In one of the later episodes of Penny Dreadful’s first season, haematologist Dr Van Helsing introduces a young Victor Frankenstein to the figure of the vampire by showing him an issue of James Malcolm Rymer’s infamous Victorian penny serial, Varney the Vampire (1847): “As literature, it is uninspiring, but as folklore from the Balkans, popularized, it is not without merit. Mr Rymer missed the facts, but he caught the truth” (ep. 6).
This single scene encapsulates the unique means of adaptation practised by writer and producer John Logan’s television series. Penny Dreadful represents a shift in a modern adaptation by highlighting a model of “contamination” in which “one mode of discourse […] leaks into or infects another so that we experience both at the same time” (Greetham 1).
It does not matter in the scene above that Frankenstein, and Van Helsing appears in two different novels written seventy-nine years apart; what matters is how the interpenetration of these texts with one another, as well as with original characters in the series, realigns the viewer’s relationship with the past. Penny Dreadful’s practice of adaptation disrupts linearity and undermines notions of the authority and priority of an originating text.
The original is contaminated by a history of adaptations that have transformed Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818, 1831), Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890, 1891), and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) into vehicles of cultural transmission: memes that have come to redefine history as a myth of modernity.
Traditionally, bibliographers have seen contamination as a negative influence. Philip Gaskell points out how “the function of textual criticism has been to follow the threads of transmission back from an existing document and to try to restore its text as closely as possible to the form it originally took in the author’s manuscript” (Gaskell 336). Contamination has textual and philological meanings both of which emphasise the mingling and blending of disparate elements so that “a new form arises in which elements of the one mingle with elements of the other” (OED). If fidelity is the issue, then such blending is a threat, but in the case of Penny Dreadful, mingling allows for permeable boundaries between genres, between creation and interpretation, and between process and product (Hutcheon 8–9).
Of course, contamination is an ambivalent term that has medical and social affiliations with disease, impurity and immorality, all of which point to the vulnerability of the body. As Christopher Pittard argues, purity, for the Victorians “was an overdetermined term” applied to debates regarding racial and sexual degeneration, food adulteration, urban sanitation, and crime as social impurities (Pittard 6). While disease and sanitation were legitimate concerns, Victorians often associated such social ills with those thought by many to be impure: the poor and working classes; women and homosexuals; immigrants, and non-Anglo Saxon races.
Pittard’s Victorians are specifically middle-class Victorians, the forebears of modernity’s mythos. Logan challenges this single-sided view by populating Penny Dreadful with characters who are decidedly not middle class. Logan presents the London of the penny dreadful, a London of the very rich and the very poor, of sensational crimes and horrible violence, and of laissez-faire capitalism, which privileges questions of profit over questions of morality. Penny dreadfuls were not pure, but vulgar, violent, and even plagiarised. As Peter Haining points out, “early publishers of the Penny Dreadfuls […] were quick to plagiarise anyone else’s success, […] flood[ing] the market with eagerly received imitations” of previously popular texts (Haining 36). Penny Dreadful lives up to its name, adapting Victorian texts known today, underscoring and extending the contamination with which Victorians were already obsessed, appealing to the impure, while challenging the Victorian misconception of British culture as a unified whole.
Penny Dreadful uses contamination as both a structural and a thematic principle and chooses its texts with particular care. ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ contaminate each other and Penny Dreadful and vice versa. In effect, Penny Dreadful is a form of non-linear cross-contamination that destroys the metanarrative of the originary text. Contamination also becomes a means of breaking down the barrier between the past and present, transforming classic texts into contemporary cultural iconography.
The series reminds us that all texts exist within a web of historical and cultural associations and that these include an active viewing public. Thomas Leitch suggests that “texts remain alive only to the extent that they can be rewritten and that to experience a text in all its power requires each reader to rewrite it” (Leitch 12–13). For example, while it is true that Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ cannot be read now except through later representations of vampires from Anne Rice to Twilight, even in 1897 it could not be read without reference to earlier stories such as LeFanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1871), Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), or Rymer’s ‘Varney’ (1845–47).
Echoing Roland Barthes (‘From Work to Text’, 159), Greetham writes that definitions of the word “text” include “‘authority,’ an ‘original,’ the word of God and yet text is also something ‘woven,’ a ‘tissue’” (Greetham 58; emphasis added).
Penny Dreadful enacts this latter definition of the text as a woven web of signification, one that is thematised in the series, and is even signalled by the image of a spider spinning a web in the opening credits. This web represents the series’ method of adaptation.
Greetham argues that contamination is “seditious, ironic, fun, sometimes invisible, and a sign of the human mind at work” (Greetham 10; emphasis added). In this model of adaptation, both creation and reception are collaborative; the original texts and the re-visioned texts leak into the discourses of official websites, fan blogs, fan fiction, and merchandising — all of which weave a further layer of contamination through multiple platforms of discussion, review and viewer interaction (O’Flynn 187).
History was, of course, replete with tales of drama and courage, not to mention the strange and the bizarre, and if these poor people had not actually read the Gothic novels, they were at least aware of their existence. What could be more natural, then, than to take this genre — the genre of sensation and dark deeds — and use it as the starting point for the new publications? (Haining 24)
This is the model of today’s Penny Dreadful: it engages modern viewers’ awareness of existing texts and uses them as a starting point for a new work. The show also appears at a time when television’s medium of circulation is changing thanks to platforms such as Netflix and increased online viewership through YouTube, iTunes, and other services. Producers and investors are seeking new means of capturing audiences’ attention in an oversaturated market. The gruesome horror of the penny dreadfuls combined with familiar Victorian gothic monsters, alongside famous film and television stars makes Penny Dreadful a form of media for an “age of contamination” (Greetham 1).
Like the penny dreadful, the series seeks a mass audience, and appeals to the viewer with lurid tales of murder, criminality, sexuality, and an emphasis on London’s underworld. The viewer is introduced to fin-de-siècle London through the character of Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger who works as an actor in a travelling Wild West show. He is recruited by spiritualist Vanessa Ives to help explorer Sir Malcolm Murray rescue his daughter Mina from the clutches of “The Master” — a figure associated with Stoker’s Count Dracula, the ancient Egyptian God, Amun Ra, and the Christian Devil. The Master is using Mina to ensnare Vanessa, whom the Master sees as the reincarnation of Amunet, the Mother of Evil. Together they would bring about the end of days. With the help of Dr Victor Frankenstein, this redux of Stoker’s Crew of Light tries to rescue Mina while fighting the Master for Vanessa’s soul.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein is creating what turns out to be his second monster, only to watch this innocent creature be murdered by his firstborn, Caliban, the “stage rat” at the Grand Guignol. Caliban creates the special effects for various theatrical adaptations of penny dreadfuls including Sweeney Todd. Caliban’s chosen name is an example of intertextual contamination because not only does it refer to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but also to the poem by Robert Browning who was adapting Shakespeare, as well as to Wilde’s ‘Preface’ to the 1891 edition of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, itself adapted by the series. As in Shelley’s book, the creature seeks a mate, and the woman targeted is Ethan Chandler’s lover Brona Croft, an Irish immigrant and sometime prostitute who is dying of consumption. Brona and Ethan are also both seduced by Dorian Gray, a mysterious man obsessed with collecting new sensations.
Adaptation, according to Linda Hutcheon, “is how stories evolve and mutate to fit new times and different places” (Hutcheon 176). So when the past is “reproduced” for television or film, the interpretation is, as Imelda Whelehan argues “a contemporary, even aspirational one” in which the present is remade through an idealised past (Whelehan 12).
While nothing in Penny Dreadful can be mistaken for an ideal, neither is it “vampiric: it does not draw the life-blood from its source and leave it dying or dead, nor is it paler than the adapted work. It may, on the contrary, keep that prior work alive, giving it an afterlife it would never have had otherwise” (Hutcheon 176). This adaptive process is further complicated because the texts Logan has chosen to weave together are themselves adaptations. Van Helsing has already noted the influence of Varney the Vampire on Bram Stoker’s creation of Dracula. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein declares itself ‘The Modern Prometheus’ in its subtitle and Dorian Gray’s obsession with his own beauty and the image of his beauty captured in a portrait is Oscar Wilde’s not-so-subtle reimagining of the Narcissus myth transmitted into nineteenth-century culture through Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, another text which borrows from other sources of myth and fable and makes them new.
The series is an extension of an existing history of contamination in that Mina Murray, Van Helsing, Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s creature are placed into an ontological field with other figures of popular culture, both Victorian and modern.
Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), father to Mina, becomes explorer Sir Richard Burton or perhaps H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain; an American werewolf (Josh Hartnett) is wandering the streets of London in the guise of a former American teen heartthrob doing his best interpretation of Stoker’s Quincey P. Morris, as well as reviving Werewolf fiction like George W. M. Reynolds’s penny dreadful ‘Wagner the Werewolf’ (1847) and Clemence Housman’s ‘The Were Wolf’ (1896); ‘Doctor Who’s Rose Tyle’r (Billie Piper) has left her parallel universe to be reborn as a consumptive Irish prostitute who also recalls such tragic figures in Victorian literature, the most famous being Nancy in Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’ (1837–39); and Vesper Lynd, the ‘Bond girl’ from Casino Royale is recast as Victorian spiritualist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green).
The largely silent figure of Sembene (Danny Sapani) haunts the series in the same way British Imperialist history haunts current international policy, and his name echoes that of African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, himself an adaptor of traditional African stories into film (Hutcheon 174). Penny Dreadful also explores late-Victorian cultural concerns: the popularity of occultist and spiritualist practices with groups such as the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Egyptomania and the fascination by occultists and non-spiritualist Victorians with fallen empires of the past; and imperial practices of map-making and circumnavigation of colonial holdings in Africa and the Middle East.
Penny Dreadful is a child with many parents whose multitude of characteristics contaminates one another to conceive the body of the series. Sarah Cardwell tells us that “Genetic adaptation can be broadly conceived as a linear process of progression, with each new organism in the chain being genetically (causally) linked to its predecessors, but being nonetheless significantly different from them” (Cardwell 13).
The first word of the series is ‘Mum?’ whose utterance by a young girl draws the attention of an unknown assailant who then viciously dismembers her. Familial relations, here, are cursed: progenitors kill or abandon their young, and children feel no filial devotion to their parents. If, as Cardwell suggests, the connection between a source and an adaptive text can be figured in generational terms, then Penny Dreadful is a demon child.
From Sir Malcolm’s leaving his son Peter to die of dysentery to Victor’s terrified flight from his newly-birthed first “creature,” to Mrs Ives’s having adulterous sex with Sir Malcolm in the garden maze — the discovery of which seems to lead to Vanessa’s vulnerability to demonic possession — parents are overtly figured as dismissive and duplicitous if not actively dangerous. In this sense, Penny Dreadful is not so much an adaptation of the classic novels, as it is an adaptation of what those novels would look like had they been plagiarised into penny dreadfuls, and then read through subsequent and substantial cultural referents like Buffy, Twilight or 1950s Hammer studio films. The genetic line, then, is contaminated and confused.
The series is playfully self-reflexive about its position as an adaptation. Things, simultaneously, are and are not what they seem. In episode 4, ‘Demimonde,’ Vanessa is seated on a bench outside a church. A young girl sits next to her and asks, “Why don’t you go in?” The ensuing conversation reveals that the child’s mother has recently died.
At the end of this exchange, the girl’s nanny approaches and calls her “Lucy,” which may or may not be a reference to Lucy Westenra from Stoker’s novel. This scene encapsulates the ‘demimonde’ of intertextuality between meaning and play, the landscape of which the show inhabits. Like Vanessa, the viewer might believe that this precocious child has a secret that she assumes Vanessa shares. Once the mystery is put to rest, though, the name Lucy reanimates it. This particular character has no effect on the remainder of the series, but the playful reference to Dracula demonstrates the showrunners’ knowledge of the source material, satisfying viewers familiar with the text, while at the same time giving viewers new to these stories, the appearance of depth. The suggestion is that by reading the books, viewers can know more about the show. Conveniently, Showtime will sell viewers television tie-in editions of the novels for less than twenty US dollars.
Executive Producer Sam Mendes refers to ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ as “some of the great myths of gothic fiction” (Inside Penny Dreadful). The series does not treat them as classic British novels so much as treat them as cultural memes that continue to live in a contemporary culture as much as they did in nineteenth-century British literature. In other words, the past contaminates the present.
Logan notes that “these characters have been devalued over the years because we are so familiar with them” (IPD). That familiarity, of course, includes more than a century of adaptations in theatre, film, fiction and television and supports Greetham’s argument for “the omnipresence of contamination” (Greetham 12). Contamination is not a new experience; what is unique is the series’ conscious play with its references. In this sense, the origin of the material being adapted is called into question.
The figures that populate the series are drawn from gothic and decadent literature taught in many nineteenth-century British literature classrooms. At the same time, it is possible that viewers today were first introduced to these characters in films, television miniseries, or graphic novels and may never have read Shelley, Stoker, or Wilde. The penny dreadful’s form means that the series owes no fidelity to its sources; Logan and his collaborators are free to do with the source material what they will. By recasting fictional characters as mythic figures of modern culture, familiar via film, comics, television and the web, Penny Dreadful exploits an existing meme, or cultural transmission, that imbues the series with a sense of history that, while fictional, suggests a means by which the viewer may suspend disbelief.
Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, not only provides its eponymous character for a series regular, but it also serves to define Penny Dreadful’s relationship with the past and with its intertextuality. The story goes that Oscar Wilde asked costume designer W. Graham Robertson to wear a green carnation on the opening night of Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892). As Robertson recounts the exchange, Wilde said: I want a good many men to wear them tomorrow — it will annoy the public — A young man on stage will wear a green carnation; people will stare at it and wonder. Then they will look round the house and see every here and there more and more little specks of mystic green. “This must be some secret symbol”, they will say. “What on earth can it mean?” (Beckson 387)
When Robertson asked Wilde what the green carnation did mean, he replied: “Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess” (Beckson 387). The veracity of this exchange has come under scrutiny although it is an enduring myth, and whether or not it is true matters rather less than its “truthiness”, that is, what one feels to be true. The green carnation suggests a ruse, a game, a moment of playfulness that seems to open up interpretive possibilities whether or not the story is true.
The series’ intertextuality is not meaningless; rather, like the carnation, the series’ use of contamination offers suggestions of meaning that could be revealed either by reading the original texts, or, more likely, by participating in the community of the ‘Dreadfuls’ — the quasi-official nickname of the series’ fans. By mythologising the source material, the series imbues the original texts with meaning that serves the theatre of the series. In this sense, Penny Dreadful reflects the Aesthetic character of Wilde’s novel. While Dorian Gray is a supporting character in the first season, the mood of the novel mimics Wilde’s concern with social performance and the art of fiction. As Wilde declares in his preface to the 1891 edition of the novel, “All art is at once surface and symbol” and that “[t]hose who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” (Wilde 41–42).
When Dr Frankenstein cuts open the body of a dead vampire, he discovers that its flesh is an exoskeleton. Once the exoskeleton is removed, another layer of skin is revealed, covered in hieroglyphs taken from the ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead’. A secret is revealed but it leads the viewer to a further mystery, a new text to be deciphered.
The series plays with such layering throughout: the lace on Vanessa’s dress is patterned in a such a way as to mimic the same hieroglyphs and foreshadows the development of the hieroglyphs burned into her flesh during her possession; Ethan, introduced as an actor, wears a false moustache and cowboy costume over an existing moustache and more believable cowboy clothing which Vanessa suggests is another lie, “You play your role well Mr Chandler, but this is not who you are” (ep. 1).
The series’ basis in secrets and social performance is further emphasised by various staged performances that direct attention to the relationship between viewer and performer. Significant moments in season one take place in theatrical settings: Vanessa performs for Mr Lyle’s guests during Madam Kali’s séance; Dorian’s house guests perform for him in an orgy; Vincent and the company at the Grand Guignol perform a werewolf play while a werewolf sits in the audience.
It is critical that the series’ dénouement takes place on the stage of the Grand Guignol, where Ethan seeks to rescue Vanessa who is held in the arms of a vampiric Mina, but Mina warns him back: “You have no role in this play Mr Chandler” (ep. 8). By drawing viewers’ attention to its own status as text, Penny Dreadful suggests that adaptation is a form of viewing, and that the viewer is a co-creator.
The questions and surmises on fan sites show that scenes such as this one engage an active viewership who question where the series sits in relation to the source texts. But as Ethan admits to Vanessa in episode 1, his role in the Wild West show as one of General Custer’s men is a fiction.
Viewers forget at their peril that this is a tall tale. It is not a sense of realism, but the series’ absolute excess that draws the viewer in the Victorians are remade as excessive in their imperialism, spiritualism, sexuality, melodrama, theatricality and eccentricity. The result is a series where the Victorian age is revised as a Victorian phantasm — a place for play, not only for the show’s creators and actors, but also for the viewers.
In Penny Dreadful, John Logan takes the plot elements from Dracula, the themes of parentage and familial relations from Frankenstein, and the pursuit of sensation from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. By basing his series in this Victorian cultural milieu, Logan transforms literature into a cultural myth of modernity. As the creature tells Victor Frankenstein, “I am modernity personified” (ep. 3): modernity is a spectacle, monstrous and self-destructive. The Victorians are an extension of modernity’s mythos because they represent the beginnings of modern western culture, the age of industrialisation and the birth of consumer culture. These three novels with their emphasis on science, on the art of urban living, on modern art, and on modern technologies provide ideas that Penny Dreadful successfully adapts. In addition, this presentation of modernity remains unfixed and malleable for a viewing audience.
Fan culture offers the final layer of adaptation in the series. Just as the series complicates the idea of an original text, a contemporary fan culture complicates the “authorial intention” of the series’ producers and writers.
Siobhan O’Flynn, for example, reads the fan culture surrounding Star Wars as “a glorious, hilarious testimony to fan devotion and enthusiasm for playing with ‘original’ content, and to adaptation as an act of communal ownership of a story deeply embedded in the consciousness of multiple generations across the globe” (O’Flynn 191).
Penny Dreadful is a relatively new series, so there is, as yet, no evidence to suggest that fan fiction, or online fan commentary will change the direction of the series. However, with a multitude of fan sites dedicated to facilitating interaction and discussion amongst viewers (ex. The Mary Sue, TV Tropes, and A.V. Club ), and a growing list of sites dedicated to fan fiction which, at this point, are focused on eroticising the series in various ways (ex. Archive of Our Own), the viewer’s experience of the series is not just limited to weekly episodes. In fact, viewers could well discover Penny Dreadful by enjoying fan-made content. The series encourages an active fan base by providing its own official website as well as an increasingly active YouTube channel, and an array of merchandise that supports an integration of the fan experience into everyday life. To be a fan is to be a part of the series.
Modernity is a myth with its origins in the Victorian age. Penny Dreadful simultaneously exploits and subverts that myth with a self-conscious approach to adaptation that confuses linear conceptions of history and Victorian notions of modern progress. Going back to the original texts will provide no “truth” as Van Helsing suggests; rather, these texts serve as myths of the past that define notions of the present.
It is useful to think of fan culture and the influence of Penny Dreadful in terms of what Peter Brooker calls “variegated intertextuality”; that is, the experience of film and television after the death of the author where film is seen as a ‘collaborative endeavour,’ where the adaptation of novels into scripts is placed into conversation with an industry dependent upon “remakes, cross-genre films, blockbuster series, and the migration of stars and actors from picture to picture and between TV, theatre, and cinema” (Brooker 108).
By making the characters and themes of Frankenstein, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘Dracula’ mythic, and by changing and rewriting these stories, Logan and the ‘Dreadfuls’ keep the original texts alive, not as artefacts of a culture, long since dead, but as memes of cultural transmission, contaminants that place the viewer and the reader in a continued conversation with an ever-present, if mythical past.