There have been 14.2 gazillion different movie adaptations of Dracula, but none of them have hit the pop culture bullseye quite like the 1931 Dracula. All those Halloween decorations on elementary school walls, countless silly comedy routines featuring opera capes and bad accents, and no less a figure than Sesame Street's Count Von Count—those all owe their very existence to Tod Browning's version of the story.
So how's this for a newsflash? The movie isn't even based on the Bram Stoker novel. It's actually based on a stage play, written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. But we digress.
Let's start with the basics. Browning keeps the plot of the story intact: Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) buys up property in London, then sails there on the Demeter while using the ship's sailors as late-night snacks. He promptly puts the moves on chaste and innocent Lucy (Frances Dade) before climbing up the food chain to Mina (Helen Chandler). But wait! He's thwarted by Mina's fiancé Jonathan Harker (David Manners), along with Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston) and Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who ultimately kill the Count and put an end to his ruthless solicitation of unauthorized Red Cross donations.
We also still have the whole foreign invader thing happening: Dracula is that Evil Guy From Someplace Else who comes to England to steal our women. Despite Lugosi's burning sexuality, the film shows no pity for him. He's gotta go before he drinks the whole of London dry, and since he's an immigrant from a swarthy foreign country, we can rest assured that he's evil. Keep that in mind when you're watching later productions, which often show the vamp in a more tragic (or at least romantic) light.
The Great Depression put a kink in Browning's big plans for this film; suddenly all the budget money went away, and he had to make a lot of changes to get it to work. He drops a lot of characters—Lucy has no suitors, for example—and shortens the narrative twists and turns that Stoker stuck in there. Examples? Harker doesn't go to Castle Dracula; only Renfield (Dwight Frye). And most of the scenes take place in the same three or four rooms. Nothing's wasted here, folks. Browning gets right to the point—find Dracula, kill Dracula—and the events of the plot all work in the service of that goal. Anything else gets chopped. Sure, it makes for some strange drops sometimes—like the three brides who menace Renfield and then suddenly vanish (presumably in search of hunkier prey)—but at least we get a movie at all.
Browning also made a lot of changes to get around the book's structure, which includes a lot of journal entries that just wouldn't work on the big screen. Well, they would, but nobody's going to pay to see a lot of people sitting at desks and writing for two hours. (Or would they…? Excuse us while we break out our Ideas Journal.) Anyway, that means big chunks of plot exposition, explaining who Dracula is and how they can kill him, vanish into thin air. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has to take one for the team, as he slowly explains all the things we need to know to keep following the story.
And of course, Browning had the censors to worry about. And considering the huge amount of sex and blood involved, that means a lot of cuts. We don't actually see Dracula bite anyone's neck, and none of his lovely female victims show too much flesh. Bo-ring. But what are you going to do when the Hays Code was busy protecting us all from the filth we paid good money to see? Everything is implied in Lugosi's sexy looks: hot enough to make him a sex symbol back in the day, but only touching on the notions of seduction and corruption that play such a huge part in Stoker's original text.
The imagery from Tom Browning's take on Dracula looks pretty corny in this day and age, but back in the 1930s, it was pretty spooky. Dracula's castle is all cobwebby and full of shadows, and we get plenty of shots of him creeping out of his coffin and giving the hypno-eyes to ravishing virgins in white. If you're into the old school visual effects, you can also check out Nosferatu (1922). Browning pulled a lot of inspiration from this silent film, which was supposed to be an original movie, but which cribbed so much from Dracula that Stoker's widow successfully sued the pants off of them. (Take note, potential cheaters.)
And then there's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), in which Francis Coppola tried to stick closer to the book. That apparently involves Gary Oldman with bubble hair and Winona Ryder literally ripping her bodice.
So what do you think? Which version did it best? Shmoop amongst yourselves.