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.

“I could do that. Even a BABY could do that!”

Seeing art that you feel you could have made can be a disorienting experience. The way art is critically acclaimed can be unfathomable to those of us who aren’t well-versed in art valuation and criticism.

By Serena Ypelaar

What makes art art?

Who gets to decide?

I’m sure many of us have experienced that moment in an art gallery when we are so bemused by a piece of art that we react as skeptically as the title of this blog post: I could do that. To which our inner voice might reply: But you didn’t. 

How much of art’s success lies in talent? Timing? Luck?

Does public appreciation elevate our work, or diminish it? Some artists would kill to be recognized in prominent art galleries worldwide, while others might be more commercially motivated and hope to make a living on their art. Still others might be repulsed by the notion that everyday people might appreciate their creations en masse outside of a venerated space like an art gallery.

When I was in London this past May, I had the privilege of seeing a play about one such artist, Mark Rothko.

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Alfred Molina, left, and Alfred Enoch, right, star in Red at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. Photo: Evening Standard

The play, Red, stars Alfred Molina (of Indiana Jones and Spiderman 2 fame, among more “artistic” films) and Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films; How to Get Away with Murder). Molina plays Rothko, the American painter who was known for his large red abstract paintings. Enoch plays his assistant, Ken, who, in contrast to his counterpart, praises the emergence of pop art from artists such as Andy Warhol.

Rothko rose to prominence during the abstract expressionism movement in the 1950s and 60s. Set in the twilight of this era, Red follows Rothko’s internal conflict after agreeing to paint commissioned works to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant, placing his art in a setting that he ultimately feels is pretentious and inappropriate. He must therefore choose between commercial success and his artistic ideals, causing tension in his understanding of his identity as an artist.

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Molina as Rothko and Enoch as Ken. Photo: The Telegraph

The 90-minute play raises an excellent dialogue on what constitutes art, what kind of recognition art merits, and who gets to truly define how we consume art.

This is where Alfie Enoch’s character shines – he starts as an unassuming apprentice, but by the middle of the play he’s firing off rebuttals against Rothko’s resistance to mainstream consumption of art.

Regardless of what you think about where art belongs, Red emphasizes the disparity from person to person. I might think that the pinnacle of artistic success is landing a coveted place in the halls of the Louvre, for instance, but someone else might think it a truer success to see their work all over town, enjoyed by more people and more frequently (like Banksy, for instance). There are unspoken hierarchies and beliefs about modern street art vs. the timelessness of being validated by art institutions.

And what makes art good, anyway? We’ve tossed around this idea for decades; centuries, even. Molina and Enoch discuss the issue too, but their characters’ disagreements in the play prove to us that the answer is difficult: I love classical art, particularly realism and/or landscapes, others love abstract art, others may not “get” contemporary art or consider it art at all, and so on.

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Outside Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

In an effort to avert conflict, I’m tempted to say we should all just get along and like what we like, but it’s not as simple as that. The fact is that artworks’ supposed value (both from an artistic and commercial standpoint) has a very real bearing on institutions’ collections policies. Galleries have to decide what’s worth collecting, and curators base their acquisitions on research, market value, context, and more.

I don’t really specialize in that area of museum work, but I do know from my degree that an institution’s collections, and its acquisition decisions, deliberately reflect its collecting practice. Consider that the next time you think, I could do this – but don’t stop thinking that. The decision is yours to make. Whether or not you consider a work a piece of “art”, the fact that you decided by looking at the art and using your own critical perception is comfort enough for me.