a shipwreck, an attempted murder, a detective story, a chase across Europe, etc.

Carmilla (written, it should noted, by someone who had not worked in the theatre) is a first person narrative. Its purported author is a lonely girl pretty in an isolated country estate. Other than the title character, she has no one her own age with whom to talk. We learn little or nothing about the lives and interests of those around her--her father, her governess, the housekeeper of the schloss (those two are nearly always combined into one character). The few other characters who do interact and at least have interesting stories to relate--General Spielsdorf, the mountebank, Baron Vordenburg--are little more than walk-ons. The other vampire victims are all off-stage. For that matter, there's only one vampire (Stoker's novel has five).

Another problem is the nature of the vampirism itself, at least in this story. Laura (the narrator) recounts her dreams but they don't really suggest very much in terms of dramatic stage actions. She doesn't go sleepwalking, for instance. She doesn't seem to become in any way vampiric. More importantly, no one seems to suspect the truth for the longest time--until the General and Baron show up and events spiral to their conclusion with breakneck speed but little enough suspense.

LeFanu's creation has never been called an adventure, after all. Its strength lies in the atmosphere, the mood and the subtle eroticism of events from the POV of someone who seems rather innocent, almost simple. Laura, quite simply, has not a trace of the spunk of Mina Murray or Lucy Westenra.

All of which creates problems for the writer trying to adapt same. Not necessarily insurmountable problems, though. Nor should we forget just how many elements from Carmilla have found themselves into various depictions of Count Dracula and other undead. Most tellingly, this vampire gets to know and woo her victim -- ubiquitous now in the genre yet totally missing in Stoker's novel.

Most versions "solve" the issues by moving away from the source. Laura (whose name usually gets changed for some reason) nearly always gains a male admirer of an appropriate age. The business of discovering precisely what ails the heroine (or narrator) is strung out, with aforementioned male admirer taking part in some way. Some kind of tension ends up introduced between father and daughter -- or Laura's father is transformed into her cousin, sometimes to serve as a love interest. Along the way one of the two governesses nearly always vanish. Others become victims of the vampire, characters we get to know.

It occurs to me a more interesting direction is deeper into the text itself. For one thing, it is in the first person which makes it the testimony of a particular individual. So might Laura be a less reliable narrator than we suspect? What, in other words, did she leave out from the written word? Perhaps out of (justified?) fear that others would read her words? Indeed, she seems to be recounting the story to an older woman from a city. But who is this woman? And how did this account end up in the papers of an occult scholar (as noted at the very start of the novella)?

As written, Laura also seems isolated from the others in her home. One might ask "Why?" What were her father, governess and housekeeper keeping from her? For what reason? And what did they think would happen if she found out? Laura evidently was visited by the spirit of her dead mother--were there other signs of her being psychic? Hints abound in the novella that Laura's mother was in fact a distant relation of Carmilla herself. Does this have something to do with why she died? For that matter, what is an English gentleman doing living in a remote estate in rural Austria anyway? Her father also agreed to take a total stranger into his home with little or no argument, upon the word of a strange woman he claimed to have never met before. What was up with that?

Nearly every adaptation either turns Laura into a pretty nonentity or changes her personality to reflect a stronger character. One wonders is this is really necessary. True, making a waif into someone interesting remains a challenge, but again -- Laura is the narrator. She does not dwell upon herself in any great detail. Methinks maybe we should recall that the novella was written long before the ready availability of dramatic media -- plays were rare, and movies unknown. The written word in practice must have received far more attention (which certainly helps explain those compound, complex sentences). Hence tiny details within the text abound to give an image of Laura's actual personality:

She has grown up speaking a polygot of English, German and French which she openly believes most could not follow. What a fascinating detail! Both isolating and yet ennobling. She is apparently quite as obsessed with Carmilla as the vampire is with her. Imagine two girls spending hours brushing each other's hair, for instance. And Laura gives no details, but admits to trying many a trick and tactic to get Carmilla to reveal her past. Both images have the potential for wonderful dialog or so it seems to me.

Curiously, the family dynamic of Laura's home rarely gets explored. Her father is quite elderly, so she was a child "late in life." English, he served in the Austrian Imperial Service and retired with a pension. Evidently this was when he married and fathered Laura. With an interest in medicine and a disdain for ghost stories (Laura was forbidden to hear any as a child), he seems rather conservative, gallant, and rather selfish in a subtle kind of way. Madame Perradon, described as a heavyset woman functioning as a housekeeper as well as mother-figure, is cheerful and down-to-earth. Lastly is Madame de la Fontaine, Laura's finishing governess of mixed German/French parentage and a tendency towards fancy as well as gossip.

As I've stated elsewhere, methinks the necessary tone is important as well. Dreamy, atmospheric films are a less obvious choice than some. But look at the magnificent Picnic at Hanging Rock with its fictionalized tale of a mystery and scandal at a Victorian Girl's school. Music and cinematography united to create precisely the kind of rhythm evoked by LeFanu's novella. Re-read the description of Laura's home again -- the rows of lime trees in the garden, the moat with its swans, the moonlight reflecting off the windows of the schloss, making it nearly as bright as day. Or the brilliant haunted house film The Haunting which does so much by suggesting rather than showing or telling (in this respect LeFanu's story echoes Henry James' The Turn of the Screw) . Since, like most people, I do see Carmilla as a love story of sorts I'd recommend the intensely erotic and beautifully filmed The Lover as a pretty useful template as well, along with the lingering photography of The Duelists (director Ridley Scott seems to have deliberately copied the colors and lighting of paintings).

Screenwriters, unless in collaboration with a director or directors themselves, almost never have the standing with which to make such a specific adaptation. Playwrights, on the other hand, lack the full set of tools screenwriters enjoy (musical scores, the close-up, etc.) while retaining far more control as well as greater opportunity to see their works done -- multiple times, perhaps, with different casts and designs. Yet for myself, I'd like to see both an excellent film and an equally wonderful stage version.

Does that make me greedy?

1 comment:

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

No it makes you passionate and you have every right to be for you write beautifully. Here is what else you would make a brilliant casting director for the photos go beautifully with your story. You truly have a way with words.
Every happiness to you and yours in the new year.
Warmest regards,