In this corner: the Book. A collection of words that represent ideas when filtered through the lexical systems in a human brain. From clay tablets to bound collections of wood pulp to units of stored data, the book has been around in one format or another for some 3,800 years.
Book vs. Movie
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
By Russ Bickerstaff
June 28, 2012
And in this corner: the Movie. A 112-year-old kid born in France to a guy named Lumiere and raised primarily in Hollywood by his uncle Charlie "the Tramp" Chaplin. This young upstart has quickly made a huge impact on society, rapidly becoming the most financially lucrative form of storytelling in the modern world.
Both square off in the ring again as Box Office Prophets presents another round of Book vs. Movie.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
At the suggestion of an editor, author Seth Grahame-Smith infused zombies into an old, public domain classic by Jane Austen. Kind of a weird, pop, post-modern re-write, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was an instant hit. Gruesome zombie scenes were inserted into Jane Austen's classic and everyone had a pretty good time. Grahame-Smith attempted to build on his success with a similar post-modern fusion work in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. A couple of years after the novel was published, a film adaptation makes it to the big screen that has been produced by Tim Burton and Russian horror director Timur Nuruakhitovich Bekmambetov. How does the $69 million movie compare with the novel on which it is based?
The idea of mixing historical fiction with something a little less than accurate has been done before so many times that it almost seems silly to try to mention all of the work that came before Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Fictionalized historical fiction has become its own sub-genre. And like any thriving sub-genre, it has its good moments and its bad ones too.
Seth Graham-Smith's novel distinguishes itself from the rest of the genre in that it mixes historical narratives with shlocky contemporary vampire fiction with startling purity. The pairing of the two types of narrative is interesting. Graham-Smith carefully fuses true history with this alternate one in a way that clearly shows the seams between the two.
Early on, we are introduced to a young Lincoln. It turns out a great many vampires had come over to the United States from Europe with the explosion of cities in the US. Lincoln's mother dies. When Lincoln discovers that his mother was killed by a vampire, the young Abraham vows to become a vampire hunter. He reads, he studies up on any text he can find about vampires. He trains himself. And he finds himself woefully underprepared.
Lincoln's life is saved by a vampire when he finds himself in over his head on one particular hunt. The vampire captures Lincoln, allaying his fears as he has decided that the young man is too interesting to kill. He decides to take him under his leathery wing as a vampire Hunter.
Lincoln reluctantly goes to work killing off rival vampires for the gentleman. The events of Lincoln's life play out against the shadow of vampires. Throughout the novel, the narrative flits back-and-forth between historical accounts and standard vampire fiction. The civil war was fueled by vampires who wanted to maintain slavery for an easy food supply. In the end, there's the revalation that John Wilkes Booth was a vampire. The novel gets a little weird from there.
The book alternates between quite implicitly labeled fiction and non-fiction with such a steady alteration that it actually makes the premise seem vaguely believable in its own way. And that's probably Graeme-Smith's greatest success, because beyond that, there really isn't that much going on here. Lost somewhere between history and vampires, the novel isn't really successful at delivering either with any strong sense of purpose. Not that there isn't SOME sense of purpose.
Grahame-Smith seems to be shooting for something of a thematic sequel to Bram Stoker's original Dracula here. That novel was about a vampire monarch in the old world. In Dracula, evil is seen as an ancient tyrant. In Grahame-Smith's novel, vampires come to the new world and use the African-American slaves of the new world for food. Grahame-Smith updates the evil. It's an interesting exercise, but rather than exploring the evils of human slavery and institutionalized exploitation, the novel never really does anything with the deeper implications of the theme. Instead, it seems content to do its little illusions with historical texts… and so the evils of slavery end up feeling kind of trivialized in places. This really is kind of a pity, as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a pretty competently-written novel, but without anything more to animate it than novelty, it ends up feeling like a cheap gimmick - fun and even provocative, but never living up to its potential.
A movie version of a book like this one poses so many interesting challenges. The fusion between historical narrative and fantastic vampire lore would have made and indeed should have made a very interesting.
This film could have easily turned into a very dynamic fusion between a contemporary historical documentary and a big-budget 3-D IMAX horror film. Text from the book could have been featured in voiceover with pictures rendered from actual historical pictures. You wouldn't have to get Ken Burns to do the voiceover, but it wouldn't hurt. Follow Burns' flair for compiling and condensing history and bring that to the screen in a way that seamlessly fuses the fiction with the fact. It would be quite unlike anything else on the screen this summer. As the narrative progressed, those old photos could come to life and we would see the evil shadows lurking around the corners - the mystery and the magic and the horror that the textbooks miss. It would've been a really interesting exploration into fusion between doc and 3D action film. We could have had a film that graphically made a statement about how so much is lost to history. Instead we get an uninspired, straight ahead, historical horror movie.
The plot of the film diverges pretty far from that of the book. Differences would be too numerous and tedious to get into here. The biggest difference has to be the way in which Lincoln becomes a vampire hunter. The novel has a young Lincoln studying up on vampires in old books and training himself as best as possible. He gets trained by a vampire, but only later on after he has put in the initial work on his own. The film has Lincoln track down the man who killed his mother, completely unaware that that person is not human. Things get out of control and he's saved by a vampire, who explains to him all about the whole vampire thing. There's a mentor/pupil thing going on there. It’s cute, but it doesn't articulate well enough with the legend of the man we're all taught in grade school.
With Lincoln reading and studying, the novel takes advantage of those aspects of the Abraham Lincoln legend that make him such a hero in those grade school textbooks. The novel has a young man looking to right injustices - and doing so under the power of his own intellect and energy. He's in way over his head, but he's determined. He's an intellectual who is very much the self-made man that we all tell ourselves is the American Dream, and the novel takes full advantage of that legend. The movie almost completely avoids this, and Lincoln actually comes across as a simple man - thick as a brick, blindly following orders from the vampire who trained him to kill other vampires. It’s not exactly in keeping with the legend of the hero we all remember growing up with.
The story progresses with something very close to a standard Hollywood three-act plot structure, which butchers the careful attention to detail that was woven into the novel - and we end up with Lincoln as an action hero in a charmingly dim action film with a few scenes scripted specifically to take advantage of 3D IMAX.
The strange thing about the critical reception for the film is that people seemed to think that the film had the perfect opportunity to be good, campy fun. In the process of taking what is generally assumed to be a ridiculous premise too seriously, it loses that fun. Really, all the film would have needed to do was spend a little more time making the premise more believable. A little bit of documentary-style introduction would have allowed a lot of critics to like it just a bit more. The horror here could not stand on its own because we take Lincoln too seriously as an American hero to mix him up with what is generally considered to be kind of a silly notion of horror to begin with.
The novel is far from perfect, but it at least paid enough attention to the legend of the history of the man to jibe pretty well with the historical legends of Abraham Lincolnn. In failing to do this, the movie misses one of the book's few virtues, replacing it with what feels like a standard, uninspired horror film.