Abraham Lincoln: Vampire hunter. Who knew?

by Russell's Rants

Originally published June 24, 2012


Imagine that Buffy has morphed from a girl into a boy. Oh, and that she’s gone back 150 years and gotten herself elected president on the eve of the Civil War. Well, that would make her Abraham Lincoln. And, indeed, she is. Or in the new motion picture by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, Abraham Lincoln has become Buffy, the Vampire Slayer – or Hunter, as it were.

The book was good historical fiction

I did not come to the movie with a blank slate. I love Abraham Lincoln. I’m no Lincoln scholar, but I did make my way through two of the more recent popular histories of the 16th president: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and last year’s bestseller by James L. Swanson, Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis. So about to board an international flight a couple months ago without reading material, I picked up the Lincoln Vampire Hunter novel by Seth Grahame-Smith at the airport bookstore. What could make a 14-hour flight go by more quickly than a fantasy combination of my favorite historical figure and vampires?

What I liked most about the book was that Grahame-Smith did his research and wrote a pretty good piece of historical fiction – with dramatic flight-scenes between Lincoln and the undead thrown in. Think Gore Vidal gone Goth. Seth Grahame-Smith’s genre is to take period pieces, or in this case a real historical figure, and re-imagine them in a fantastical, super-natural way. His last book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was apparently a big hit as well.

The motion picture mangles history

So it should have come as no surprise to me that the Lincoln Vampire Hunter motion picture not only departed from the storyline of the book, but completely mangled the history of Lincoln’s biography. It had Lincoln disagreeing with Stephen Douglas on ceasing the expansion of slavery into the territories, which was the real Lincoln’s actual position, and reduced the Lincoln-Douglas debates to something non-recognizable as such. It had Lincoln paraphrasing the concept from his famous speech that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” without saying anything nearly so eloquent as the original. And it had Mary Todd Lincoln fleeing Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, when it was Jefferson Davis, his family and whole administration that had to quickly flee Richmond as the South was crumbling.

And speaking of Mary Todd Lincoln, her portrayal in the movie by the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead has to be the most positive reinvention of Mrs. Lincoln anywhere. First, movie, but not the book, conflates the characters of Mary Todd and Ann Rutledge, who was Lincoln’s actual first, and probably only, love and soul mate. And secondly, it shows Mary Todd as being in a dark mood only once, right after the death of their son, Willie, at the White House – naturally at the hands of vampires. In actuality, Mrs. Lincoln was constantly unhappy with her husband and the Washington social scene. It was almost comical to see her portrayed as perky, heroic and downright attractive!

But it is unfair to judge what was created as major Hollywood motion picture by the standards of historical accuracy. Of course, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would only translate to the big screen if it looked more like the original, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The movie even creates a main character, Adam, absent from the book as Lincoln’s vampire nemesis – along with a coven of vampires that could have been lifted from any Buffy script. And as an action movie about vampire slaying, I enjoyed what I was watching.

Lincoln remains “one for the ages”

Even more, I am grateful that Abraham Lincoln remains a towering figure of national, popular acclaim. The fact is that in the age of the Tea Party, anything remotely pro-federal government or anti-state sovereignty is falsely castigated as an attack on liberty. Abraham Lincoln stood for, above everything else, the preservation of the federal union: “He Saved the Union” are the words engraved above his head in the Lincoln Memorial. And emerging from the Whig Party, Lincoln stood for massive federal government investment in roads, waterways, rail connections and schools – as a way for poor farmers to improve their lot in life. Today, we call that infrastructure spending. Tea partiers would likely see Lincoln’s Homestead Act as a redistribution of wealth to the poor. I have long argued that if he were alive today, Lincoln would be a Democrat.

The ideology of the parties has switched 180 degrees. Indeed, it was Old Jeff Davis himself that characterized the original Civil War as an infringement on “constitutional liberty.” “States’ rights” in the 19th Century was a code word for protection of that peculiar Southern institution called slavery – and in the 20th Century for the preservation of Jim Crow and hostility to civil rights laws. In the 21st Century, “states’ rights” and the Tenth Amendment are being used to justify the roll-back of the federal government to the equivalent of the Gilded Age, with no regulation and low taxes for the wealthy. So in this modern context, it’s nice to see that Abraham Lincoln remains a hero to all.