Most of us know of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein or: The Modern Prometheus,” written in 1818 and already considered a modern classic, but what many of us many not know is that over a century into the future, which this writer has been able to visit through means which shall remain undisclosed, a new motion picture art form will be developed and presented through messages beamed to the public on electric screens know as “Television.” On this format, we will see stories told in stand-alone tales and serialized presentations. As it happens, Mary Shelley’s famous tale will be adapted and retold countless times in a variety ways in these “Motion Pictures”, taking all sorts of liberties and implementing new styles to the characters. There is one particular adaptation that stands out however, all the way in the distant year of 2014, as both a left-field yet spiritually faithful translation of the core characters in Shelley’s novel. This story is a “television show” known as Penny Dreadful, created by a professional in the medium named John Logan. It should be noted that in this report, many story elements of this series will be addressed.
The serialized motion picture show functions as an amalgamation of classic stories we all may be familiar with, alongside new faces alongside them. But there are two characters who, while not the center focus of the show, are powerful standouts, and they are Doctor Victor Frankenstein, and his Creature. They are portrayed by thespians named Harry Treadaway and Rory Kinnear respectively. There are concessions to be made in the character translation to fit these two into the wider narrative with the other characters. In Shelley’s novel, Victor is Genevan, and the Creature is created in Germany. In Dreadful, the two are both British. Like in the novel, Victor becomes obsessed with the bridge between life and death after the passing of his mother. He creates the Monster, and immediately abandons him. Alone in the world, the Creature finds fascination in literature, poetry and people-watching. Unlike the novel, Victor, after his initial shock, resumes his works in resurrection. He creates another being named Proteus, less aesthetically challenged than the Creature, and this time avoids the mistake of abandonment. But like in the novel, the Creature inserts himself back into Victor’s life through lethal violence, and tells Victor to make him a mate he can spend his un-life with. Unlike in the novel, in which the Creature sees no kindness in the world, so far as to remark “If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred and an hundredfold” (Shelley 157). , the Creature here has witnessed compassion, as he was taken in by an actor and allowed to work in the theater. This shelter of course, can be only temporary.
The Creature at length recounts his life story to Victor to make his case. As in the novel, he regularly makes literary allusions reflecting his love of the art. In the novel, he referenced The Sorrows of Young Werther, Paradise Lost, The Ruins, Plutarch’s Lives, and more. In the show, he references William Wordsworth, Milton, mythology, and gives himself the alias John Clare, the English poet, after the actor addressed him as “Caliban” after the Shakespearian character. As in the novel, the Creature asserts dominance over Victor. In the novel, the creature remarks, “You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!” (Shelley 176) in Dreadful, the Creature says “Look upon your master.”
Shelley, the daughter of writer and Women’s Rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, subtly featured an element of critique on sexism in her novel. She presents her female characters as props to move the plot forward. Women as true characters are absent, seen only through the speculative gaze of the narrators. Victor’s sin in the creation of the monster could be seen in part as the terrible consequences of the exclusion of woman in the process of the creation of life. He had the audacity to bypass the biological need for women in the propagation of humanity. Victor fears that if he complies with the Creature’s, he will be responsible for whatever actions the female takes: rejecting the Creature, or joining him in the conquest of humankind. He fears agency in the woman.
Penny Dreadful is indisputably a feministic series, its central character, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), is a layered, intelligent, flawed, strong, yet vulnerable individual. Beyond her, throughout the series we meet many three-dimensional female characters. Within the sphere of Frankenstein and his monster, comes the woman Brona Croft (portrayed by Billie Piper) A woman terminally ill with consumption, whom Victor mercy-kills. What he keeps secret from the other characters however, is that he takes the body for the purposes of creating a mate for The Creature. When she is reanimated, as ‘Lily,’ we are brought to further meditation on the feminist themes of the novel. This woman, this living being, is a bargaining chip between two male characters. She functions as a means to an end, built to satisfy the needs of a man, with no consideration of what she might want. And yet they are both of them surprised to find, as Victor feared in the novel, she is uninterested in fulfilling that role for any of them, and liberates herself from their grasp.
She finds purpose while spending time with another character you may know: Dorian Gray, created by Oscar Wilde. She forms a violent women’s liberation movement consisting of exploited women who she persuades to strike back at their oppressors. Circumstances however, cause her to fall back into the grasp of Victor who has fallen in love with her. His agenda here disturbingly reflects his fears in the novel, in which he states “She, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation.” (Shelley 174) In Dreadful, when this he has come to pass, he wants to remove her autonomy, and turn her, in his words, turn her”back into a proper woman,” (Penny Dreadful) the implications of which are horrifying to anyone seeking advancement and equality for womankind.
Overall, the thematic parallels in this distant adaptation, are strong and consistent between these works in spite of the fairly substantial changes to story elements, the core and spirit of the characters are still present to carry out the message that Shelley had intended in her original novel.
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein. Edited by D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf. 3rd ed. 2012
Logan, John, creator. Penny Dreadful. Desert Wolf Production and Neil Street Productions, 2014.