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Proto-Filmic Monstrosity of late-Victorian Literary Figures

Proto-Filmic Monstrosity of late Victorian Literary Figures
© Photograph by Grady Earls

My hypothesis is that the central reason for the enduring “career” of these novels as source texts for film adaptations can be found in their eponymous heroes. As products of the late Victorian uneasiness with the photographic image on the verge of becoming the moving image, Dorian, Dracula and Jekyll & Hyde inhabit bodies of a specific monstrosity, which makes them differ from all previous Gothic monsters: their almost exclusively visually perceived deviant corporality is at the centre of both the texts and the filmings.

These three literary figures share what I will call a proto-filmic condition: In the second half of the nineteenth-century, the perception of reality and every-day life was destabilized through the spread of photography. I will claim that Dorian, Dracula and Hyde embody the fears that were triggered by the new ways of representing not only every-day reality, but specifically the human body by means of photographing and filming it.

Their corporeality and the ways in which others come to bodily interact with them anticipate both the representation of the human body in film and the receptive situation of watching a film. Dorian, Dracula and Hyde thus anticipate major discourses of early film theory. The interest of this article does not lie in discussing how the textual representation of these figures can be transposed into the mimetic medium of film or whether narrative techniques in the novels anticipate cinematic techniques. It rather sets out to negotiate to what degree the eponymous heroes themselves are described as interacting with and acting upon others in ways anticipating film — and how this special status has contributed to the representation of these figures in later filmic realisations.

The article thus ventures into a multitude of contexts: it can be read as a contribution to the study of literature and film, adaptation studies and the more specific, yet rapidly developing field of monster studies, as well as to the numerous cultural studies on the vampire that have been written in recent years. Before the background of literary and cultural history, this thesis builds on the assumption that the figures under discussion have appeared in novels at a crucial point in time, the emergence of cinematography. It sets out to track down the history of film theory as a history of thinking about the representation of the human body in film by way of establishing Dorian, Dracula and Jekyll & Hyde as figureheads for this endeavour and by assessing their filmic representation.

I will claim that the literary figures carry a proto-filmic condition that enables them to make the media change so successfully and with such perpetuity. They thus anticipate discourses of early film theory (1900-20), which struggled hard to establish and proclaim the distinctive features of film as a new art form. By concentrating on the representation of the specific quality of the figures’ monstrosity, filmings of the novels become sites for the conception and testing of film language.

Examples to be used in the thesis will include Murnau’s cross-cutting between the hypnotised Ellen and the distant vampire in ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), the innovative cross-fade, double exposure and stop-motion used in early Jekyll & Hyde films for showing the transformation, the Technicolor of Dorian’s monstrous portrait in Albert Lewin’s 1945 black and white filming and the chromaticity of the late 1950s Hammer films, of which the first one started out with a text plate giving the name of the film and the vampire, Dracula, in bright red. With Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D, the Count has joined in to make the most recent film step.

Whenever the medium of film has negotiated its own potential and new avenues, Dorian Gray, Count Dracula and Edward Hyde were not far. Through their bodies and the effects they have through them on others, I will claim, they anticipate the transformative powers of the new medium of film. All three figures have been identified as shapeshifters: While only one of them, Dracula, is able to transform into beasts at will and thus matches the conventional use of that term, all three figures have monstrous powers to transform others, which I set out to connect to what I call their proto-filmic design. Additionally, all three have proven their potential “to shift from one shape to another” by migrating from page to screen. In the course of this paper, the suitability of the eternally young Dorian, the parasitical Dracula and the doppelgänger Jekyll/Hyde to be discussed as paradigmatic film figures will be assessed.

However, the origin of these figures is decidedly textual: Dracula is a convolute of letters, diary entries and other snippets collected by Mina Harker, an ideologist. In Jekyll & Hyde, the reader only has access to Hyde through others’ multiply framed accounts and Jekyll’s testament; the access to this enigmatic figure thus is mediated through voices of men that appear to be more than willing to remain silent.

Conventionally narrated on first sight, Dorian Gray features a problematically ambiguous narrator: at many points, his implied consciousness seems to overlap with the consciousness of Lord Henry and his hedonistic, cynical pose. At two points in the novel, the narrator even switches to the first person, affording an Aesthetic judgment. These discursive strategies seem to be exclusively linked to textual media.

While the narrative patterns of the literary texts have been a topic of much research, they are hardly ever taken up in the filmings. Instead, most films focus on the visualisation of the vampire, Hyde and Dorian’s portrait and their respective transformations. Partly through their refusal as mentioned earlier of closure, the texts acquire a high degree of semantic polyvalence which cannot be upheld in the filmings. In the mimetic medium of film, it seems, these textual gaps need to be filled: only in a discursive medium, the authenticity of what is seen/perceived can remain open. The dichotomy between showing and telling, two central paradigms in many theories of adaptation seems to be especially relevant when filming these texts. However, very early, theorists emphasised that film is not an exclusively mimetic medium. Indeed, films are specially well suited for the representation of referential ambivalence: “Der Realitätseindruck im Film ist die Mimesis des Fiktiven unter dem Eindruck des Realen.”

With regards to Jekyll & Hyde and Dracula, most of those filmings that are now considered to be “classics” are derived from commercially successful dramatisations of the novels. Thomas Leitch, one of the most widely read American practitioners of adaptation studies, goes as far as claiming that “all […] adaptations of Stevenson’s story follow the linear structure of Sullivan’s dramatic adaptation rather than Stevenson’s retrospective structure.” Leitch concludes that one “should logically consider the play, not the story, its definitive articulation.” This verdict will be contradicted later: while most classic filmings follow the plot line of Sullivan’s early dramatisation, the filmic realisation of the transformation remains the main visual spectacle. The one instance, in which the observation of the transformation is related to readers in Stevenson’s text will be discussed as the retrospective account of a shock already anticipating an early film viewer’s experience.

Later filmings depart entirely from using the plays as intermediary sources and concentrate on translating the narrative ambiguities of the original tale into film and TV. However, all these ambiguities centre on the literary figures themselves and the problems to represent them written into the original text but lost in the stage version(s).

The back cover to the companion book of another late filming, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), by then “both the highest budgeted and largest grossing vampire film ever made”, introduces Francis Ford Coppola’s movie as “a deathless tale, retold by a master filmmaker.” Indeed, the original fascination of readers may have been plot-driven: Will the league of light be able to conquer the evil count? How will the fatal pact between Dorian Gray and his portrait end? Will Jekyll be able to contain or even get rid of Hyde? Only very few filmings try to deviate from these main plotlines.

However, I will not focus on how ideally these texts might be suitable for being transposed into popular forms like the stage melodrama or the mainstream horror film. I will rather focus on the literary figures themselves, considering them as the centres of these narratives. The main reason for the enduring abidance of their narratives on screen, this thesis claims, is not their masterly written suspense plot but the proto-filmic design of the literary monsters themselves.

Another reason for the success of the figures on both stage and screen to be discussed below is the fact that already in the novels, their bodies come into being through performative acts. Having his laboratory adjoining an old dissecting theatre, Jekyll finds himself in a reversely panoptical set-up of Benthamian quality. The theatre frequently features in film versions of Jekyll & Hyde (1931, lecture theatre) or works inspired by it (Mary Reilly). With his spectacular entries and exits, Dracula appears to be a very theatrical figure, which is only partly due to his origin in Bram Stoker’s professional connection to the stage.

Dorian, finally, is described as a performer through and through, first playing philanthropic piano concerts, later changing his appearances to the fashionable parts of London, where he becomes a flâneur and leaves a “marked influence on the young exquisites of the Mayfair balls and Pall Mall club windows.” Dracula and Hyde interact with Londoners in similar ways.

Dorian, Hyde and Dracula, I propose in this thesis, have bodies that are trans different: they oscillate between semiotically inscribed difference/ deviance and phenomenological corporeality. In all three narratives, their bodies are taken by those that encounter the monsters as a constitutive category of knowledge. At various points in the articles, I will take a Foucauldian perspective, claiming that the figures’ bodies meander between subversiveness (eluding any attribution) and affirmativeness. Dorian Gray’s body is ideally beautiful and eternally young, Dracula is a shape-shifter, inhabiting a body that readily represents the fears and desires of his own and subsequent times. Edward Hyde, finally, incorporates the evil in man. These observations will be juxtaposed with approaches by early film theorists who discuss film in its potential to represent and affectively address the human body.

I claim that already in the novels, the figures’ trans difference is represented in ways that film theorists would later call distinctively cinematic. They thus are especially well suited for being represented in film, too. There, they become prototypical film figures that have the potential to negotiate the role of the body in film. Already the literary figures thus can serve as figureheads for much of early film theory. In particular, they have influenced the development of a whole film genre, the horror film. They are hybrids in the best sense, a constitutive feature of that genre according to many theorists, most prominently stated in German film studies by Georg Seeßlen and Fernand Jung.

Like fellow film monsters (zombies, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s creature), vampires have frequently been used as allegories for film. While he is not the first vampire of influence in English literature, Dracula is perceived as the prototypical vampire. In her study ‘Celluloid Vampires’ (2007), Stacey Abbott claims that Dracula “was primarily a prototype for the cinematic vampire in the first major cycle of American horror films.” Since then, and especially in the last forty years, “the image of the vampire has become fragmented into a diverse range.” While the second part of this assessment can hardly be contradicted in its generality, I will claim that the way Stoker designed his literary vampire as a proto-filmic monster has had a lasting impact on the genesis of vampires in film, which is still effective today.

While all three literary figures have been identified as latently queer figures, some of the best-known filmings are heteronormative, affirming conventional gender roles. As classic Hollywood films, these adaptations have been influenced by the melodramatic stage plays, which have significantly downplayed the sexual ambiguity of their protagonists. Thus, Kathleen L. Spencer’s assessment of the novel Dracula as the “classic example of the conservative fantastic” will be contradicted.

Similarly, the subversive potential Dorian and Hyde have been equipped with by Wilde and Stevenson will be assessed throughout the thesis. Next to the literary figures, the second centre of attention must be their filmed versions: can the filmings refer back to the proto-filmic design of their protagonists and how do they develop them further?

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