Book vs. Film: "Dracula" vs. "The Last Voyage of the Demeter"
Dracula just won’t die. This is a universally understood fact, that the good old Count will always be around, no matter how many stakes get driven into his heart, how many sunrises burn him to smithereens, how many times a Van Helsing or some other protagonist lops off his head. Dracula will always come back. This is especially true when it comes to cinema, where the character tends to proliferate wildly. In 2023, for instance, there have been two separate cinematic takes — the comical Renfield, in which Nicolas Cage half resurrects Bela Lugosi, half takes Dracula to the actor’s own definition of “over the top”, as well as The Last Voyage of the Demeter, an adaptation of a single chapter from Bram Stoker’s original novel.
As a more serious film, one meant to scare its audience rather than make it laugh, Demeter naturally shares a closer lineage with the source material than Renfield, which is more informed by the 1931 adaptation directed by Todd Browning. But of course, the nature of bringing page to screen necessitates changes from said source material, and this is especially true for Demeter, for reasons that will become apparent shortly. Did the process of adaptation cause the film to stray too far from the book? Or is this in fact a screen version of Dracula that, while on the surface quite different from the events as told by Stoker, nonetheless one of the more faithful cinematic outings to come out in a while?
Or rather, the chapter: alternately referred to as “Log of the Demeter” or “Captain’s Log,” this section of Stoker’s sprawling epistolary novel is so brief it’s barely mentioned in the plot summary of the Dracula Wikipedia page. It’s not even really accurate to call it a chapter, as it’s nestled within a newspaper article about the cargo ship the Demeter arriving in Whitby, England with no crew aboard, and the captain dead, his hands tied to the wheel. Upon searching the ship, authorities discover the log, which details several days of terror for the crew.
At first, men go missing in the night, and while it’s initially rationalized, primarily by the skeptical first mate, that crew members are simply falling overboard, whispers of a sinister stranger on the ship begin to circulate. The captain orders a thorough search for a stowaway, but they find no one aboard that shouldn’t be there. Nothing much is made of the ship’s odd cargo, wooden boxes filled with dirt, though we know from Jonathan Harker’s diary entries from earlier in the novel that this is exactly the source of the crew’s nightmares, as it isn’t just dirt inside those boxes, but also Count Dracula himself.
The vampire picks off the men one by one, ultimately making believers out of the first mate and captain, who eventually see the mysterious marauder. The first mate himself disappears, after vowing to vanquish the evil from their presence, leaving only the captain, who won’t relinquish his duties to the ship and the cargo despite the danger. This of course costs the captain his life, and allows Dracula to arrive in England as planned.
“Log of the Demeter” thoroughly establishes the notion of Dracula as a plague descending upon England. He is a sickness that wipes out an entire ship’s crew, hinting at the widespread death and destruction the Count has in store for the country. Indeed, the next chunk of Stoker’s novel involves Lucy Westenra’s battle with illness, the failures of science to stop it, and the ultimate acceptance of learned men that there are forces beyond their comprehension that must be snuffed out via unconventional means — just as the skeptical first mate on the Demeter was forced to embrace superstition over reason.
Given that its primary source of inspiration is so brief, The Last Voyage of the Demeter pads out its story with a few characters not seen in Stoker’s novel. The narrative centers on Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a Black doctor struggling to find work in prejudiced 1897 England and abroad. Needing work and passage home, he joins the crew of the Demeter after a man notices the dragon insignia on the boxes of earth and abandons his post. Clemens wins favor with Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) after saving his grandson Toby (Woody Norman) from a falling crate, though first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) sees Clemens as a burden whose hands are too soft for the rough work of a sailor.
Things take a turn after one of Dracula’s boxes accidentally breaks open and spills out a “stowaway,” Anna (Aisling Franciosi). Barely alive, Anna suffers from what Clemens deduces to be a blood sickness of some kind, and gives her copious blood transfusions to fight the infection, echoing Lucy’s aforementioned plight in Stoker’s novel. His kindness toward Anna causes the crew to disregard Clemens, however, at first because having a woman aboard the ship is considered bad luck, then because her appearance coincides with the men beginning to disappear. The audience knows, however, that the true threat is Dracula (Javier Botet in makeup reminiscent of Count Orlok from the unauthorized adaptation Nosferatu), who, just as in the book, picks off the crew of the Demeter one by one.
Much like the first mate in “Log” and the men under Van Helsing’s tutelage in the rest of Stoker’s novel, Clemens clings to his skepticism, refusing to believe that the being aboard the ship is anything other than a “beast” that can be easily dispatched. He then must also let go of his scientific mind, as well as his basic desire to understand why the world is full of good and evil. By the film’s end, he realizes that there is no why, good and evil are simply the way of the world. Rather than accepting this fact and succumbing to nihilism, however, Clemens vows to fight evil with every fiber of his being, becoming a kind of Van Helsing figure himself.
Interestingly, the film doesn’t end with Clemens staking or burning or beheading Dracula, as we’ve come to expect. Instead, Dracula, just as in the novel, makes it to England to begin his reign of terror, with Clemens close behind. This might seem like sequel-paving, or it could be an ending meant to echo Clemens’s realization that evil is everywhere and, just like Dracula himself — or perhaps even disease — undying. Overall, this is a faithful adaptation despite its changes, and an enjoyable film with some truly frightening set pieces and imagery.
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