Welcome to “Monsters After Midnight.” Here on UMU, we’ll be paying homage to London After Midnight, the iconic, lost film by Tod Browning and featuring Lon Chaney, by featuring various chilling tales that explore and enrich the Universal Monsters and the legacy of classic monsters that could be traced back to the works of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson to name a few.
ARE YOU ALL SITTING COMFORTABLY? : A PRELUDE
For a novel written in 1897 by a white man well into middle age, the depiction of women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is surprisingly progressive. On the surface, certainly, it would appear that these women fit into some common stereotypes of the time: the beautiful, flirtatious but innocent girl, who wishes to marry and have many children; and the maternal, saint-like wife who is appropriately submissive to the men around her… But, beneath the surface, the quiet, equal complexity of all the characters—male and female—in this utterly Victorian novel is nothing short of subversive. It was not, perhaps, Bram Stoker’s intention to create an almost feminist narrative; and indeed, the novel is not at all free from the pitfalls of the sexism that was rampant at the time. But, the fact that Stoker was largely raised by his mother, in a house full of sisters, cannot be dismissed; and when looking at the women he writes, particularly Mina Murray, is almost impossible to ignore. Yet, while Dracula and Van Helsing are names quite familiar even to those not entirely familiar with gothic literature or monster lore, Mina Murray seems largely forgotten most of the time; and seems forever relegated to a supporting role in most, if not all, adaptations of the novel. For years, movie audiences and Dracula-lovers alike have been robbed—robbed, I say!—of seeing one of the most underrated, incredibly multi-faceted literary heroes of all time brought to life on the big screen. And though, to many, it may be salt in an old wound, together we shall delve into how this has continued to happen… And where we may begin to look for hope.
“WHAT A BRAVE AND GALLANT WOMAN”: MINA MURRAY IN BRAM STOKER’S NOVEL
It would not be fair to say that Mina Murray is the only hero in Bram Stoker’s classic novel. Dracula is ultimately fought off and defeated by a band of intrepid heroes, all working together in their pain, their loss, and their mutual wishes to save the world they love and live in. Quincey Morris, the free-spirited Texan; Lord Arthur Holmwood, a mild-mannered nobleman; Dr. Jack Seward, an obsessive, brilliant doctor; the extremely unfortunate Jonathan Harker, a perfectly ordinary young solicitor; and the famous Professor Abraham Van Helsing, an eccentric doctor who has a longer history with the supernatural than he seems willing to let on.
But while these heroes all have greatness thrust upon them, and rise to the challenge—as ordinary people in such tales find it within themselves to do—the greatest of all of them, in strength, in bravery, in intelligence, and in sheer goodness, is undoubtedly Mina Murray.
Certainly, she does not dramatically swoop in with the mysterious font of knowledge, as does Van Helsing; neither does she travel to a strange land and first come into contact with the Count, as does her fiancé, Jonathan. Neither is she given to taking the leadership of the group upon herself and brazenly charging into battle with wooden stakes and brandished crucifixes, as does Van Helsing; or pitting herself as a servant of God against Dracula’s dark power and villainy, as the Professor also does. But then, she does not need to.
For many, Mina Murray’s character has seemed a contradiction in and of herself—on one hand, she is the perfect representation of Victorian womanhood; unfailingly kind and loving, appropriately submissive while still being useful and diligently committed, wholly devoted and naturally maternal, saintlike and pure. She constantly gives of herself for the men around her; is never voluptuous or vain; she seems happy to serve and be a good wife. Throughout the novel, strength and heroism are still equated to pure, “good”, wholesome masculinity; Mina is often depicted as child-like, obedient, and entirely a proper Victorian lady. Bram Stoker, it seems, was unable to entirely escape the prejudices of his time.
On the other hand, however, Mina is extremely well-educated, and repeatedly becomes involved in a traditionally male spheres—law, journalism, science, medicine, philosophical pondering, etc.—with seeming ease, not only as a sacrifice to aid her fiancé, but with a great deal of passion and ambition on her own terms. She is highly intelligent, excited rather than daunted by any and all intellectual challenges; including assembling all the journals, recordings, newspaper clippings, and letters together for the band of heroes to make a record of the events—which, in fiction, would become the very novel we read. She is also tremendously brave, saying such things as “There may be solemn duty; and if it come we must not shrink from it…. I shall be prepared.” and “I promise you, my dear friend, that if God will let me live, I shall strive to do so.”
Furthermore, she becomes the positive unifying force in the novel, keeping all the men strong through her own spiritual fortitude without ever faltering; remaining central to the story despite all the men’s attempts to “shield” her or “protect” her from the frightening battle in which they have become involved. It is she Dracula eventually targets and seems intent on defeating, not Van Helsing; it is she who finds it in her heart and mind to realize Dracula is more than simply a villain, not Van Helsing—saying, with tremendous insight, “I know that you must fight – that you must destroy even as you destroyed the false Lucy so that the true Lucy might live hereafter; but it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who is wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he too is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction… Just think…some day… I too may need such pity; and that some other like you- and with equal cause for anger- may deny it to me.” Finally, despite the corruption of Dracula’s vampiric curse, she remains the “light of all lights”, as Van Helsing himself calls her, leading the men to their adversary, her light ultimately defeating his darkness.
It is perhaps symptomatic of a larger issue that Mina is repeatedly viewed as weak by the men around her, and indeed, by the society that created the novel. Indeed, Van Helsing asserts, even as he inhibits Mina from fighting alongside the others, “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has a man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us.”
Mina is a complicated, realistic character with her own views; she is emotional, she is mothering, she has excellent manners and a good work ethic. She is also stubborn, self-sacrificing, somewhat obsessive, and even sarcastic when showing her irritation at the men consistently excluding her. She is incredibly perceptive, compassionate, and never once buckles under the physical and emotional blows dealt to her by an ancient force of evil. Mina Murray, it becomes increasingly undeniable to all those around her, is made of stronger stuff than any of the men—except, oddly, Dracula, more than any of the others—could have admitted in the beginning. Unlike Van Helsing, who names himself the hero to Dracula’s villain and matches him in violence and willingness to go as far as he deems necessary for his cause; Mina battles Dracula inwardly, using as her weapon that which ultimately defeats him—an incredibly human, unbreakable righteousness that comes as naturally to her as breathing.
When using the structure of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, outlined by esteemed mythologist and narratologist Joseph Campbell as one that has existed in countless myths throughout history—from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first recorded epic tale, to Star Wars—Mina Murray follows every step. Beginning in her ordinary world, the call to adventure begins with the introduction of the evil of Dracula coming to London, which she initially chooses to ignore in favor of staying in her proper place, as she believes she should. Then, her track to the supreme ordeal begins with the rapid deterioration and death of her closest, dearest friend, and the return of her ill, weakened, half-mad fiancé, after which she can no longer sit idle and do nothing, insisting on becoming involved with the dangerous battle Van Helsing has already revealed to the others. Finally, she descends into the abyss and confronts the forces of darkness, crossing the threshold into the unknown, extraordinary world with the supreme ordeal of being attacked and infected by Dracula himself. But this does not defeat her—she makes the sacrifice of using the curse to the benefit of the others, her transformation into a fully-fledged warrior against the forces of evil becoming clearer than ever as she discards her old self, but remains true and good despite the increasing strength of the vampiric curse, Dracula, and his female servants, upon her. At last, after this ordeal and rebirth, she defeats the evil power and returns home changed, but still uncorrupted. She walks in the company of Perseus, Hercules, Odysseus, Beowulf, Harry Potter, Jon Snow, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, Steve Rogers, and Bruce Wayne—and in a way entirely her own.
Mina is the creator of her own narrative, a cultural and historical narrative distinct from the male scientific, empirical narratives, but running parallel to it. She gives credence to the supernatural stories in the novel; she is a compendium of knowledge and of intimate secrets, which are very human and real. Through the structure of journal entries in the novel, we see the other characters in the novel through her eyes, hear the story told in her voice. It has become blatantly clear in recent history to academics examining the novel that she, not Van Helsing, is Dracula’s counterpart in the battle of Good against Evil; the other side of a coin, tied to him until her light triumphs over his darkness, in a way Van Helsing could never be. Not with something obvious or physical, like vampire-hunting gadgets or knowledge of supernatural lore; but with something far more significant, and far less obvious—a quiet wisdom, a mighty heart, and a formidable spirit, as inexorable as a force of nature. Mere mortals could have not have defeated Dracula, after all—it would take a hero of equal power to defeat him, and that hero, in Bram Stoker’s novel, was Mina Murray.
“MY POOR WRONGED DARLING” : MINA MURRAY IN FILM AND POP CULTURE
For nearly as long as the great character of Mina Murray has existed on Bram Stoker’s pages, we have been denied seeing her transferred to the screen, and into pop culture consciousness. Almost the world over, people can recognize Dracula; and almost as many would be familiar with Abraham Van Helsing.
In F.W. Marnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, the character is named Ellen Hutter, and sacrifices herself to defeat Count Orlok after very little character development.
In the 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi, Mina is played with admirable commitment by Helen Chandler, but is reduced to the same sort of overly simplistic damsel-in-distress that can be seen all across the horror pictures of old Hollywood.
In Hammer Horror’s version starring Christopher Lee, made in 1958, she is very nearly a non-character, being reduced to yet another beautiful but helpless damsel (Melissa Stribling). Dracula’s adversary, the hero to his villain, is instead Abraham Van Helsing, who are of course played excellently by Edward Van Sloan and Peter Cushing, respectively.
In the 1979 film starring Frank Langella, a slight improvement is made, at least in terms of Mina’s significance in the story; though the context is quite different from the novel. In this movie, the now relatively common artistic choice to depict the Mina character (Kate Nelligan) and Dracula (Frank Langella) as romantically and sexually involved is introduced. While at least making her character more involved in the overall story and the actress who plays her more to work with, this does not stop the overall film from minimizing the character’s heroism. Less important, but rather odd, is the fact that for some reason the names of the Mina and Lucy characters are switched—not particularly relevant, just a really strange choice. At any rate, ultimately it is Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) who defeats Dracula, as with the films that came before it.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1994 adaptation, the most book-accurate film version of Dracula that has yet been made, Mina’s character is at last given some of her much-deserved spotlight. Of course, this involves Coppola’s decision to depict her as the reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead wife, Elisabeta, and an emphasis on her repressed sexuality—something which was not entirely present in the novel, or at least, not really a significant part of her character. Her relationship with Jonathan is shown to be far more sexually charged than it was even close to in the book; and even in her romance with Dracula, she does not seem to have as much agency as she had in the novel. It is important to note that it is not the introduction of the romantic plot itself that robs her of her heroic role, but the fact that she does not seem to direct her own path as she did in the novel.
She is acted upon by outside forces, and rarely acts to control her own fate; the direction of the heroes is still mainly given to the brilliantly-performed, flawed Professor van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). Instead of Mina (Winona Ryder) being the hero of the novel, she remains more the repressed, infatuated victim of her society and Dracula’s dark curse, one we have seen many times before. Only at the end of the film, when she saves Dracula (Gary Oldman) with her love and her light, is some semblance of the true Mina Murray at last represented onscreen.
In Showtime’s recently finished series Penny Dreadful, Mina Murray (Olivia Llewelyn) appears, but only really in name. Instead, many of her notable characteristics are instead given to Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the show’s main character—highly intelligent, well-read, quick-witted, extremely brave, utterly devoted to those she cares for, easily keeping up with all the main heroes around her, somewhat repressed in the world she lives in, quite kind and merciful as well as having nerves of steel, being chased and tainted by ancient forces of darkness that desire to possess her, and completely willing to sacrifice herself to save those she loves and the world she lives in. Vanessa is an incredible character, and despite several significant differences from Bram Stoker’s heroine, she is oddly closer to Mina then the characters many of the films actually based on the novel have given us.
Similarly, the 2014 film Dracula Untold was not at all a close or faithful adaptation of the novel; but somehow still managed to give a far better version of Mina than we have seen before. The movie of course has its flaws, many of which were pointed out at length by critics worldwide, but Mirena (Sarah Gadon) is not one of them. The chemistry between Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans) and his wife, the Princess of Transylvania, is one of the strongest parts of the film; and Mirena is presented as having considerable power as a ruler, wife, and mother. It becomes clear that despite their being a noble couple in the Middle Ages, they are very much in love, and are equal in their marriage, if not necessarily in the world around them. Mirena fights in her own way to save her son and her kingdom, alongside her cursed husband; but also fights to save him from himself, her light canceling out his darkness. And so, perhaps without the filmmaker’s intention, Mirena becomes far closer to Bram Stoker’s Mina than many representations of her that came before. Both the film’s stars recognize the significance of Mirena being the only female character in the film, Evans and Gadon both commenting on her as the “moral compass” of the film, with a journey and arc of her own. Her death does bring about the curse taking full hold of Vlad, but I am not convinced she is merely a supporting device used to add to the tragedy of his narrative.
It is her choice that spurs this transformation—she insists he must do whatever is necessary, even taking her life, to save their son—and it quickly becomes clear that Dracula needs her far more than she needed him, to keep his darkness at bay. In the end of the film, Dracula finds that Mirena has been reincarnated as Mina herself in the present day. It is no small tragedy that not only will we be robbed of seeing Luke Evans portray Dracula after several centuries of being the monstrous Prince of Darkness, becoming the villain we know and love so well; but perhaps even more so that we will not get to see Sarah Gadon portray what could have possibly been the best version of the novel’s much-mistreated heroine yet.
“LIGHT CAN BE HERE ON EARTH” : HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
So, after all this talk of tragedy and ill-treatment, how do we go forward? Well, friends, it should be noted that we are not without hope; for in the words of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, “There is always hope.” The consciousness of the world is shifting, and has been for several centuries since the penning of Dracula in 1897. One could not, perhaps, say that all problems and exclusions have been done away with; but any student of art and history could note that things are, slowly but surely, getting better. Movies are a form of art, after all, and art’s purpose is to communicate and affect change in people and societies. Thus, as we could all recognize, it is not only important, but actually critical that movies include considerations of diversity in their creative process. Audiences worldwide have shown that they are more ready for this kind of inclusiveness than they have ever been before; and so perhaps, with our continued effort and work for the future, heroes like Mina Murray will soon have their day.
Art need not be sacrificed in order for diversity to thrive. Instead, only the common practice of characters being “defaulted” to white, cisgender, heterosexual men when they do not necessarily need to be can be discarded. It is the unfortunate, undeniable truth that many societal structures, including Hollywood, have had a systemic problem of excluding certain voices, performers, and stories that are no less important or moving than those of primarily white male protagonists. If there is a lack of art concerning certain individuals, the system is telling those individuals their views, their stories, their emotions are not worth telling. Representation matters, particularly if you are of the group whose stories are being excluded. Human beings have shown, over centuries of recorded history, that we need heroes. There is only a question, now, of not denying ourselves equally crucial stories and heroic characters simply based on something like gender, class, race, cultural background, or orientation. Mina Murray is one of many such heroes that have been repeatedly poorly adapted and pushed aside. We can only work to open our hearts and mind so that, someday soon, we are no longer denied such a significant part of the heroes and stories we need.
We, much like Mina Murray, deserve better. And after reading this sad tale of the artistic mistreatment of one of the most complex and unconventional literary heroes ever written, I hope you realize along with those of us already devoted to her, including Professor Abraham Van Helsing himself, who professes after battle, “This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare so much for her sake.”… Mina Murray does indeed deserve better.
(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)