Book To Film Adaptations: Carmilla

 Ed Farley

Following on from Orla Newstead’s ‘Film VS The Novel: What is the Ultimate Form of Storytelling’, Ed Farley compares the book and film versions of Carmilla.  

“The book is better than the film” is something I have heard multiple times, yet haven’t ever been able to say. Admittedly, before this research, I hadn’t read a book before watching its adaptation. For this exploration, I have decided to read Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, first published in 1882. Though adapted and having influenced many TV shows and movies, I will be comparing it to its 2020 counterpart, written and directed by Emily Harris.

Carmilla is set in Hungary. Laura, daughter of a widower, lives in a chateau or “schloss” amongst long, spiralling forests and a ruined, unoccupied village a few miles away. One night, a carriage breaks down, and in the commotion, a young woman leaves her daughter in the care of Laura’s father. Both Laura and the girl named Carmilla, become infatuated with one another. As passions rise, Carmilla’s temperament does too, and things come to a head as the story concludes, with a historical backstory that accounts the tale of a vampire countess who preys on a series of other young women.

Le Fanu’s version is rich in long, rambling descriptive sentences, descriptions occupying whole paragraphs. It’s a thrill to read considering it allows viewers to concoct their own versions of the setting in their heads. Mentioning the winding paths and forests of a Hungarian chateau’s grounds is poetic and dream-like, a perfect complement to a large plot point of the book – Laura suffers from “dreams” caused by her mysterious companion’s arrival. The descriptions aid the plot, creating an atmosphere that is whimsical, dark and immersive to readers.

Something I was taken aback by with the adaption is that the overwhelming sparsity that was painted in the original descriptions was gone. The camera makes use of “describing” the imagery of the film by concentrating on close-up and eye-level shots. Although this did not provide the gothic trademark I was expecting, I realised it was an effective solution to a hurdle I was unsure the film could overcome. The novella is written in first person, making it easier and quicker to connect to her situation and experiences. The film manages to capture echoes of this, with the close-up shots used.

The film takes the main elements of the story, but repurposes them to create a newer, fresher iteration of the now 200-year-old story

The living arrangements are the reversal of one another. In the book, Carmilla is free spirited; surrounded by two governesses, and a caring, close father. It’s this relationship that is a perfect contrast to when Carmilla appears, who occupies the mind of the impressionable character. The book runs away from the core beliefs of women’s lives of the time, whilst Emily Harris’ writing charges directly towards it. Laura has a near-absent father and one governess – the strict and pious Madame Fontaine. Fontaine is a stifling influence on Laura, keeping her on a restrained educational regime, and on one occasion, dispenses corporal punishment to the naïve Laura; after she’s discovered reading a science book; a book, which according to Fontaine, is not material for an 18th century lady to read.

The 2019 adaption makes a point to stress that the reality of Laura’s world is worse. The dreams recorded in this version are gorier and darker than her original counterparts but they seem to be in response to her real-life experiences, as opposed to a supernatural one far removed from her usual experiences.

The film takes the main elements of the story, but repurposes them to create a newer, fresher iteration of the now 200-year-old story. The book makes Carmilla predatory.  Passionate scenes between the two women (Carmilla and Laura) that are accounted in the book are vilified to a conservative pre-Victorian audience. Le Fanu gets away with it by suggesting vampires’ passions for sucking blood can be confused with lust. It’s with this implication, it could be argued that Le Fanu aligns himself with the formidable Fontaine in Harris’ version, stating that the two women’s love was unnatural, merely part of a plot of one woman looking to prey upon the other.

Harris’ film is a subversion of genre. Using the book’s message itself as an excuse to rid her ward of her lover. Although daring and enlightening compared to other works of La Fanu’s time, Fontaine is one of the audiences that Le Fanu wanted to appease originally by justifying Carmilla’s love for Laura as predatory. Perhaps Harris’s use of female-centric media, like Le Fanu’s book, has been used to perpetuate the silence of women’s independence and ability to freely love people of their choosing. Instead of villainising Carmilla, she is portrayed as the victim. The movie has no real vampirism; the only mention of blood is in a sequence where the girls exchange blood to get closer with one another. In fact, it is Laura who bites a man, even if it isn’t to feed off him. The fact that they exchange blood in a romantic (albeit masochistic) way symbolises their natural and primal relationship to one another – something that actively stresses to audiences that their love is instinctual and natural, compared to the inhuman angle that both Fontaine and to an extent Le Fanu suggest.

The film tells the story of the original in a subversive way, which was just as thrilling to see materialise as it was to read La Fanu’s spiralling and explorative descriptions

Both versions spotlight perspective and the struggle of their female characters brilliantly, yet they go about it in different ways to apply to their respective audiences of the time. The film isn’t better than the original, neither is it worse. The book is a beautifully written piece of gothic fiction, comprising of highly descriptive and visceral writing, which was a joy to read. On the reverse, though it hasn’t the intensity and overt darkness of its predecessor, Harris’ exploration into the tale is a topical adaptation of the book which not only suits modern times but is a retrospective piece which compliments the work. It’s a new perspective that makes readers think about the material differently.

Hoping to continue this into a series of adaptation comparisons, all I can say is I hope they’ll be executed in a similar manor to Harris’ as it was a true success.

Ed Farley

Featured Image courtesy of Bastian_Schmidt via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article image courtesy of halfextinguishedthoughts via Instagram. No changes made to these images.

In-article trailer courtesy of Republic Film Distribution via YouTube. No changes were made to this video.

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