Nosferatu may have its origins in Dracula, but the movie was never a legal adaptation. The subsequent trial helped shape modern vampire lore.
Dracula and not all the elements that make a vampire come from Bram Stoker’s novel. After Nosferatus first created in Germany exactly 100 years ago, Florence Stoker, the author’s widow, tried to sue the filmmakers over a freely adapted screenplay, later creating a copyright nightmare that nearly killed the movie. The aura around this topic has fascinated audiences and performers alike, creating the lore that defines modern vampires today.
In March 1922, Nosferatus opened in German cinemas. The film was Prana Film’s first production and was directed by FW Murnau. It was a first of pomp and circumstance in what would later be considered the first horror film ever made and a prime example of the expressionist movement in cinema. Nosferatu’Bram Stoke’s premiere program remarkably stated that it was “loosely adapted” from Bram Stoke’s novel Dracula.
While Bram Stoker is now recognized as one of the most influential writers in gothic literature, he never enjoyed success in his lifetime, and neither did his wife for that matter. However, he was a notorious business manager at the Lyceum Theater in London. When he died in 1912, Florence was left with a debt, which was still quite considerable even after auctioning off most of her late husband’s possessions. Curiously, his only source of income or notoriety has become Dracula, a slight literary success of which she felt embarrassed and rather indifferent. Her husband’s other published works never sold well, and by 1922 were out of print.
In April of that year, Florence Stoker received an anonymous letter with NosferatusGerman premiere program. It is assumed that before this moment she had no knowledge of the production or the existence of the film. It’s no surprise that, given her financial situation, she wants to take legal action against Prana Film and its filmmakers. Indeed, the film took over most of the origins present in the book, even if the filmmakers made minor changes to it, including the names of the characters and the title. It is unclear what caused them to overlook the copyright issue.
The trial was a horror of its kind. In 1924, Florence was in court with Prana Film, and after a series of appeals that prevented her from obtaining the initial financial amount owed to her for copyrights, she demanded that all copies of the film be destroyed. And so, it was ordered by the German courts. Nosferatu’s copies were carefully chased and burned. In Florence, Nosferatus was dead and buried.
During these trials, and feeling that her finances would still be strained, Florence reluctantly accepted a proposal from actor Hamilton Deane to adapt Dracula in a traveling play for the British campaign. Although a laughing stock of critics, the traveling play sold out in every small town. However, he ignored most of the novel’s dialogue and created an image of the famous earl that persisted – with a tuxedo and a cape. Soon after, this play was re-adapted in the United States, where it starred none other than Bela Lugosi, who later immortalized Count Dracula in Universal Pictures-produced films legally endorsed by Florence Stoker.
In the meantime, a miraculous thing happened: a copy of Nosferatus who somehow survived was also brought to the United States Dracula was already in the public domain there, no US court could order its destruction. The film slowly began to gain an audience and created an aura of fascination that only increased as more vampire films based on Stoker’s novel were made. In the 1960s, Nosferatu was already considered a horror classic and declared the first vampire film. Dracula and Nosferatu would shape the rules for the vampire stories that would follow.
One of the main changes in Munranu’s film included Orlok being killed by sunlight, whereas it just affects his skin in Stoker’s novel. Orlok is also presented as a grotesque killer whose shadow has a life of its own, unlike the novel’s suave Dracula, who turns his victims into vampires. From then on, the various iterations of the famous Earl cemented vampire lore. Stoker’s novel presented an image of a changing, conquering modern world, while Nosferatu was a critical view of how medieval times still corrupted society. Today, vampire stories are used to highlight controversial themes around morality and masculinity.
However, if it were not for Nosferatu’s failed attempts to avoid a trial, a play may never have happened and the public interest may not have peeked and caught the attention of Universal Pictures . considered dead, Nosferatus almost literally rises from the ashes – and just like a vampire, it survives today, exactly a century later.
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