Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu’s 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction. It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version). It’s also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style. So contemporary, in fact, that it’s been turned into a 36-episode web series. Here’s the first installment:
I love this show. It’s funny, sweet, goofy (wait until you get to the puppets), and suspenseful. It takes its limitations and turns them into strengths, embodying Nicholas Meyer’s maxim, “art thrives on restriction.” More, it’s post-modern in the best possible way: the attractions between and among the female characters are never remarked upon, but simply accepted, creating an endearing level of innocent romanticism.
The show’s writers, Jordan Hall and Ellen Simpson, were kind enough to talk to me about creating the show and the many ways they brought LeFanu’s story into the modern world.
What aspect of LeFanu’s original novella spoke to you most vividly, and why? How did you decide to present the show from a single laptop’s POV?
Jordan Hall: The fixed camera POV was built into the concept, because Smokebomb was looking for a Lizzie Bennet Diaries-style adaptation. As for Carmilla– what struck me most about the novella was the simple fact of two indelible female characters. Le Fanu’s Carmilla is fascinating, and compellingly drawn, and that remains, despite what a contemporary lens allows us to recognize as problematic in the novella’s politics of representation. Her dialogue is striking and rich and thoughtful, and I love that. There’s also this insinuation of an entire hidden world of vampires in the second half of the novella, which struck me as unusual for the “singular monstrosity” style of the gothic genre which Carmilla seems to be a part of. And, of course, just a huge treasure trove of “Good god, woman, She’s a vampire!” moments that I needed to make a lot of jokes about.
Ellen Simpson: Yes, the “Look at the vampire, Laura, look at her attempting to eat you, look at her avoiding the sun and sleeping all day!” moments were some of my favorite in the novel. They were just so striking in their transparency at times that you just wanted to reach into the book itself and shake Laura for being so oblivious. There was a certain charm to that though, that I think we’ve managed to capture pretty well in the show. As Jordan said, the fixed-camera was built into the concept, but I think it really helped to narrow what the viewer was able to see and allow us to play up some of those same moments of Laura’s lovable naivety from the book, while also providing some more modern interpretations of some of the more problematic elements of the story. Le Fanu’s prose, as well, draws the reader in and holds their attention beautifully. I fell in love with the writing, but also read the story at an age where seeing two girls falling in love, even if presented in a problematic way, was very important to me.
What’s the most frustrating thing about being locked into single POV for the entire series?
Jordan: I don’t actually find the single POV frustrating. A challenge? Definitely. But also a kind of gift– there’s a way in which the single POV both makes a lot of decisions for you, and forces you to be creative within the constraints of those decisions. I think many writers would tell you that they do their best work by setting limits for themselves and working within them.
Ellen: This is actually where the social media elements of the show can be really helpful! Because we’re seeing such a narrow view of things, almost exclusively from Laura’s (rather biased, at times) perspective. Having Carmilla have a presence on social media helps to provide a larger view of what’s going on, on top of some great foreshadowing. And using the twitter and tumblr accounts we’ve been able to expand the universe presented in the show and show more of what’s going on at the university.
In LeFanu’s novel, Carmilla initially plays the victim to gain Laura’s trust, and in the series she mentions using this approach in the past. Why did you choose to have her more abrasive and/or assertive in the series?
Jordan: That character choice emerged very naturally from two decisions I made about the narrative, fairly early on. (And, uh– spoilers for the first season here:) One, I knew that I didn’t want to have Carmilla as the ultimate antagonist, and two, I knew that I wanted to essentially retcon some parts of the second half of the original novella– basically approach it as a kind of contested history. From those decisions came the idea that 2014 Carmilla wasn’t so much a willing participant in her mother’s plans, and her callous, rebellious teenager attitude just developed itself from there. As a bonus, that also allowed me to steer directly into “terrible roommate” territory, which was very much a place we wanted the relationship to go.
Ellen: When I got Jordan’s original one sheet, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical that it could work, because, as you said, I saw Carmilla as playing the victim, not rebelling against her mother’s actions. But as we worked through breaking story and plotting things out, I gotta say that Jordan was right: it was a very natural progression in terms of Carmilla’s character. I think doubly so when you consider what she’s been through in order to retcon the second half of the novel.
The plot brings a lot of original elements to the story, such as Carmilla’s “mother” being a more active antagonist, and her “brother” being around. Why did you depart so strongly from the novel?
Jordan: As I’ve mentioned above, and in other interviews, one of the things I knew I wanted to do was grapple with the way the original text depicted the “monstrous lesbian”, and part of doing that definitely meant that Carmilla wasn’t going to be the villain of the piece. Looking at the original text, Carmilla’s mother–who definitely seemed to be in charge of their vampiric con-game–seemed like a strong choice. And of course, any villain worth her salt needs minions…
Ellen: You have to remember that Carmilla is the original evil lesbian vampire. She is the one who first personified all the tropes that we’ve seen in every piece of media from 1871 on. In that sense, it would have been to the show’s detriment to present Carmilla as that same villain. It’s 2014, we no longer suffer from the lesbian panic of the 1870s, and if we were to approach the story in exactly the same way, you’d run up against all sorts of problems regarding queer representation, female representation and a whole slew of consent issues that frankly make me uncomfortable to think about. She doesn’t work as well as the villain in a modern interpretation, but her mother, shadowy but definitely with an ulterior motive leaving Carmilla with Laura and her father, works fantastically as a bad guy.
Will we ever catch more than a glimpse of Carmilla’s “mom”?
Jordan: Well, that remains to be seen, doesn’t it?
Ellen: Indeed it does.
Thanks to Jordan and Ellen for taking the time to talk to me. You can find season one of Carmilla on YouTube, and the producers recently announced there will be a season 2, beginning in spring of 2015. And here’s the video for the series’ captivating theme by the band Soles: