Carmilla Rising: Adapting Le Fanu’s Novella In the Age of Social Media

Posted by Matt Foley on March 30, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Carmilla Rising: Adapting Le Fanu’s Novella In the Age of Social Media

 By Lauren Chochinov

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All roads lead to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, at least according to the British Library’s recent exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The path to Dracula is paved with early vampires, each providing important elements of what is, arguably, the most famous of all literary vampires. Thus the exhibition carefully detailed this journey, showing off its unparalleled collection of important literary treasures including the early vampire novel The Vampyre (1819) by John Polidori. Amongst the nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls and curiosities, however, the curators chose to display a poster for Lust For A Vampire (1971), the second entry in Hammer Studio’s Karnstein Trilogy. And there, nestled close by was a copy of The Dark Blue, which contains the earliest printing of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla, conspicuously opened to D.H. Friston’s illustration of Carmilla looming over a sleeping victim.

            The decision to juxtapose Le Fanu’s novella with the amusingly provocative poster for Hammer’s soft porn adaptation speaks volumes about Carmilla’s legacy. As a pre-Dracula vampire novel, the book is often seen as a footnote in the progression of vampire-related material leading to Stoker’s work. As the world’s first lesbian vampire, however, Carmilla has gone down in history as a dangerous, predatory seductress who preys exclusively on young women.

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            While Carmilla has been immortalized repeatedly in film, a recent adaptation from Toronto, Canada has breathed new life into Le Fanu’s text. In 2014, Carmilla was turned into a hugely successful transmedia web series, sponsored by U by Kotex. The series, part sequel and part reimagining of the original narrative was co-created by Jordan Hall and Ellen Simpson. It maintains the novella’s Styrian setting, but sets the action in the dorm room of Laura Hollis (Elise Bauman), a first year undergraduate at Silas University. The single-camera format is very rarely a hindrance, as each 3-7 minute episode is framed as a vlog post for Laura’s journalism project. When her roommate, Betty (Grace Glowicki), goes missing, Laura vows to discover her whereabouts, using the vlog to record her progress. This is all made more complicated by the arrival of her new roommate, Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis), who unceremoniously usurps Betty’s side of the room and may have more to do with the rash of missing girls at Silas than she lets on.

          Tonally, the series manages to be part comedy, part drama. While it never forgets its darker source material, writer Jordan Hall infuses each episode with Joss Whedon-esque humour, charm, a touch of romance, and a foreboding sense of doom. Despite the dorm room setting, Silas still maintains its gothic atmosphere, as Laura humorously details her various daily adventures: the alchemy club’s obsession with monstrous mushrooms, the glee club, whose ominous Gregorian chanting provides the series with one of its best gags, and the school library’s deadly nocturnal sub-basement. Characters from the novella are adapted to fit the university setting, as the governesses Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De Lafontaine become the dormitory floor don, Perry (Annie Briggs), and her biology major best friend, Lafontaine (Kaitlyn Alexander), whose habit of bursting into Laura’s dorm room unannounced would put Seinfeld’s Kramer to shame.

          Contrary to Le Fanu’s Laura, however, Laura Hollis stands on the shoulders of Buffy Summers, Hermione Granger, and Veronica Mars. That is to say, unlike her nineteenth century counterpart, she is not a passive player in her own story. While she still attracts the attentions of her vampiric roommate, Laura is ferociously insistent on her own independence. She instils a sense of loyalty in her friends and naturally leads the charge from her desk chair. And in a place where a visit to the library requires a flamethrower and pre-recorded farewell messages, Laura’s agency is a refreshing reimagining of the novella’s protagonist, whose naivety and obliviousness nearly lead to her death. That is not to say that Laura Hollis is completely dissimilar to Le Fanu’s Laura; much of her stubborn desire to face an all-consuming evil while wielding a spatula can be attributed to youthful naivety. Yet her obliviousness becomes much more centered on whether her new roommate wants to bite her or kiss her, and the repulsion and attraction Laura of the novella feels towards Carmilla, is replaced by witty banter and stolen glances.

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         The web series reframes the central conflict of the narrative, positioning Carmilla’s mother (rather than Carmilla herself) as the ever-increasing threat to Laura and Silas’ students. Natasha Negovanlis’ Carmilla is every inch the Byronian vampire, albeit with a penchant for punk rock and tight leather trousers. But there is deep trauma lurking behind all of that eyeliner and Carmilla quickly becomes a sympathetic figure, just as much a victim of her evil mother as Laura and the missing girls. This is a clever shift from Le Fanu’s work where Carmilla’s mysterious mother is seen twice, but the con game she orchestrates is given little attention. Instead, the series rehabilitates Carmilla, offering a more nuanced consideration of Le Fanu’s predatory lesbian vampire. Her sexual orientation is no longer seen as part of what makes her so dangerous. She is not dangerous because she is queer. She is dangerous because she has pointy teeth, super strength, and a taste for haemoglobin. Carmilla is a series that features characters that happen to be queer, but it is not about queer characters and by embracing that subtle, but important difference, the show manages to powerfully kick heteronormativity to the curb.

           As a transmedia production, Carmilla is able to constantly engage with its ever-growing fan base, using social media as a bridge between the web series and its audience. In turn, each episode has garnered thousands of views and the combination of its clever creative team, talented cast, and passionate fans has earned it a second season, slated to premier in spring 2015. As for Le Fanu’s Carmilla, who is last heard shrieking in agony as Laura’s father and various Styrian menfolk stake and decapitate her corpse, the web series offers a refreshing, and arguably, much needed feminist take on the infamous Countess Karnstein.

Carmilla can be found on the Vervegirl YouTube channel.

In addition, Laura and Carmilla can be found on twitter and tumblr: @Laura2theLetter and @HeyCarmilla, respectively.

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About the author

BioPicLauren has recently completed her PhD in medieval literature at the University of Edinburgh. When not pondering Arthurian knighthood, she can be found sleeping, reading comic books, and spending quality time with her Netflix account. Twitter: @TheRealChoch

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