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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How Nosferatu Ripped Off Dracula and Became a Plagiarism Success Story

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On March 4, 1922, spectators filtered into the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Garden to witness horror movie history. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror opens with a young clerk traveling to see a wealthy count at his castle in the mountains. Upon arrival, he's greeted by a tall man in black. Later in the clerk's stay, he discovers that his host has been spending his days asleep in a coffin beneath the building.

For many viewers, the premiere of the silent film marked the first time they saw a vampire on the screen. The most memorable images, like Count Orlok's shadow creeping across a wall, or his fatal reaction to sunlight, are now tropes of the genre the film helped create. But all of Nosferatu's innovation didn't change the fact that it blatantly ripped off Bram Stoker's Dracula—a detail that nearly buried the work before it had a chance to earn its reputation as a cinematic masterpiece.

German film producer Albin Grau claimed he got the idea to make the picture while stationed in Serbia during World War I. There he met locals who shared with him legends of blood-sucking demons terrorizing the countryside. He was especially captivated by the story of one farmer who claimed his own father was a member of the undead. Unable to forget what he had heard, he decided to make vampires the basis of his next project upon returning home.

Even though Grau's inspiration for the subject matter came from personal experience, he was set on pulling the actual content of the film from the most popular vampire tale of the day: Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. He partnered with fellow producer Enrico Dieckmann to form Prana Film in 1921 and hired Henrik Galeen to write the script and F.W. Murnau to direct. The only obstacle standing in the way of the production was the fact that they didn’t have permission to make it.

Dracula's Irish author had been dead for nearly a decade at this point, and his material was already in the public domain in the U.S. due to a copyright error (although this wouldn’t be discovered until later). But in Germany, where the book wouldn't become public property until 50 years after the writer's death, his widow Florence Balcombe Stoker held ownership of his work. The filmmakers were either unable or unwilling to get her to sign off on the project, so to make the movie they would either need to leave the country or wait until the 1960s.

They ended up choosing a third option: Going ahead with it anyway and hoping no one would care. The team rationalized this decision by tweaking some of Dracula's most identifiable elements. The main setting went from London to a fictional town in Germany, the protagonist Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, and Count Dracula was changed to Count Orlock. But for the most part, the major characters and plot points remained the same.

Both stories start with a man signing away a house in his hometown to a man later revealed to be a vampire and end with that vampire preying on the man's wife. Even the word nosferatu, an Eastern European term for the undead, was lifted from the pages of Stoker's novel.

When Nosferatu premiered it looked as though Prana Film might have gotten away with its intellectual thievery. The film was warmly received by German critics, who praised its striking visuals and unsettling atmosphere. But the picture didn't perform as well at the box office as expected.

Following an ambitious promotional campaign that cost more than the production itself, Nosferatu's ticket sales were underwhelming, leaving Prana Film broke. And in case there was any chance of the company rising from the dead to make more movies, Florence Stoker arrived to hammer the final nail into its coffin.

The 63-year-old London resident learned of the unlicensed movie through an anonymous source. She received an envelope containing a flyer from Nosferatu's debut at the Berlin Zoological Garden; an explanation for why it had been sent to her wasn't needed. In clear writing it said, "Freely adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula." If a legal adaptation had been made of her late husband's book, she would have known about it—in the years after Bram's death, she had acted as his literary executor and hadn't approved of any feature films. Royalties from the novel were still a significant part of her income, and she wasn't about to let anyone make a penny from it without her consent.

With support from the British Incorporated Society of Authors, Florence got a lawyer and sued Prana Film for copyright infringement. The defendant, which credited Bram Stoker by name on both the promotional materials and in the opening credits of the film itself, was an easy target. But Prana had declared bankruptcy before getting to court, so even though Florence was in the right, there was no money there for her to collect.

Realizing there was no financial win to be gained, she shifted her efforts toward ensuring Nosferatu would never again be seen by human eyes. The judge ruled in her favor and swiftly deployed government agents across Germany to seize all copies of the film and have them burned. The movie was eradicated from its home country and Murnau's work was set to join other lost films of the silent era.

But it wasn't long before it resurfaced. The ordered destruction turned out to be not entirely thorough, and a surviving reel ended up in the United States. Overseas, the movie enjoyed an existence free from the legal reach that made it unlawful in Germany. Copies were made from the imported film, and Nosferatu found a new audience of admirers among American horror film lovers.

Florence, naturally, was furious. Back in Europe, she continued to round up any copies left floating around and had them set ablaze. She railed against every new screening she heard of, but failed to stop the film's growing cult status. Eventually she tried a different tactic: If the courts weren't able to kill Nosferatu, she figured a second vampire film might do the trick.

In 1931, Universal Pictures released its own take on Dracula, the first adaptation to receive Florence Stoker's blessing. Despite Bela Lugosi’s sexy portrayal of the title vampire—as opposed to Max Schreck’s vermin-like monster—and the film earning an impressive enough sum to encourage the studio to produce more monster movies, it was ineffective in wiping out Nosferatu for good.

Nosferatu endured the fight to have it forgotten thanks to early fans preserving the film and passing it along, making it not only the first true Dracula flick, but the first cult classic. Florence did everything she could to diminish its chances of survival until her death in 1937.

In the decades since, Dracula has returned to the movies again and again, reimagined as everything from a kids' cartoon to a 30th-century space vampire. He's currently the literary character with the most silver screen portrayals, with over 270 cinematic appearances. But even with all the new competition, there's something about Nosferatu's non-Dracula Dracula that still resonates with viewers nearly 100 years later.

In a 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Ironically, in the long run Murnau was the making of Stoker, because Nosferatu inspired dozens of other Dracula films, none of them as artistic or unforgettable."

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Pop Culture
What Would It Cost to Operate a Real Jurassic Park?
Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.
Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

As the Jurassic Park franchise has demonstrated, trapping prehistoric monsters on an island with bite-sized tourists may not be the smartest idea (record-breaking box office numbers aside). On top of the safety concerns, the cost of running a Jurassic Park would raise its own set of pretty pricey issues. Energy supplier E.ON recently collaborated with physicists from Imperial College London to calculate how much energy the fictional attraction would eat up in the real world.

The infographic below borrows elements that appear in both the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films. One of the most costly features in the park would be the aquarium for holding the massive marine reptiles. To keep the water heated and hospitable year-round, the park would need to pay an energy bill of close to $3 million a year.

Maintaining a pterosaur aviary would be an even more expensive endeavor. To come up with this cost, the researchers looked at the yearly amount of energy consumed by the Eden Project, a massive biome complex in the UK. Using that data, they concluded that a structure built to hold winged creatures bigger than any bird alive today would add up to $6.6 million a year in energy costs.

Other facilities they envisioned for the island include an egg incubator, embryo fridge, hotel, and emergency bunker. And of course, there would be electric fences running 24/7 to keep the genetic attractions separated from park guests. In total, the physicists estimated that the park would use 455 million kilowatt hours a year, or the equivalent of 30,000 average homes. That annual energy bill comes out to roughly $63 million.

Keep in mind that energy would still only make up one part of Jurassic Park's hypothetical budget—factoring in money for lawsuits would be a whole different story.

Map of dinosaur park.
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Comics
20 Things You Might Not Know About Garfield
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Everyone’s favorite lazy, lasagna-loving cat made his debut 40 years ago, but Garfield is still just as popular today. The comic strip spawned a TV show plus a number of video games, feature films, books, and, of course, holiday specials—not to mention one very memorable car window craze. We sat down with Garfield creator Jim Davis to nail down a solid list of 20 things you might not know about the wisecracking feline.

1. JIM DAVIS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO FOCUS THE STRIP ON JON.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I ran some early ideas at a local paper,” Jim Davis tells Mental Floss, “to see how I felt about it and I called the strip Jon. It was about him, but he had this wise cat who, every time, came back zinging him. He always had the great payoff. At the time, I worked for T.K. Ryan—the cartoonist for Tumbleweeds—and I showed it to him and told him how every time I got to the punch line the cat zings him. And T.K. said, 'Well, what does that tell you, Jim?'" he laughs. “The strip must be about the cat. Go with it.”

2. JON WAS A CARTOONIST IN THE VERY FIRST COMIC STRIP, BUT IT WAS NEVER REALLY MENTIONED AGAIN.

“I didn’t want to tread on the fact that Jon’s a cartoonist because my biggest fear was getting a little too inside," Davis says. "That it would be a little too easy for me to write. I didn’t want to lose the readers just for my own enjoyment, or for a handful of peers. Also, I purposely gave him a job right off the top for the reason that The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never explained what Ozzie did for a living. Nobody ever knew because he was always in the house with Harriet and Ricky and David. Just hanging around. So I thought I would give Jon a job right off the top to avoid being asked what he does for a living in interviews.”

3. GARFIELD WAS NAMED AFTER DAVIS'S GRANDFATHER, JAMES A. GARFIELD DAVIS ...

... who was named after President James A. Garfield. That’s quite a connection. Now just imagine a fat, wisecracking, lasagna-eating cat as the President of the United States of America. (Sounds like a dead-ringer for William Howard Taft!)

4. GARFIELD IS SET IN DAVIS'S HOMETOWN OF MUNCIE, INDIANA, BUT THAT'S ALSO MOSTLY LEFT UNSAID.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I would like for readers in Sydney, Australia to think that Garfield lives next door,” Davis says. “Dealing with eating and sleeping, being a cat, Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old. It gives me a lot more latitude for the humor for the situations.” The farm that Davis grew up on reportedly had 25 cats, several of which he based the Garfield character on.

5. DAVIS MAINTAINS COMPLETE CONTROL OVER GARFIELD'S FINAL PRODUCT, BUT HE NO LONGER DRAWS THE DAILY COMIC STRIP.

“I’m sitting here working on the writing right now,” he says. “I see gags and I work with assistants on the strip and stuff like that. We do roughs and it all filters through me so that it has one voice. We all get together occasionally in the same room and draw and work on shapes of fingers and gestures and expressions and things like that so that if any one of us draws it, you can’t tell which one did it.”

6. HE REGRETS AT LEAST ONE LICENSED GARFIELD ITEM.

According to Slate, Garfield merchandise brings in $750 million to $1 billion annually. Davis’s creation has been adapted and licensed more times than anyone could probably count, and of all of those items, there's one that Davis isn't thrilled with. “A few years ago there was a Zombie Garfield,” he says. “It was really gnarly and I thought, 'Oh, this will be fun.' So I did it and it sold okay. It was really interesting. But then I looked at it later and I go, ‘It did nothing for the character’s advancement.’ I figured I just did it because it was cool and everybody was doing it at the time. I just didn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling after doing it. But those T-shirts go away," he laughs.

7. GARFIELD HOLDS THE GUINNESS WORLD RECORD FOR BEING THE WORLD'S MOST WIDELY SYNDICATED COMIC STRIP.

Garfield is syndicated in more than 2500 newspapers and journals. The cat also has more than 16 million fans on Facebook. That’s one seriously popular feline.

8. GARFIELD'S CHARACTER DESIGN HAS CHANGED MANY TIMES OVER THE YEARS.

There's one constant, though: The fat cat has always been—and will always be—fat. “If he lost weight, that would effectively end Garfield as we know it,” Davis says. “Garfield sends a healthy message in that he’s not perfect. He knows that and he’s cool with that. He’s happy with himself. If everybody were, there would probably be fewer disorders of all natures. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s the imperfection in all of us underneath. I think that makes him probably easier to identify with than a slim, athletic character in the comics.”

9. DAVIS REALLY ENJOYED SCARING KIDS WITH GARFIELD'S HALLOWEEN ADVENTURE.

"It was such a challenge to try to think of something that could be scary, but fortunately we got to work with animation—we could marry scary sounds with scary music and scary images, and set the stage for a scary experience," Davis says. "Even down to the use of the actor’s voice. C. Lindsay Workman [who voices the old man that tells Garfield and Odie about the vengeful ghost pirates] was just a great character actor. I think we took our time to build to a scary scene where the ghost pirates invaded the house to look for the buried treasure. We tried to throw as many elements together as possible to create a situation where, at least for a few minutes, it could create a scary situation for the young viewers."

10. CREATING THE GHOST PIRATES IN THE HALLOWEEN TV SPECIAL WAS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

“We did it in our own art department (here at Paws, Inc.) because we wanted to make it just right,” the Garfield creator told us. “It was done with a white, chalky pencil on a rough texture so that everything would be really grainy. Back then, we animated on real film, so in order to get that glow we did what’s called a double burn. We exposed the film twice to overexpose the ghosts, and that gave it that eerie glow. We were totally in control of the process and the results turned out very well.”

11. IN 2011, A FULL-LENGTH STAGE MUSICAL CALLED GARFIELD LIVE WAS STAGED IN MUNCIE.

The musical was supposed to start touring the United States in September 2010, but was delayed until January 2011, when it premiered in Muncie. Davis wrote Garfield Live, while Michael Dansicker and Bill Meade handled the music and lyrics.

12. DAVIS LOVED THE CASTING OF BILL MURRAY AS THE VOICE OF GARFIELD IN 2004'S GARFIELD: THE MOVIE.


Muncie Magazine

“It was because of Bill Murray’s attitude [that he was cast],” Davis tells us. “It wasn’t really so much his voice. It was the fact that he embodies the attitude that Garfield has always displayed in the strip. Lorenzo [Music] obviously wasn’t a choice since he passed away years ago, and when the producers said, ‘Bill Murray would like to do the voice,’ I thought, ‘Oh, cool.’ My biggest concern about doing a CGI Garfield with live action was that people wouldn’t buy into the fact that this was our Garfield—the Garfield we’d known all these years. But I thought that as soon as they heard Bill Murray’s voice they’d get it. There will be that emotional tag going with his voice. That will establish the fact that, ‘Yes, this character has attitude.’”

13. THERE'S A GREAT LINK BETWEEN GARFIELD VOICE ACTOR LORENZO MUSIC AND BILL MURRAY.

Lorenzo Music provided the voice of Garfield in all of the cat’s TV specials from 1982 to 1991, as well as during the 1988 to 1994 run of Garfield and Friends. Music also provided the voice of Peter Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters. Murray, of course, played Venkman in the Ghostbusters films and would, in 2004, provide the voice of Garfield in Garfield: The Movie. “I didn’t know about the relationship with Ghostbusters until years later."

14. THE MACY'S PARADE ONCE CITED SHAMU THE WHALE AS THE PARADE'S LARGEST BALLOON, BUT DAVIS SAYS GARFIELD WAS LARGER.

“In the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, they had published that their biggest balloon ever, by volume of gas, was Shamu the Whale with over 18,000 cubic feet," Davis says. "The fact is that the Garfield balloon was filled with 18,907 cubic feet of helium. So we just confirmed that the Garfield balloon, in fact, was the largest one by volume of gas.”

15. THERE ARE ONLY THREE COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD WHERE GARFIELD IS NOT NAMED GARFIELD.

“In Sweden, Garfield is known as Gustav,” the Garfield creator says. “There are only three countries in the whole world where he’s not Garfield and they’re all in the Nordics.” The other two are Norway and Finland.

16. THE STUCK ON YOU GARFIELD PLUSH WITH SUCTION CUPS WAS THE RESULT OF A MISUNDERSTANDING.


Amazon

In the 1990s, it wasn't unusual to see a number of cars with little Garfield plushes stuck to the windows with suction cups. But that wasn't the original design—or the intended use. “I designed the first Stuck on You doll with Velcro on the paws, thinking that people would stick it on curtains,” Davis says. “It came back as a mistake with suction cups. They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars.”

17. THE GARFIELD COMIC STRIP BOOKS HAVE BEEN HUGE HITS.

“The 11 Garfield comic strip books have all been number one on the New York Times Bestseller List,” Davis says. “At one time there were seven on the list simultaneously. At that point, they changed the way the list was done because other publishing houses were complaining that their authors couldn’t get on the list because of Garfield. Garfield at Large (1980) was number one for two solid years. Over 100 weeks.” The title of every compilation book is a reference to either food or Garfield’s weight.

18. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND STEPHEN KING ARE AMONG THE MANY CELEBRITIES WHO OWN ORIGINAL GARFIELD STRIPS.

They both contacted Davis personally for the strips; the cartoonist happily obliged.

19. DESPITE GARFIELD BEING INSANELY POPULAR FOR DECADES, DAVIS IS STILL MOSTLY ANONYMOUS.


Muncie Magazine

“Being a cartoonist, you really enjoy a lot of anonymity,” he says. “You take a half-dozen of the biggest cartoonists and walk them down any street, nobody would notice them. They only know their characters. So I just hide behind Garfield. The only time anyone knows the name or spots me is if I’m out on book tour and I’m meant to do publicity. We don’t suffer any of the kind of attention problems that I think people do on TV or in movies. It’s not a big deal. I’m sitting here in the countryside of East Central Indiana, so it’s pretty quiet.”

20. DAVIS'S FATHER'S FAVORITE COMIC STRIP WASN'T GARFIELD.

Davis's father and namesake, who passed away in 2016, liked Garfield but preferred another comic strip: Beetle Bailey. “Nobody else knew that until today,” Davis tells us.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

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