I wanted to like the movie version of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” At least, I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.
Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel is one of my favorite books in the least couple of years. It is audacious and clever and plays it absolutely straight in telling the hidden history of our 16th president: Lincoln spent much of his life killing the monsters that took his mother away from him (and their comrades), gradually discovering that vampires are at the heart of the conflict tearing the nation apart and propelling it toward Civil War.
Grahame-Smith made vampires among the forces bolstering the Confederacy because of the ready-made sustenance slaves presented for the undead.
Laugh if you want at the outrageousness of Grahame-Smith’s story, but it worked. Lincoln was never treated as a ridiculous figure. And blaming vampires for some of the tragic turns of Lincoln’s life served the plot well.
So I had fairly high hopes for Timur Bekmambatov’s film, adapted by Grahame-Smith himself and starring Benjamin Walker as Lincoln.
My hopes persisted even after I saw footage that seemed to indicate the movie replaced the somber tone of the book’s story with over-the-top action scenes.
After seeing the movie today, I have to say the film gets some things right but goes dreadfully astray with others.
First, the good:
Lincoln’s character is spot on. Walker plays him with the absolute correct amount of gravitas and sorrow. Since much of the movie’s plot – like the book’s storyline – takes place before Lincoln gets to the White House, Walker is quite good as a young, athletic Lincoln, the rail-splitter who knew how to handle an axe.
The mysterious Henry. Dominic Cooper is good as Henry, Lincoln’s mentor in vampire-killing, who has some secrets of his own. In the book, there’s a real tension between the two as Lincoln wants to take revenge on the vampire who killed his mother and Henry strings him along, setting him up to meet and kill other vampires. There’s a bit of that tension in the movie (although not enough).
The tone. While the movie is infinitely flashier and more action-filled than the book, the sorrowful feel of the story – which matches the tragic events of Lincoln’s life – feels right.
The action. Although they were out of left field, two big action set pieces in the movie are quite fun. In one, Lincoln pursues his mother’s killer through a herd of wild horses. In the second, the heroes fight the bad guys on a moving train. There’s the perfect amount of collapsing train trestles and moments when people almost slip off the tops of rail cars.
What doesn’t work, with the biggest minus saved for last (spoilers when we get there):
The Black Best Friend. In the movie, Lincoln has a lifelong friend, William (Anthony Mackie), a free black man who joins in the fight against vampires. William has some very cool scenes and dishes out punishment to vampires about as well as Lincoln does. But the character, which didn’t exist in the book, feels shoehorned into the story.
So does the villain, Adam, played by Rufus Sewell. In the book, a conspiracy of Southerners, sympathizers and vampires make up Lincoln’s shadowy enemies. In the movie, most of the emphasis is placed on Adam, a 5,000-year-old vampire who’s part of the slaves-for-food plot but mostly seems like a character created to give Lincoln somebody to kill in the final reel.
The de-emphasized role of slavery. In the book, slavery and vampires go hand-in-hand. In the movie, the relationship – and the foul strengths vampirism brings to the Confederacy – feel like it’s fairly glossed over.
The final scene (spoilers!). In the movie, after Lincoln and Henry triumph over evil vampire Adam, Henry urges Lincoln to allow him to turn the president into a vampire so the two can fight evil together through eternity. Lincoln dismisses the idea and goes off to Ford’s Theatre and his destiny. Flash forward to present-day when Henry appears to foil a presidential assassination attempt.
How about this for an ending, right out of the book: After the war is won, vampire John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. Henry tracks Booth and kills him. Henry returns to Lincoln’s side. Flash forward a century. Two distinctive men watch as Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I have a dream” speech, the Lincoln Memorial nearby. The men are Henry and Lincoln.
Henry observes, “Some men are just too interesting to die.”
The finale of the book was so much better, so much stronger, that changing it, taking Lincoln out of it, very nearly ruined the movie for me.
If you haven’t read “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” you might like the movie’s enjoyably wild action scenes and its heartfelt portrayal of our most tragic president.
If you’ve read the book, the movie will leave you wondering what happened.