Abraham Van Helsing first appeared as a grumpy old Dutch dude in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, though you wouldn’t know it from the character’s subsequent appearances in pop culture. He was played by Hugh Jackman in an underrated and wildly entertaining film that’s worth a watch if only because it’s clear the actors are having a blast camping it up. A version of the character also appeared in the gone-too-soon, gorgeous old-school gothic show Penny Dreadful, which slyly pulls a Game of Thrones and kills him right when he seems important. And in his latest incarnation, he’s getting modernized and gender-swapped as “Vanessa” in a new Syfy show.
Theoretically, a modernized gender-bent rendition of a familiar character is a great idea. After all, the difficulty with such classic characters is that they can feel stale, but you also don’t want to tip the scales too far in the other direction and make the character different purely for the sake of making changes without a coherent arc. And for some reason, more than other often-revisited old characters — i.e., Dracula, Superman, or Frankenstein — Van Helsing seems to give storytellers trouble.
This might be because he’s mostly on the outskirts of the original Dracula novel, which gives creators exactly the wrong amount of information: He’s too filled in for the character to feel totally new, but he’s not filled in enough for it to be instantly recognizable, the way different versions of Dracula and Frankenstein are.
There’s also the fact that he’s hardly the most dynamic character in his original story. Typically, when old characters are resurrected, it’s because they are too larger-than-life to stay dead and dormant. It’s why superheroes march on, why Han Solo is getting a spinoff, why we’ll keep getting Dorian Gray and the Joker and Captain Hook iterations for generations. But Van Helsing? Not so much. Even Hugh Jackman wasn’t able to make him the most interesting part of his movie. (That honor goes to Kate Beckinsale and her delightfully batty Romanian accent.)
Van Helsing has just enough impact to be memorable and last through the years but not enough to be truly intriguing. A better tactic is one like Penny Dreadful’s glorious and subversive update on the Bride of Frankenstein narrative.
Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker are both more intriguing Dracula characters who have never gotten their due in subsequent pop culture follow ups. Give them a show next, and leave the old vampire hunter to rest. That would be truly revolutionary.
Photos via Syfy