How Penny Dreadful Adapts Multiple Books at Once
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
In the second episode of the new season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, a character named Angelique says, “Stay young and beautiful, Dorian Gray.” This line, like much of the show, plays a little on the nose — like Samuel L. Jackson talking about snakes on a plane in the movie Snakes on a Plane. And yet, in its bombastic and unsubtle love of 19th century Gothic literature, Penny Dreadful is one of the most interesting bookish television shows of all time. Has there ever been another TV show or film that was nearly adapting five literary works at once?
Has there ever been another TV show or film that was nearly adapting five literary works at once?
Penny Dreadful features a team of people fighting monsters, vampires, witches and similar fare lurking around in the gaslight and fog of Victorian London. While not all the characters are taken directly from literature, the show’s DNA is formed from books. Mina Harker’s (née Murray) disappearance was a major plot point in season one and Mina herself is taken from a Bram Stoker novel you’ve probably heard of: Dracula. Dr. Frankenstein (of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) features prominently on the show and may hold the Frankenstein record for creating undead (It’s alive! It’s alive!) monsters. And then, of course, there’s Dorian Gray, who benefits the most from Penny Dreadful’s late night slot by having orgy parties way raunchier than anything Wilde insinuated in his brilliant novel.
Those familiar with Alan Moore’s graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will find obvious points of comparisons with Penny Dreadful. Moore created a kind of Victorian “Avengers” that featured characters like Captain Nemo (from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Dr. Jekyll (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Ishmael from Moby-Dick, and many others. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was lead by guy named Allan Quatermain, an English big game hunter who first appeared in H. Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines. In the poorly received (and poorly conceived) film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Quatermain was played by former James Bond actor Sean Connery.
Interestingly, another former James Bond plays a very similar character on Penny Dreadful. Timothy Dalton stars as Sir Malcolm Murray, the default leader of Team Dreadful. (They don’t call themselves that. They don’t call themselves anything.) Like Quatermain, Malcolm Murray is also a big game hunter, but is more interested in bagging the vampires that snatched his daughter Mina then anything else. While Mina is a mostly absent character in Penny Dreadful, she’s a main character in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So, is Penny Dreadful just a sideways sort of Alan Moore rip-off?
Not really. True, the novel concept of having characters from Victorian novels team-up and do cool stuff may have been first executed by Moore with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it’s like not he owns any of these characters. Public domain characters are wonderful precisely because they can allow fan fiction to become professional fiction. Nicholas Meyer’s three Sherlock Holmes pastiches — The Seven Per-cent Solution, The Canary Trainer and The West End Horror — all found Holmes hanging out with some other 19th century luminaries both real and imagined. This included but was not limited to the Phantom of the Opera, Sigmund Freud, and, well, Oscar Wilde. Penny Dreadful uses its public domain characters differently from Moore (and more like Meyer) because though the show is totally over-the-top, the various characters are treated with a little more dignity than in Moore’s comics. Yes, Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray is really, really hot and wants to sleep with everyone, but you do also the sense that he’s truly haunted by the painting that he keeps hidden. Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein is played by Harry Treadaway with such dorky innocence that you can’t help but feel sorry the guy and his caravan of monsters. In a nod to the original Shelley text, Frankenstein’s monsters on Penny Dreadful can talk, are educated, and are very, very thoughtful. His first creature — who made a frightening surprise return in the first season — has recently taken to calling himself John Clare after the famed poet. Even when Penny Dreadful has a walking, breathing, living literary reference, it can’t seem to help itself by making even more literary references.
The show’s title is a bit ironic, as only one of the five books being referenced — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Grey, some aspects of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Varney the Vampire — was actually considered a “penny dreadful.” Penny dreadfuls were cheap zine-like publications which only printed the scariest, gruesomest fiction available in Victorian England. In an early scene in season one, Sir Malcolm even looks at a copy of the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire with knowing recognition. Though the show is outright using characters from Dracula, the vampires that the Dreadfuls have fought so far actually have more in common with Varney than with the famous Count.
Part of the reason this literary mash-up works so well is because other main characters are not plucked from the pages of beloved books, but instead feel like the have been. Josh Hartnett’s Ian Chandler is an American gunslinger with a big secret. (Spoiler alert: he’s a werewolf.) Meanwhile, arguably the show’s true lead is Eva Green’s clairvoyant spooky tarot card reading Vanessa Ives, who — if she isn’t being bugged by vampires — is having to deal with maybe being possessed by the devil. Both Vanessa and Ethan give Penny Dreadful something League of Extraordinary Gentlemen never had: a sense of true originality. When there’s long scenes in which we’re hanging out with only Ethan or Vanessa, it’s actually truly jarring when they casually mention that Dr. Frankenstein is on his way over. This is the best kind of literary mash-up: not a full on adaptation, but not a careless use of the great material either.
If you’re obsessed with the phantasmagoria of Victorian literature like I am, then I think you’ll find Penny Dreadful to be ultimately satisfying. It’s not a perfect show by any stretch of the imagination, and it may need to start pulling in even more literary heroes from other sources to keep things fresh. But the ultimate triumph of this show is you get the sense in every scene that the writers had their noses buried in old volumes of their favorite books just moments before the cameras started rolling.