The novelisation of the 1979 movie Nosferatu the Vampyre directed by Werner Herzog was written by Paul Monette, based on Herzog’s screenplay, which paid homage to the original movie, Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the evil count. The 1979 film stars Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz.
It is interesting to learn that the original movie was an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with names and other details altered – instead of ‘vampire’ they used ‘nosferatu’ and Count Dracula became Count Orlok. Stoker’s heirs sued and the court ruling required all copies of the film to be destroyed – though a few prints did survive, proving even that long ago that once an artwork has been widely distributed it is almost impossible to stifle it entirely.
In the 1922 film it’s 1838 and Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, living in the German town of Wisborg. Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer, Knock, where he meets a new client, Count Orlok. Hutter left his wife Ellen in the care of his friend Harding’s sister Annie.
By 1979, Dracula (1897) was no longer in copyright. The novelisation opens in the town of Wismar in 1850 and Jonathan Harker has recently married the love of his life, Lucy. Harker’s employer Renfield asked him to visit a client in Transylvania, so he reluctantly leaves. Lucy has the company of her brother and his wife Mina. A family friend was Doctor van Helsing.
Monette is a poet as well as a writer. Several phrases suggest his poetic roots, which is especially necessary since the screenplay does not have a great deal of dialogue, it seems, but relies on imagery, mood and atmosphere. For example I liked his sentence: ‘The night was in his heart’. Another phrase: ‘He grasped at fear like a falling man at the empty air.’
Harker arrives at the client’s castle. ‘From the darkness beyond, a figure began to approach, so rigid it seemed to have come through a region of ice to reach him. He was wrapped in a tight-fitting black cape as final as a shroud. His shoulders were hunched and his hands were cramped together at his chest, one on top of the other, as if he didn’t dare to let them swing free at his sides. Jonathan… stared at the terrible hands. Long and bloodless, limp and slightly quivering by turns, they tapered into nails as horned and yellow as claws…’ The description goes on, detailing the visage of Count Dracula.
At one point, when Harker has escaped the castle, and while Dracula is on his way to despoil Wismar and Lucy, Harker recovers from injuries and faces a local convent’s Mother Superior: ‘We pray against the darkness, Mr Harker. The darkness is all about us, of course, but we try not to inquire too deeply into it. We find that we do more good when we turn our faces to the light…’
Unlike Dracula, in Nosferatu Dr van Helsing is no expert in vampirism, and indeed scoffs at the idea; to the detriment of the town of Wismar. The passages concerning the rat-infested ship’s arrival at Wismar, the madness and plague that ensued are hauntingly portrayed. Only Lucy, it seems, is capable of ending it by destroying the count. Much of the denouement is retained from the original film, though the ending is less conclusive, but no less poignant.
I found it fascinating how Herzog has used the names, but altered the roles of some of the Dracula characters, and imbued the tale with his own concept of menace, a creeping darkness that enfolds the great and the good.
Monette died in 1995, aged 49. He also wrote novelisations of Scarface (1983), Predator (1987) and Midnight Run (1988).