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2023 | Book

Penny Dreadful and Adaptation

Reanimating and Transforming the Monster


About this book

This edited collection is the first book-length critical study of the Showtime-Sky Atlantic television series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), which also includes an analysis of Showtime’s 2020 spin-off City of Angels. Chapters examine the status of the series as a work of twenty-first-century cable television, contemporary Gothic-horror, and intermedial adaptation, spanning sources as diverse as eighteenth and nineteenth-century British fiction and poetry, American dime novels, theatrical performance, Hollywood movies, and fan practices. Featuring iconic monsters such as Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature, the “bride” of Frankenstein, Dracula, the werewolf, Dorian Gray, and Dr. Jekyll, Penny Dreadful is a mash-up of familiar texts and new Gothic figures such as spiritualist Vanessa Ives, played by the magnetic Eva Green. As a recent example of adapting multiple sources in different media, Penny Dreadful has as much to say about the Romantic and Victorian eras as it does about our present-day fascination with screen monsters.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction
The Showtime-Sky Atlantic television series Penny Dreadful ran for three seasons from 2014 to 2016, inspiring critical acclaim, a cult of fan-viewers (calling themselves “The Dreadfuls”), tie-ins such as a prequel and sequel comic-book series published by Titan Comics, and a television spin-off, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, cancelled after the first season aired on Showtime in 2020. A subject of growing academic attention, Penny Dreadful has also received scholarly analysis in articles by Sarah Artt, Nina Farizova, and Benjamin Poore, chapters in monographs by Yvonne Griggs, Antonija Primorac, and Saverio Tomaiuolo, contributions to a special issue of Critical Survey (see Louttit, Akıllı and Öz, Rocha, and Manea), and the essays in an entire section of Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Eckart Voigt’s edited collection Filming the Past, Screening the Present: Neo-Victorian Adaptations (see Böhnke, Mendes, VanWinkle, and Mantrant)—and this work only represents a sample of what has been published since the series aired.
Julie Grossman, Will Scheibel

Welcome to the Night: Issues of Reading and Media

Chapter 2. The Medium Is the Model
The case for adaptation as a medium is dramatically developed by analogy with Madame Kali, the medium who summons Mina Murray, who briefly possesses Vanessa Ives in the second episode of Penny Dreadful. Madame Kali’s campaign in the program’s second season to possess Vanessa herself raises pressing questions about demonic possession and personal identity. In addition, Penny Dreadful presents itself as a gleefully boundary-breaking medium that brings together characters from dime Westerns, Grand Guignol, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Its adaptation of these sources reveals a subversive counter-tradition to the socially cohesive tradition of the great Victorian novelists. This counter-tradition’s hallmarks—trauma, monstrosity, isolation, transgression, uncontrollable transformation, and revolution—imply a powerfully suggestive view of adaptation as a liminal conduit or medium.
Thomas Leitch
Chapter 3. The Adaptive Marketing of Penny Dreadful: Listening to The Dreadfuls
This chapter explains how Showtime’s marketing strategies for Penny Dreadful married the show’s core themes to fan-inspired ideas found on social media. This free fan labor was particularly valuable for Showtime, which lacked the marketing budget of dominant player HBO, and these strategies spoke deeply to The Dreadfuls, as fans of the series dubbed themselves, such that even their complaints about the series could be reconciled by their appreciation for the show’s thematic brand, which they had unknowingly helped to foster themselves. By adopting a fan perspective and adapting marketing strategies from what was observed in Penny Dreadful’s fan community, Showtime bolstered the series’ already rich potential for fan engagement and even pioneered tactics that are now common in social media marketing for television.
Christine Becker
Chapter 4. Penny Dreadful and Frankensteinian Collection: Museums, Anthologies, and Other Monstrous Media from Shelley to Showtime
Penny Dreadful, which stitches together characters and plot elements from canonical nineteenth-century British horror novels, invites audiences to reflect on its own status as an adaptation whenever it puts curated collections onscreen. One such collection—the anthology—shows up metaphorically through the series’ adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). By repeatedly placing lines from famous Romantic poems in the mouth of the stitched-together being that Victor Frankenstein reanimates, Penny Dreadful acknowledges its medial overlap with the anthology and explores the proposition that individual “being” amounts to a process of self-curation and adaptation from what we read. The essay contends that Penny Dreadful imports this idea from Frankenstein, helping render visible how Shelley’s novel was always in part about its own medial relationship to the anthology.
Mike Goode

Anatomy of a Monster: Horror and the Gothic in Literature and on the Screen

Chapter 5. In the House of the Night Creatures: Penny Dreadful’s Dracula
Dracula is the main antagonist of Penny Dreadful’s third season and the overarching antagonist of the entire series. He is a vampire and the brother of Lucifer; the effect he has on Vanessa Ives is one of the series’ strongest narrative arcs. This essay discusses the way the series provocatively uses what is arguably the quintessential modern monster—Stoker’s Dracula—to comment on the present, post-postmodern era. Especially interesting are the ways the series uses nineteenth-century ideas of gender, feminism, sexuality, and science, so I analyze the series as an adaptation of Stoker’s novel in order to explore the relationship of the Victorian Gothic to the present.
Joan Hawkins
Chapter 6. Vampirism, Blood, and Memory in Penny Dreadful and Only Lovers Left Alive
Narratives that revolve around vampirism are bound to display a number of elements of convergence, regardless of the historical period in which they are set. This chapter proposes a comparison between two divergent forms of vampire narratives, in relation to memory, subjectivity, and the body (as symbolized by blood). We discuss the television series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) and Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) in terms of their calculated historical or narrative anachronisms and infidelities to the generic templates of “Gothic” narratives. While Penny Dreadful displays the vampiric body as the human’s monstrous Other and deliberately invokes the visual clichés of traditional horror narratives, Only Lovers Left Alive reverses this structure with its three erudite vampires as carriers of memory and tradition.
Luciana Tamas, Eckart Voigts
Chapter 7. “The Dead Place”: Cosmopolitan Gothic in Penny Dreadful’s London
This chapter examines Penny Dreadful’s global version of the Gothic by focusing on the way the series uses London as an epicenter for various mythologies and traditions. Monstrous threats from various regions of the British empire converge on London to form a cosmopolitan Gothic in which the global expanse of Empire opens doors for evil forces. This convergence transforms the streets of London into dangerous spaces where monsters find victims and brave heroes learn to navigate the shadows. Despite its global scope, the final battle between good and evil plays out on the streets of London. In the end, the depiction of threatening cosmopolitan Others is considered in relation to contemporary political anxieties around migration and borders.
Kendall R. Phillips
Chapter 8. Adapting the Universal Classic Monsters in Penny Dreadful: An Uncanny Resurrection
As much as Penny Dreadful owes to its literary sources, a fuller discussion of the series as an adaptation needs to account for its engagement with the films of the Universal Classics Monsters (UCM) cycle from 1931 to 1945. To borrow a Frankensteinian metaphor, this chapter analyzes how Penny Dreadful “reanimates” the UCM. Neither a retelling of these characters’ stories nor a continuation in an expanded fictional universe, nor even a total reimagining of the UCM, Penny Dreadful creates an “uncanny” (or, rather, “unhomely”) relationship with its source texts. The logic of adaptation in Penny Dreadful, I argue, derives not from textual fidelity or infidelity, but the sense of an intertextual déjà vu, returning viewers to familiar monster-movie characters only to render this familiarity strange.
Will Scheibel

The Monster Unbound: Theatrical Performance, Western Dime Novels, and TV Noir

Chapter 9. Penny Dreadful and the Stage: Lessons in Horror and Heritage
Many have noted the relationship between Penny Dreadful, with its coterie of Victorian (or Victorian-adjacent) monsters, and the “monster mash-ups” that made Universal Studios one of the major studios of the 1940s. However, in its depiction of the Grand Guignol, I argue, the series goes further to pay homage to its theatrical predecessors and their own link to film. Though the Grand Guignol is relegated to the first season, other examples—the Wild West show, the wax museum, the séance, photography, and so on—contribute to the series’ overarching emphasis on the idea of cohabitation and mutual inspiration between “high” and “low” art forms. In assuming many of its artifices and excesses, the series positions itself as the inheritor of this tradition of theater for the masses.
Shannon Wells-Lassagne
Chapter 10. Ethan Chandler, Penny Dreadful, and the Dime Novel; or, Dancing with American Werewolves in London
Ethan Chandler, one of the main characters in Penny Dreadful, steps out of the Western dime novel, bringing with him the moral imperative of American exceptionalism and a swaggering celebration of American masculinity. The series labors to critique the conventional power structures of the Gothic: to empower women, redeem monsters, redraw the boundaries between the civilized and the savage, upend the privileges of Empire, and question the authority of patriarchs. Ethan Chandler’s storyline, however, reestablishes those hierarchies. The series ends as do many American dime novels: the dark lady is dead; what’s native is punished; what’s wild or dangerous has been contained. As an homage to the dime novel hero, Ethan Chandler defends many of the conventional themes and identities the series struggles to reimagine.
Ann M. Ryan
Chapter 11. Dreadful Noir, Adaptation, and City of Angels: “Monsters, All, Are We Not?”
City of Angels, the 2020 spinoff of Penny Dreadful, reimagined the mashup of Victorian horror as a story about anti-Mexican city policies and police violence, the rise of radio evangelism, and the formation of American Nazism in 1938 Los Angeles. Cancelled after its first season, this new series becomes an intriguing case study of textual (dis)continuities, transformations, and migrations, as it pressed up against the borders of fans’ willingness to see the supernatural elements of the original Penny Dreadful adapted into Mexican folklore and Victorian monsters becoming fascists. This essay focuses on issues of performance, as well as the spinoff’s adaptation of (or “performance” of) film noir, especially its “refraction” of narrative, visual, and aural elements from the classic noir Chinatown (1974).
Julie Grossman, Phillip Novak

Meanings of Monstrosity: Identity, Difference, and Experience

Chapter 12. Penny Dreadful’s Palimpsestuous Bride of Frankenstein
The Bride of Frankenstein is the most widely recognizable female monster in the Gothic horror tradition, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) is the most substantive treatment of this character in film and television history to date. This chapter presents Penny Dreadful’s Bride of Frankenstein as a complex character built upon a series of composites both fictional and historical. Like a palimpsest where earlier versions are still faintly visible under the new writing, in Penny Dreadful’s take on The Bride, earlier Frankenstein films, and historical layers echo throughout the series as Brona Croft is transformed into Lily Frankenstein. Personal histories of trauma and abuse don’t just inform, but drive The Bride’s actions throughout the show’s second and third seasons, ultimately guiding the open-ended finale for this character.
Lissette Lopez Szwydky
Chapter 13. Predators Far and Near: The Sadean Gothic in Penny Dreadful
In Episode 3.2 of Penny Dreadful the character of Justine is introduced, in reference to the title character of the Marquis de Sade’s 1791 novel Justine. But while Sade’s Justine is an eternal victim, in Penny Dreadful the character’s fate is changed, under the tutelage of season regulars Lily Frankenstein and Dorian Gray. In the show’s reimagining of Sade, certain features of his work are adapted and revised. This subplot is the first to directly cite Sade’s work, but this chapter argues that his influence has always been present in the series. References to Sade’s transgressive philosophy can be found throughout Penny Dreadful, primarily expressed through characters such as Justine, Lily, and Dorian, who fit the mold of the Sadean libertine. The series itself is situated as a Sadean text, melding high and low cultural forms through its appropriation of penny dreadful literature within the context of contemporary “quality television,” which echoes Sade’s merging of philosophy with pornography and violence.
Lindsay Hallam
Chapter 14. “All Those Sacred Midnight Things”: Queer Authorship, Veiled Desire, and Divine Transgression in Penny Dreadful
This chapter considers the ways that John Logan, as a queer author, reappropriates the abject and the liminal in Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) as signifiers of what I call the queer sublime—an almost hallowed state of difference—something Logan conceives of as desirable but inherently misunderstood, often by the very characters who embody it most. Through a “veiling” that conceals the monstrousness/queerness of his characters, either from themselves or from heteronormative Victorian society at large, Logan explores the taboo and fluid sexualities often unloosed in Gothic narratives. The figurative image of the veil (in its Sedgwickian sense, “suffused with sexuality”) functions in Penny Dreadful as both a repressive and emancipatory device, frequently evoked via literal transformations into “other(ed) selves” (demon-possessed Vanessa; lycanthropic Ethan). In Logan’s queer cosmology, these figures of abjection who occupy its dark terrain are therefore impossibly aware of the flesh and its intrinsic mutability—the body as simultaneously both inviolate object and corrupted vessel. To this end, Penny Dreadful finds itself in productive intertextual dialogue with James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Just as Whale imbues Frankenstein’s monster and his bride with a corporeal strangeness, Logan foregrounds the body as a site of queer potentiality, collapsing distinctions between the sacred and the profane through destabilizing acts of self-creation. Yet this does not amount to a reductive analogy of simply reading the monstrous as queer. Traditional avatars of monstrosity, such as Lucifer and Dracula, emerge as forces of compulsory heteronormativity in Penny Dreadful. In opposition to these, Logan, like fellow queer author Whale, seeks to define a liminal space (the queer sublime) where his “beautiful monsters” may reside in all their tragic glory.
James Bogdanski
Chapter 15. Borderland Identities in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
In his late-Victorian Gothic television series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016), John Logan envisions a London whose other name is the Demimonde: “a place between life and death.” Four years later, buoyed by the ongoing popularity of the series, Logan creates a spin-off titled Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020). Logan’s new “place between life and death” is set in 1930s Los Angeles, portraying the building of freeways and its impact on Mexican-American communities, as well as the rise of Nazism as Hitler gains power in Europe. This paper explores how Logan reimagines possibilities for adaptation in a spatial sense: first, through the intertextual links the series creates with the original text and the practice of the spin-off in general; second, through the impact of private capitalist economy and urban planning on the identity-construction of characters who live in borderlands; and third, through the representation of the Chicano movement and its continued importance in light of right-wing efforts to homogenize the U.S. in the twenty-first century.
Seda Öz
Penny Dreadful and Adaptation
Julie Grossman
Will Scheibel
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