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Adapting “Carmilla”

by D. MacDowell Blue

(aka Zahir)


Adaptation is a special art.  From Lord of the Rings to The Maltese Falcon and Moby Dick, the manner in which a story translates from one medium to another fascinates me.   But what I find intriguing as well as frustrating is the relative lack of adaptations of Carmilla.  


For those who don't know, Carmilla is a novella written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–73) in the year before he died.  It formed part of an anthology titled In A Glass Darkly, centered around the papers of an occult investigator Dr. Martin Hesselius.  Le Fanu, an Irishman like Bram Stoker (and fellow Trinity College alumnus), infused his tales with elements of Irish folklore.  The title character for example reminds one of a banshee—traveling in a mysterious coach, seen as a haunting figure in white, a strangely beautiful figure of death.  It tells the story of a young girl in a remote castle in Styria and her strange visitor, Carmilla, who turns out to be a vampire.  The tale is laced with an eerie atmosphere and subtle eroticism, as Laura (the narrator) slowly falls under a spell, as if welcoming her own decline. 


Most generally accept it a classic of the vampire genre.  While there is no proof Stoker (1847-1912) read this work, it seems likely he did if for no other reason than certain elements of the one found their way into Dracula years later—the association of the undead with sleepwalking, a definite eroticism instilled into the vampire’s bite (like a trickle of cold water against the breast), a character who certainly seems an archetype of Van Helsing, a hint of vampiric powers at exiting the grave, etc.


Below you can find a list of every known adaptation of Carmilla on film, television, stage and radio or audio.  Included are exclusively those in which the original plot and characters in some form can be discerned.  Some films and perhaps other media are supposed to have been inspired by Le Fanu’s work.  Without doubting those claims or judging the results, this essay concerns attempts to directly adapt the novella itself.


Five motion pictures.  Three made-for-t.v. versions.  Three stage plays (one of them a chamber opera).  Three audio adaptations (one of those little more than a reading of the text)


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

Why?  Any such comparable list of Dracula would run into several pages.  Likewise John Polidori’s
The Vampire (at one time an extremely popular work, now eclipsed by Stoker’s creation but heavily influencing most dramatized versions of the Transylvanian Count).
  Yet LeFanu’s vampire story is not only a well-regarded classic that continues in multiple prints, it enjoys the further advantage of sheer juiciness in subject matter.  The title character is not only a vampire but clearly a lesbian, with the narrator her victim and lover.  Such is the stuff of ticket sales.  One would think.


Yet the scarcity remains.  Methinks maybe I've figured it out the reason.


First is the question of plot.  Dracula abounds with plot elements.  Romantic triangles, missing persons, the puzzling utterances of a madman, a shipwreck, even a chase across the width of Europe—such is the stuff of Stoker’s novel.  Even stripping away the elements that might prove most difficult to stage, one is left with events and conflicts enough for multiple versions.  One notorious fact is that nearly every adaptation tends to cut and/or combine major characters to get a more feasible cast list!  At least one of Lucy’s suitors nearly always gets the axe, sometimes all three!  Harker may be combined with Renfield, Seward transformed into Lucy’s parent (her mother usually vanishes in the process), either Lucy or Mina transformed into a minor character, Swales nearly always eliminated and sometimes Dracula even loses one or two or even all three brides!


Compare this to Carmilla.  An intimate tale, it focuses almost entirely upon the narrator Laura and her mysterious friend/predator.  Laura’s father and two governesses do little or nothing during the course of the story, except look for Carmilla when she goes missing one day.  General Spielsdorf (father of another Carmilla paramour) and Baron Vordenburg (an eccentric vampire hunter) do a great deal, once they show up near the very end but nearly all their important actions take place “off stage.”


The reasons seem easy enough to understand.  Stoker, whose career centered around the busy world of London, wrote what can easily be called an adventure.  LeFanu, a more literary person whose personal dramas were real but essentially emotional, composed an atmosphere piece.  One intended to thrill, the second to haunt.  Stoker, an athlete who lived in the hustle and bustle of professional theatre, naturally enough had a different style than the often-impoverished author of short stories Le Fanu.  One look at their respective brides likewise give a hint as to why these men approached a vampire story so differently.  Florence Stoker, once wooed by Oscar Wilde and the hostess of many a social event, remained a formidable personality for the decades that followed her husband’s passing.  In her time many thought her one of the great beauties of the age.  Susanna Bennett Le Fanu, on the other hand, never really recovered from the nervous shock of several deaths in her family, and died following an “hysterical attack” in 1858.


Which is not to say Dracula is devoid of characterization, any more than Carmilla lacks excitement.  But each enjoys a different emphasis.


Most efforts to adapt Carmilla approach this problem by expanding the action.  Threats become more imminent.  Some one more-or-less suspects a vampire much earlier on and actively pursues a solution.  Conflicts between Laura and her father are inserted.  Laura herself often gains a suitably young and masculine love interest.  Nor should it be denied this strategy works, as far as it goes.  Yet it seems to me such a route includes some severe problems.
carmilla


Consider first the central character:  Laura.  An English girl who has never seen England.  Mother long gone.  Father elderly and retired.  A lonely girl in an isolated estate without siblings or even acquaintances her own age, much less friends.  Far from unintelligent, yet lacking in the spunk one recognizes in Lucy Westenra or Mina Harker.  But why should a waif necessarily prove uninteresting?  Must a character show traces of an A-Type personality to win our sympathy, even fascination?  Jazzing up the plot of Carmilla nearly always results in the dumbing down of the heroine.  In other words, we end up caring less and less about her, so the central conflict of the story loses its power.  If we care about Laura’s fate only in the abstract, how much further can we engage in the story as a whole?


Likewise, to adapt Le Fanu’s tale into a femslash version of Dracula takes us away from the source material.  But aren’t the unique qualities of the original what have stood the test of time?  Aren’t they why we approach the work in the first place?


So might I suggest a different direction?  Rather than expand Le Fanu’s story outward, dive instead deeper inside.


Begin with unanswered questions, which are startling in number once you start looking for them.  What precisely did Laura’s father, an Englishman (who, although not a doctor, has studied medicine), do in the Imperial Service to earn him this pension?  What happened to his much-younger bride, who gave birth to Laura?  Why did he forbid Laura from hearing or reading ghost stories and fairy tales when she was a child?  For that matter, why did he so suddenly agree to take a total stranger into his home for several months not only without knowing her name but then making a promise not to ask it of her?  All of which brings into light an interesting pattern—namely, that Laura relates so few details about her father, one wonders if this is because he has kept her in ignorance.


Carmilla, we learn, is in truth the Countess Mircalla Karnstein, who died over a century before the story begins.  We are told the Karnsteins are extinct, but not quite.  Laura’s mother was descended from them.  And her father asks if General Spielsdorf meant to finally petition to be granted the Karnstein titles and properties.  Does this mean the General is also a Karnstein?  If so, that makes both of Carmilla’s love interests—the girls whom she woos and slowly feeds upon for months—her own blood relations.  And keep in mind that Laura’s father was particularly interested in the tiny portrait that turns out to be of Carmilla herself.


Now look at Laura herself.  She is the narrator, and as anyone who has read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd should know, they are no more prone to brutal honesty (especially about themselves) than the rest of humanity.  What did she leave out of her narrative?   Answering that question probably involves first considering another—to whom is her narrative addressed?  A single reference indicates it is to a woman, one more sophisticated and city-wise than Laura herself.  Yet the document is supposed to have been found in the papers of Dr. Martin Hesselius, a (by then) elderly scholar of the occult and of men’s delusions about same.


Keep in mind that Laura openly admits to having at least two psychic episodes, one as a child and again in what seems like a visitation from her mother’s ghost.


But further, I would suggest that in pursuing such questions and answers the nature of the LeFanu’s novella remain ever-present.  Francis Ford Coppola helped create a lavish spectacle of violence and passion when he adapted Dracula for the screen.  I would humbly suggest that a better model to pursue for adapting Carmilla would be either Neil Jordon’s Interview With The Vampire or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.  What made LeFanu’s work memorable remains the “feel” of the piece, the eerie mood of sensual menace that both invites and warns.  That atmosphere, when captured in films such as Vampyr and Lets Scare Jessica To Death remain the other reason (other than a female vampire stalking a young woman) to call them “inspired” by the 1872 novella.  Seems to me this could be an extremely promising direction, if someone were of the mind to travel down that path.  Given the current (and frankly recurring) fad about the undead, such might prove financially lucrative as well.


In fact, I find myself tempted to try…


Film adaptations of Carmilla:

The Vampire Lovers (1970) from Hammer Studios with Ingrid Pitt and Madeleine Smith (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066518/)

Blood and Roses (1960) directed by Roger Vadim, starring Annette Vadim and Elsa Martinelli (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053802/)

Crypt of the Vampire (1964) starring Adriana Ambesi and Ursula Davis (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057280/)

Carmilla (1989) for “Nightmare Classics” with Meg Tilly and Ione Skye (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099222/)

Carmilla (2009) as of this writing, still in development and set to star Jennifer Ellison and Simone Kaye (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1351631/)


Television adaptations of Carmilla:

Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1966) starring Jane Merrow (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0302388/)

Carmilla (1980) a Polish version starring Izabela Trojanowska and Monika Stefanowicz (http://izabelatrojanowska.republika.pl/carmilla.html)

Carmilla: Le Coeur Petrifie (1988) a French version starring Aurelle Doazan and Emmanuelle Meyssignac (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0795916/)


Stage adaptations of Carmilla:

Carmilla (1970) an avant garde chamber opera by La Momma in New York City. (http://www.lamama.org/archives/2003/Carmilla.htm)

Carmilla (1997) a German production (http://www.carmilla.de/start.htm)

Carmilla (1932) by the Earl of Longford (http://www.irishplayography.com/search/play.asp?play_id=1948)


Radio/audio adaptations of Carmilla:

Carmilla (2009) for BBC Northern Ireland (http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/drama/productions/radio/carmilla.shtml)

Carmilla (1981) was an episode on CBC Radio’s Nightfall (recreated here: http://www.huboftheuniverseproductions.com/rec_pmrpod02.html)

Carmilla (19??) is really just  reading for Old Time Radio (http://www.archive.org/details/CarmillaByJSheridanLeFanu)

 

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