Having watched all but two filmed adaptations of Carmilla (there’s a French television one from the 1980s haven’t tracked down yet, and a lost BBC version from the 1960s), I feel qualified answering this question: What should anyone adapting LeFanu’s work avoid?
The most obvious two things to avoid are pervasive in pretty much every single film version ever made. First, giving Laura a suitable male romantic interest. Why not? First and foremost, it completely alters the dynamic of what happens. A lonely girl growing up surrounded by much older adults in an obscure part of a foreign country must become a different person if she has a boyfriend. How not? Part of the seductive power of Carmilla herself lies in how she remains an outsider. Laura cannot help but feel the same way–she has no siblings, no playmates, not even a mother to teach her how to become a young woman. LeFanu’s description (through an unaware Laura’s eyes) tells of a home equal parts empty yet suffocating. Anyone functioning as a Prince Charming alters this. Instead of escape then, Carmilla becomes nothing but an invader, diminishing the layers of ambiguity. Yet that very ambiguity gives the story its power! Power here is key. Laura has none. But a brutal truth which explains something of the attraction Laura feels for Carmilla is that, in love, the one who loves least has all the power. In this case, that one is Laura.
Mind you, were Laura more-or-less betrothed to someone against her will, that might work very well. Providing her would-be paramour remains not her choice. On the same basis, we the audience need to understand why she doesn’t want this person. Which means creating an entirely new character (or altering an existing one–turning the elderly Colonel Spielsdorf into a younger man for example). I’m anything but opposed to that. But–does it achieve anything worth the trouble?
Possibly. However, that becomes a different topic.
The second most common mistake made is essentially to rob Laura of a personality. This highlights why Carmilla remains (at least in my humble opinion–okay, not soooo humble) a feminist classic. Western society assigns certain traits to different genders. Allowing women, for example, to display traditionally masculine traits becomes thus ground-breaking. Bravo to Buffy The Vampire Slayer! And Clarice Starling, River Song, Lara Croft, etc.!
On the other hand, therein lies a trap (one addressed by Caryl Churchill in one of my favorite plays of the XXth century, Top Girls). If we value women only when they behave like stereotypical men have we really accomplished much? Laura in Carmilla is by no stretch of the imagination a tough grrrrl or A-type personality. One might easily call her a waif. This invokes the stereotype of “mindless doll” which, in turn, degrades a big percentage of the human race. Male as well as female.
Writers do face a dilemma with Laura. She seems to take little or no action. Emphasis on “seems.”
This dilemma vanishes once you accept an essential fact about the story–the “action” consists of Laura’s emotions, just as the “setting” is Laura’s mind. Her feelings, her awareness of events, her reactions to people and events–this makes up the stuff of the story. When about ourselves, it also makes up the bulk of our own. How not? But then we face another dilemma–isn’t fiction supposed to be more exciting that real life? Yes, it should. Hence emphasizing the mystery and eroticism of the tale is the way to go, rather than artificially stapling onto Carmilla all kinds of action-adventure tricks.
That, not incidentally, makes for yet another trick to avoid in any adaptation–what I call copying Bram Stoker (or James Bond) . In a nutshell, folks who want to fit the story of Laura and Carmilla into a different kind of dynamic than the one it already is! Instead of drama, romance, addiction, mystery, eroticism and subtle horror they look for thrills and chills, action and adventure, heroics and daring-do. Consider Crypt of the Living Dead as well The Vampire Lovers, both of whom focus on the menfolk rushing against time to find the vampire’s lair and destroy her, thus saving the ingenue from a fate worse than death! Blood and Roses at least mixes this up a bit by having them fail, but never realizing it. One very cheap adaptation adds the thrill of Laura’s sister and husband trying to flee a small New England town transformed by Carmilla into a nest of the undead (very Salem’s Lot).
What none of these do is tell the story in LeFanu’s novella. He has Laura recount what happened about a decade after the fact (to whom remains unclear, but internal evidence suggests an older woman from a city). Doesn’t take much to realize she’s an unreliable narrator given her (subtle) contradictions and omissions. In the Victorian Era, what we see as little more than mild hints they viewed as akin to hardcore pornography. Much as with The Turn of the Screw, Picnic at Hanging Rock, even The Usual Suspects, a huge amount of background remains tantalizingly unclear. The major mistake folks generally make in adapting this story is avoiding the heart of what the author originally created.
Mind you the Polish television version from the 1980s and the upcoming independent film Styria (that I’ve had the good fortune to see) manage to avoid these mistakes quite neatly.
Hopefully, so have I!