The following article contains spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2 of Showtime’s new television series PENNY DREADFUL, and for a 196-year-old novel.
I’ll admit I’m a sucker for slightly trashy pseudo-historical romps on TV – THE TUDORS, DRACULA and now Penny Dreadful, all float my boat. I’m not entirely convinced that this latest show, which comes to us from writer John Logan (GLADIATOR, THE LAST SAMURAI, SKYFALL) balances every element. We’re only two episodes in, but already there’s too many characters from Gothic fiction running around and some jarring tonal changes from scene-to-scene. Last week, we had Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) rutting against an Irish lilting, blood-coughing Billie Piper as his personal photographer watched one moment, then Eva Green acting out THE EXORCIST the next.
What does work extremely well in my opinion is this story’s version of Mary Shelley’s most famous creation, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. Its a story we’ve seen told and re-told, updated and reinterpreted umpteen times since the birth of cinema, and somehow John Logan has managed to do something different with it.
We’re introduced to the good doctor (Harry Treadaway) casually, without any build-up. He’s just a creepy surgeon’s assistant with an interest in macabre research who is consulted by Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm in his investigation into vampires who have taken his daughter. It is only at the end of Episode 1 that Victor Frankenstein formally introduces himself, to his ungodly creation, no less. Frankenstein proclaims to Sir Malcolm (more than a little self-aggrandising) that his research into the blurred line between life and death is the only line of intellectual thought worth pursuing by mankind. His driving force, his obsession with gaining knowledge that his fellow scientists dismiss as impossible, is in-keeping with the Frankenstein of Shelley’s novel, who is also single-minded and determined to succeed, but is eventually undone and utterly broken by his creation.
What seems odd at first in this version of the tale is Frankenstein’s relationship with the Creature, or as he is here named, Proteus (Alex Price). Following his violent, lightning-assisted birth (a convention always present in Frankenstein adaptations since Universal), Proteus and Frankenstein become fast friends. Proteus learns hungrily like his creator, and takes great joy in the thriving, living world around him, and Victor just seems happy to have some company. Their friendship is healthy, tender, even faintly erotic (just kiss already!) – a first for the Frankenstein-Monster balance on camera.
Logan’s new take on Shelley’s words doesn’t stop there, either, and for the first time we are asked to consider who the Creature was before his unnatural formation and awakening. Though it was never explicitly stated in the novel, it has always been presumed in subsequent adaptations that the Creature was made up of corpses of several men, probably ne’er-do-wells, grafted together. Proteus, aside from his prominent scarring on the chest and head, looks like a single man, perhaps tampered with over the course of Frankenstein’s experiments, but a single person who used to have his own life, his own name, nonetheless. Proteus picks up most knowledge at the rate of a child, except when he is taken on a walk to the London docks by his creator and can instantaneously reel off the names of every part of a ship as it sails past. He then heartbreakingly asks Victor “what am I?” as he realises his unnatural nature, and appears to recall his former life as a sailor.
Frankenstein hurriedly takes his creation and friend for a heart-to-heart back home before, suddenly, and shockingly, Proteus is split clean in half down the abdomen. As his ruined form falls to the floor in a heap, Rory Kinnear announces himself, as Frankenstein’s “first-born” who has come home. Here it all finally falls into place, why Frankenstein’s relationship with his creation was so drastically different to every version of the story we’ve seen before. Proteus wasn’t the same Creature we know from Shelley’s novel, but rather a second attempt to create life, to correct his mistakes. In the novel, the Creature brings great destruction on the world as a result of his horrified creator’s rejection. Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein has obviously made the same mistake, and was determined to right these wrongs to quiet his own conscience. Clearly Kinnear, as the original Creature (incidentally, with his long dark hair and yellow eyes looking for the first time exactly as Shelley described him) has not forgiven Frankenstein’s rejection, and his first act of revenge is to destroy one who has taken his place, much like he decided to brutally murder Frankenstein’s loved ones in the novel. This also implies we might be seeing a much less sympathetic, cruel Frankensein’s Monster as Shelley wrote him, rather than the helplessly destructive, child-monsters of the Universal and Hammer Horror films. I’m also so pleased that the tradition of casting great actors as the Creature – Karloff, Lee, DeNiro and now Kinnear – is continuing.
Where the story goes from here on will be very interesting indeed, and you almost wish an entire series was dedicated to telling a new version of Mary Shelley’s timeless tale, but if we have to put up with more possession, vampires and out-of-place gunslingers if we are to see Victor and the Creature’s story continue, then so be it. Still, poor Proteus. SSP