Book vs. Movie
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
By Russ Bickerstaff
June 28, 2012
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.