Why Can’t We Have a Good Vampire Chronicles Adaptation?

Outside of Dracula, no other book has shaped our cultural image of vampires as much as Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. It explicitly shifted the genre’s focus from a monstrous Otherized invader to the existential dread of immortality, paving the way for other sympathetic, sexy vampires as it went. The influence of Interview (and to a lesser extent, its sequels) cannot be overstated: it did away with the majority of Stoker’s lore, introduced the mechanic of new vampires being created by drinking their maker’s blood, and invented the archetype of the adult vampire trapped in a child’s body. At its best, the series was a respite for those looking for sympathetic queer content at a time when mass-marketed titles, much less genre fiction, contained almost none; and it was resonant in its depictions of depression and anxiety.

And yet, its adaptations can be counted on one hand: two comic books (an ongoing run of the first three books in the ‘90s and a graphic novel in 2012), one film in 1994, another in 2002, and an Elton John-scored stage musical that ran for fewer than 100 performances across two coasts from 2005 to 2006. What’s kept this series on the edges of cultural osmosis, and what would it take to give it the adaptation it deserves?

Beware of Rice

Rice is best known in fan circles for sending threatening cease & desist letters to fanfiction writers, getting into fights with fast food restaurant owners who build chains where her fictional characters once stood, coining the phrase “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective” while arguing with Amazon reviewers, and for her Facebook fandom’s (nee “The People of the Page”) tendency toward doxxing and threats. Put bluntly, just because the woman is 78 years old doesn’t mean my marginalized ass isn’t writing this with a pit of dread in my stomach.

What can be said is that Rice has been heavily involved in adaptations of her work. She wrote several screenplay treatments for Interview with the Vampire, including the final one ultimately used for Neil Jordan’s film. She was also thoroughly against Tom Cruise’s casting as Lestat, but the decision held despite her disapproval. The performance, which remains one of the film’s most enduring charms in spite of Brad Pitt’s void of chemistry as his costar, was so affecting that after the fact she took out an 8-page ad to praise the film and his performance.

This is not to create a direct correlation between Rice’s lack of involvement — aside from Aaliyah’s iconic performance, there is very little to say in praise of 2002’s straightwashed Queen of the Damned — but it is a potent encapsulation of the reward for taking risks, as well as the fact that when it comes to adaptation, creators can sometimes be too close to the material to allow changes that will allow it to flourish in another medium.

Lestat: The Musical
Lestat: The Musical

A Brief Hulu History

Talk of a Vampire Chronicles adaptation began stirring again in 2016, when Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) started working on a new screenplay and threatening people with the prospect of Jared Leto as Lestat. While Paramount briefly held the license to the series in 2017, the film project never emerged. Things were quiet again until January 2018, when Bryan Fuller joined the now television-bound project as showrunner. Given that his take on Hannibal is the closest a piece of live-action media has ever come to embodying all the best parts of the Vampire Chronicles (the ridiculous-but-nail-biting gore! The lovably pretentious conversations about morality! The queer pageantry!), it seemed a match made in heaven.

In May, Rice’s social media finally announced that Fuller had left his proclaimed dream project in February 2018. Posts about Fuller’s involvement, including those referenced in news articles, are no longer available on Rice’s Facebook fan page. Instead, Anne’s son Christopher Rice announced that he had written a pilot script starting with the second novel in the series, The Vampire Lestat — perhaps an expected shift, given that both Rices were heavily involved in the prospective planning process up to now. In July 2018 the series was picked up by Hulu, but it wasn’t until February 2019 that the series would announce its next showrunner: Dee Johnson (Rizzoli & Isles). Choosing a queer woman of color was also a promising announcement for the series, given its importance to queer fans and disastrously-in-need-of-rewriting depictions of race. While the ongoing status of Johnson’s involvement is unclear, the series was dropped by Hulu in December. And that, more or less, brings us to where we are now.

Queen of the Damned
Queen of the Damned

Unpacking Forty Years of Baggage

Despite its monumental influence, the series is certainly dated: it heavily exoticizes people of color (and darker-skinned vampires turn white over time); it sings the praises of Reagan’s 1980s as a bold new era of progress, with queer mind-reading blood-drinker Lestat never once mentioning AIDS despite proudly situating himself as a social outsider; the villain of Queen of the Damned is a hand-wringing screed about misandry, and it heavily sexualizes its underaged characters and romanticizes predatory adults. Some of these problems are also additionally difficult to brush off as the choices of a dark novel rather than authorial belief, given Rice’s defense of Paula Deen after revelations about her racist behavior or the message on her fan message voicemail that both waxed poetic about a convicted pedophile and argued in favor of lowering the age of consent to 14.

It is true that people change and grow, even from such deeply troubling convictions, but it is also true that Rice has refused to work with a content editor since the success of the third Vampire Chronicles book, Queen of the Damned. While she has purportedly reconsidered this position in the past few years, that still leaves nine of the thirteen volumes in the series — thirteen of seventeen if one included the excised crossovers and two spinoffs — having been published as singularly considered first drafts. Because of this, the series has an auteur-like quality above and beyond other books; while many fans agree that the originally “trilogy” of books are classics, defenders fall off quickly after that point. How could they not, when the very next book involves assault survivor Lestat, whose tagline was “I’m going to give you the choice I never had,” becoming a rapist both physically and vampirically?

Issues of characterization, timelines, tone, and inconsistences so blatant they challenge Rice’s assertion that a copy editor was always on hand (such as important vampire cult the “Children of Darkness” suddenly being referenced as the “Children of Satan” in post-2012 novels with no acknowledgement of the change in-universe or out) have led to the once-beloved franchise becoming a blip on the radar, with 2018’s Blood Communion dropping from the New York Times bestseller list within two weeks. And yet, unlike many series with strong beginnings and disappointing sequels, these later novels are not so easily written off when discussing the prospect of adaptation (particularly serialized adaptation), as many substantially retcon the backstories of major characters. And it raises the question: is it worth reviving the Vampire Chronicles for a modern audience?

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Interview With The Vampire
Interview With The Vampire

Gold in the Trash

Despite its many problems, the series has endured for nearly half a century for good reason. Its sympathetic major characters — Louis, Lestat, Armand, Daniel, Gabrielle, and Claudia — are all survivors of oppressive systems and carry those scars into their lives as the undead. Much of the story’s horror comes from the fear that they will reenact those cycles of abuse forever, and its most triumphant moments are ones of self-realization and change. This too is somewhat marred by the inclusion of Marius, the child-grooming epitome of an Old White Man who acts as an arbiter of what among human and vampire culture is worth preserving, who is nonetheless mostly portrayed as a beneficent mentor figure.

Given this and the fact that the rising action of the trilogy involves Lestat becoming a rock star in order to call for an end to the vampiric traditions of secrecy but the conclusion involves maintaining the current power structure with a different (whiter) leader, it can sometimes seem like the story’s best moments are happy accidents, appreciable diamonds in a trash heap. But that’s what makes it so perfect for a new version. The truly exemplary remakes those that have something new to say about the material and a strong understanding of how to reconfigure a promising mess so that its best elements shine through and its worst tendencies are left behind. The Vampire Chronicles even has a unique element to help in this regard: a built-in metatextual element.

Both Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat exist as published novels within the world of the story, and are in fact part of the grand back-and-forth in Louis and Lestat’s centuries-long love affair. They’re burn books but also exercises in soul-baring, an attempt to communicate in the way they never could during their first relationship. As such, it’s important to read both with an eye for the unreliable narrator — though only Louis is called out on this score (later books seem to grow more and more disenchanted with their original lead, eventually taking the film-only accusation of his “whining” as gospel), it’s hard not to read Lestat’s claims that as a mortal he fought eight wolves alone, in the snow, while weighed down with medieval weaponry and armor he had never worn before without suspecting he might be embellishing a touch to impress his ex.

It opens the door to a multitude of options to play with framing and tone. Ideally an adaptation would start with Interview rather than The Vampire Lestat, as giving both Louis and Lestat an equal chance to speak is crucial to how the narrative unfolds, but unfortunately most talk around the series at present centers the second novel instead. That being the case, while Anne cites Game of Thrones as a comparable title to what she hopes to achieve with the series, the material lends itself better to Rocketman: another story about a queer rock star who built a brash public persona to cover his ruined relationships and buried trauma and his slow process of coming to terms and rebuilding. 

That Lestat also frequently has the well-meaning emotional intelligence of a rock also means a showrunner would be free to weave in some of the more interesting subtext, such as Gabrielle’s trans-coding, Armand’s tendency toward hyperfixation and his difficulty understanding others, or the unspoken relevance of the AIDS crisis to “The Devil’s Minion”; and conversely, to cut away the later character developments that poisoned the well for so many fans. It could embrace the queerness of the story in a way no other adaptation has truly seen fit to do. All of which is contingent on having a creative team that cares deeply about the material but isn’t so close to it that critique would be contrued as a personal attack. It could be…well, it could be a lot like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Maybe it’s not too late to help him scrape together some money for that rights buyout