Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

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Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

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She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

Come for the Gorgeous Ladies, Stay for the Wrestling

With the release of season 3 of Netflix’s GLOW, we take a moment to reflect on professional wrestling, the art of storytelling, and empowered women.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

This may come as a surprise to some who know me, but I used to watch professional wrestling as a kid. Every Monday and Friday night, my brother and I would sit down in front of the TV to watch a rotating cast of burly men (and occasionally women! Trish Stratus FTW) fight each other inside the ring and out. For nine-year-old me, it was the height of entertainment. A Stone Cold Steve Austin action figure sat next to Barbie in my closet and when the show pulled off moments of magic—like the Undertaker rising from the dead in a glorious comeback—I was absolutely blown away, eyes glued to the screen.

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John Oliver tells it like it is. Photo: Imgur

Somewhere along the way, however, my passion for WWE faded and I almost forgot that episode of my childhood. Then I watched GLOW on Netflix and remembered why I used to love wrestling so much. Set in the 80s, GLOW follows a group of oddball women who come together to form the first all-female wrestling show. Here was wrestling presented to me as I remembered it. Not as the butt of a joke. Not as “fake” fighting. Not as mere “soap opera for men.” In fact, GLOW’s particular iteration of wrestling includes very few men at all.

GLOW, which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, was an actual all-female wrestling show that originally ran from 1986 to 1990. It was ridiculous and over-the-top, with storylines about good and evil and walking stereotypes for characters. It had comic interludes and rapping and sketches. It was the modern day equivalent of vaudeville, entertaining millions with theatrics and a sense of humour.

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The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Photo: Huffpost

You might wonder why a show centred around people fighting each other would incorporate song and dance and tomfoolery. Well, while wrestling is now a billion-dollar industry, it actually began in side shows, carnivals, and vaudeville theatres. Wrestling is not just fighting dressed up with spandex and costumes but a form of performance art in its own right. Characters are larger than life, with designated “faces” (the heroes who garner our sympathy) and “heels” (the villains we love to hate) as well as storylines taking place inside and outside the ring to drive conflict. But while the wrestling is for show, that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It’s true that the outcomes are fixed and the moves are rehearsed. But the athleticism is real. It takes immense strength and ability to make wrestling look real, limit injuries, and throw your body around over and over, night after night.

The magic of GLOW is that it understands that wrestling is more than just play-acting fights. It’s also just plain fun. The real heart of wrestling, as GLOW proves, is its capacity for humour and creative storytelling. Although GLOW starts with a focus on Alison Brie’s Ruth Wilder, it quickly turns into an ensemble piece, showcasing a diverse cast of brilliant and funny women. And that’s what GLOW, both the original wrestling show and the Netflix show it inspired, is really about: a bunch of women empowering themselves and each other through wrestling.

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The cast of GLOW (Netflix). Photo: Deadline

In the penultimate episode of GLOW’s first season, the ladies attend a fancy gala, pretending to be recovering drug addicts in order to raise funds for their strange and struggling wrestling show. One by one, they make a show of speechifying to the rich crowd. But when it’s Ruth’s turn to take the stage, she breaks through to something real, admitting to a room full of strangers that she’s made mistakes, big ones, including sleeping with her best friend’s husband.

But then I found wrestling. And it saved me. Coming to the gym every day and seeing these women struggle to use their bodies and learn something new and . . . we did. And it’s a better feeling than drugs.

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Ruth (Alison Brie) describes the power of wrestling. Photo: Netflix

Like the best art, wrestling has the capacity to save. Not in the way a doctor might save a patient, but in the way that only art can—by showing us that we are not alone. GLOW is a TV show that embodies the spirit of pro wrestling. It has comedy and drama and characters you want to root for. And, of course, gorgeous ladies who come together, learn something new, and struggle to use their bodies in ways no one expected of them.

The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing

Technology connects us like never before. Halt and Catch Fire takes place during the computer boom that started it all, emphasizing the importance of human connection.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

When AMC released Halt and Catch Fire in 2014, people were quick to dismiss it as “Mad Men but in the 80s! With tech!” Now, it’s no secret that we love Mad Men here at the Rambler, but I think the comparisons did Halt and Catch Fire a disservice. The show remained criminally underrated and under-watched for four seasons, over which it grew into one of the most profoundly human shows on television.

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From left: Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, and Scoot McNairy, stars of Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: AMC

It starts at an interesting moment in history: the 1980s, when computers are not yet ubiquitous but the industry is on the cusp of … something. We know, of course, just how important computers will become, that the tech industry will explode and eventually everyone will have computers not only in their homes but in their pockets. The characters in the middle of that history, however, remain in a constant struggle to get ahead of the curve, to create the thing that will change everything. A lot of period shows rely on this kind of dramatic irony, where viewers know what the characters don’t. We can’t reach through the screen and tell them that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will beat them to the punch. But it’s fascinating to watch them keep trying anyway.

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Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) predicts the future. Photo: Giphy

Somewhere along the way, though, Halt and Catch Fire realized that the real draw was not seeing the slow birth of the Information Age, but the people at the heart of it. The dreamers and creators who so badly want to leave a mark and change the world and end up changing themselves in the process.

Joe MacMillan (the always amazing Lee Pace) starts off as a fairly typical male antihero akin to those that dominate prestige television—you know, Tony Soprano, Walter White, or, yeah, Don Draper. Joe is a visionary who manipulates, cheats, and talks his way into a fledgling Texas software company in order to transform it into a PC company to rival IBM. But the show quickly stopped trying to emulate other prestige dramas and Joe, rather than a villain or even an antihero, became the voice of the show’s underdog humanity. Joe sees what others don’t, that technology has the potential to change the way we interact with one another. So it’s fitting that Joe is the one to utter the words that could serve as Halt and Catch Fire’s thesis statement: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

That thing, in my view, is connection. Throughout its run, Halt and Catch Fire consistently emphasizes that behind all those screens and wires and lines of code are human beings, desperately seeking connection in a world that is often forbidding. It’s no surprise that Joe, an openly bisexual man, would eventually want to build something that brings people together and lets them be who they really are.

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Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: IMDb

It’s easy to be cynical about the Internet these days. But we forget that it can be a wonderful space for people to share their creativity and interests and connect with other people they might otherwise never meet. Over and over again, Halt and Catch Fire shows us that what matters is less the technology that connects us than it is the people who use it.

I Hope It’s a Funny Depression

As the stigma around mental illness lessens, more and more comedies have begun to tackle the subject. We take a look at how humour can be a powerful way to express the inexpressible darkness of depression.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Why are funny people so sad? Sounds like the setup to a joke, but it’s a serious question.  Some studies have shown a link between stand-up comedy and depression, with one study suggesting comedians are more likely to have “psychotic traits” associated with schizophrenia and manic depression. There have certainly been a number of high-profile comedians who have struggled with mental illness or succumbed to it. Even putting those cases aside, many comedians find humour in really dark or serious material, pushing the boundary of what’s funny. Is it that naturally funny people are somehow more susceptible to mental illness? Or is there something about dark subject matter that lends itself to comedy?

I can’t speak to the accuracy of those studies and I’m definitely not suggesting that mental illness is a prerequisite to being funny or being an artist. But I can speak to my own experience. I was anxious and depressed for a long time, including most of high school. But if you took a look through my yearbook, you’d see that almost everyone, friend and acquaintance alike, echoed the same thing: I was really funny. That was, apparently, the lasting impression I left on people during one of the darkest periods of my life. So how do we reconcile laughter with loneliness and self-loathing?

There’s a theory of humour which states that humour comes from incongruity. That is, things are funny when they upend our expectations. And what could be more incongruous than a sad clown? A funny person who’s really broken inside?

Maybe it’s that unexpectedness that has led more and more comedies to depict mental illness. One of the best representations of depression I’ve ever seen, in fact, comes from a sitcom. You’re the Worst is about Jimmy and Gretchen, two self-destructive and, by all standards, awful people who fall in love and attempt to navigate a relationship. In its second season, though, You’re the Worst did something few comedies have tried, let alone in such a nuanced way. Gretchen, we find out, is clinically depressed. Rather than shy away from it, the show explored the reality of depression and of loving someone who can’t be “fixed,” and it did so in a way that was real and heartfelt without sacrificing its humour. That’s an extremely delicate balancing act.

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Gretchen (Aya Cash) day drinks, lashes out, and eventually opens up about being depressed in You’re the Worst. Photo: IMDb

You’re the Worst isn’t the only show to walk that tightrope in recent years. Bojack Horseman, an animated comedy series about a once-celebrated but now-disgraced TV star (who is also horse-man), gets similarly real about mental illness. As does the brilliant musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which mines its protagonist’s mental illness as as source of comedy without ever reducing her to a punchline because of it. Even a blog like Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, published as a book in 2013, used humour and crude MS paint drawings to explore depression. Maybe that’s not enough to qualify as a trend, but I think there’s something potent about the combination of humour and darkness. There’s power in laughing at the things that haunt us.

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Mental illness is nuanced and requires equally nuanced representation (from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Photo: Giphy

So why is comedy such an apt vehicle through which to express sadness? I don’t really have an answer. But art is often about connecting with the experiences of others in ways that are transcendent and ineffable. Maybe encountering this particular experience through comedy can help us understand it better or just lessen the burden. Maybe it’s simply about finding light in something unbearably dark.

Frankenstein; or the Modern Myth

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured in popular culture for two centuries. As a story about stories, how does it capture audiences even now, and what does it tell us about literary tradition?

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been haunting our cultural imagination for 200 years now. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you know the story. You’ve encountered it in some way, shape, or form. Even as early as 5 years after its initial publication in 1818, the novel was adapted into a stage play. And ever since, it’s been twisted and translated, parodied and paid homage to in countless books, films, TV shows, plays, video games, memes, t-shirts, and has even entered into our lexicon (who hasn’t used “Franken” as a prefix, stitching it onto other words like some linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster?). Frankenstein’s monster remains an enduring cultural touchstone. So why do we keep adapting this strange tale, dreamed up in the mind of a teenage girl? Why is Frankenstein such an enduring story? How does it still resonate?

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Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in promotional material for Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When we think of Frankenstein, we think of shambling insensate monsters, of the mad scientist in his darkened lab, hunched over a slab of corpse fragments. We think lightning and stitched skin and a mob of pitchforks and torches. But all these images were borne out of the afterlives of Shelley’s novel. Why, then, does the novel lend itself to this kind of modern myth-making?

Well, if we go back to the novel itself, which is often lost among these countless iterations and adaptations, it becomes clear that this is a story about stories. Shelley built her novel on a sturdy foundation of Milton and Shakespeare, science and philosophy and art. It’s a story that speaks through stories about the way stories shape us. It’s no surprise, then, that Frankenstein’s monster, after being abandoned by his creator, learns about the world through books:

I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books. They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings . . . I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathized with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none.

The creature finds solace in reading, but also comes to better understand himself and the world around him.

Stories allow us to experience and understand things that are unfamiliar to us. Shelley’s novel does exactly that. Instead of painting the creature as a one-dimensional monster, the novel invites us to sympathize with him, despite his bitter cruelty and horrific violence. The monster only becomes monstrous, after all, because of the terrible things done to him.

Why do we keep coming back to Frankenstein? In a world that wants to fit people into black-and-white categories, to distinguish between good and evil, Frankenstein resists easy interpretation. It wallows in seams and ambiguity and gray areas. The book is disturbing, as any good horror fiction should be. But it’s also suffused with loss, desire, grief, and love. No matter how far its offspring stray, Frankenstein continues to resonate because it speaks to our human impulse to create and find some kind of connection through the stories we tell each other.

At Home with the Unhomely

By Adriana Wiszniewska

I recently had the chance to see the “Impressionist Treasures” exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, and while the big names of impressionism were impressive, it was a lesser known painter of the Danish Golden Age who really caught my eye. I had never heard of Vilhelm Hammershøi or seen his work before, but after Cezanne’s airy landscapes and Gauguin’s striking primary colours, Hammershøi’s dark, muted interiors were a startling change of pace.

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Paul Gauguin, Blue Trees. Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty! (1888). Photo: National Gallery of Canada

 

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Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Piano and Woman in Black. From the Artist’s Home at Strandgade 30 (1901). Photo: National Gallery of Canada

Hammershøi’s subjects were mundane and simple, but painted in such a way that made them seem cold and distant and mysterious. In his time, he was known as “the painter of tranquil rooms.” And they are tranquil, yes. But it seems to me that beneath the tranquility lies something a little darker, a little more unsettling. The rooms he painted are almost always empty. When a figure does occupy them—usually Hammershøi’s wife, Ida—her back is turned away from us, or else her face blurred, indistinct. Hammershøi’s paintings seem devoid of life, yet they remain evocative and alluring. Standing there in the gallery, gazing into a space that looked less than inviting, whatever tranquility I might have felt began to transform into something else.

The word that comes to mind is uncanny. Hammershøi takes the utterly familiar—his home, his wife—and makes them seem strange and disquieting—unfamiliar. Now, forgive me for invoking Freud, but he was onto something when he talked about the uncanny. According to Freud, “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” It’s the experience of discovering the familiar in what is strange and unknown. Think the uncanny valley—the closer a thing is to human likeness without actually being human, the creepier it seems to us. The same concept applies here. Hammershøi’s interiors are nothing if not uncanny. The longer you stare into his dim hallways and lifeless living rooms, the more unsettling they become.

Take, for instance, my favourite painting featured in the exhibition, The Four Rooms:

 

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Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior. “The Four Rooms” (1914). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, it seems innocuous. But there’s something just a little bit off about this painting. Doors hang open at different angles. Floorboards don’t quite line up. Lines are disrupted everywhere and there doesn’t appear to be a way out. It almost looks like when you hold up a mirror to another mirror, creating an endless reflection of frames. Rooms lead into rooms which ultimately lead nowhere.

It’s no coincidence that Hammershøi painted The Four Rooms in 1914, the year World War I began. People often think of the early twentieth century, and particularly the interwar period, as an Age of Uncertainty. But perhaps a better name might be the Age of the Uncanny. The Great War threw everyday life off-balance and what was once familiar became, well, unfamiliar. Like a house that is no longer a home. In this case, one we’re compelled to return to again and again because it unsettles us in all the right ways.