Penny Dreadful Reads The Picture of Dorian Gray

dorian-gray-penny-dreadful-36904602-2400-3263This post contains minor plot details from seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful. Read on at your own discretion.

You may recall that I spent the first part of the year reviewing the last season of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist blog. In my final post, I talked a bit about the show’s intertextual relationships with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). ‘Perpetual Night’ (episode 8) wraps up Victor Frankenstein’s story, and ‘The Blessed Dark’ (episode 9) presents the final showdown with Dracula, the season’s main antagonist. This week I discovered that Benjamin Poore – author of Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians (Palgrave, 2012) and the recent article ‘The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic’ – has cited my reviews in his own blog post with the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Referencing my reading of the show’s ending through Frankenstein and Dracula, Poore adds his own analysis of Penny Dreadful and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)Like Wilde’s novel, and like Dorian Gray himself, Penny Dreadful is destined to be forever trapped in fin de siècle London:

The paradox of The Picture is that the portrait is painted in the contemporary London of Wilde’s time, but as time passes and Dorian looks no older, we don’t move forward into the first half of the twentieth century (well, we do in the Oliver Parker film adaptation, but that’s another story).[8] In the novel, Dorian never ages, but London never really stops being 1890s London either. How could it be otherwise, when Wilde barely survived the end of the century himself? So it is with Penny Dreadful. To mangle the words of Vincent Starrett, in Penny Dreadful it’s always 1892.[9] The series is crowded with figures seemingly queuing up to escape the nineteenth century, but who cannot do so; they’re stuck in a fin de siècle moment.

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). - Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: PennyDreadful_307_0478
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME

Poore also draws on Frank Kermode’s theories about the function of endings in narrative, highlighting the infinite possibilities Penny Dreadful creates for the exploration and expansion of this eternal London. Dorian serves as a powerful metaphor here as well:

Kermode also remarks of novel reading in The Sense of an Ending, that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity’.[11] He discusses the distinction between chronos, that is, passing time, and kairos, the ‘divine plot’ referring to ‘historical moments of intemporal significance’.[12] It strikes me that Penny Dreadful has a lot of kairos ­– a series of divine prophecies being fulfilled – and not a lot of chronos. Dorian has escaped from chronicity, and so have many of the supporting characters. That’s why, even if official television sequels are not forthcoming, the world of Penny Dreadful provides almost limitless scope for fan works and reinterpretations.

‘You’ll be back’, says Dorian in the series’ final episode, ‘And I’ll be waiting. I’ll always be waiting’.

You can read the full post at the link.

Now all that remains is an analysis of Penny Dreadful against Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The addition of Dr. Jekyll in season three, and his relationship with Victor Frankenstein, felt exciting but unfinished. Perhaps we will see the good doctor in his own spinoff series – or perhaps we should leave that to the many other television adaptations of Stevenson’s novel in recent years. Poore also has a fascinating post on Charlie Higson’s current Jekyll and Hyde adaptation for ITV, for those interested in reading more about the novel’s contemporary reincarnations.

Scream Queens: Women and Horror

woman-screaming-261010-large_newAs part of the final chapter of my PhD thesis, which takes a fan studies approach to historical monster mashups, I’ve recently been researching audience statistics for Pemberley Digital’s various series. Pemberley Digital is an online broadcasting company that specialises in serialised YouTube adaptations of classic literature. Specifically, I wanted to know whether Frankenstein, MD, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), had a different audience than their other productions. Unlike Pemberley Digital’s other shows, Frankenstein, MD represented a genre shift from drama to horror. How might this affect their viewership?

Pemberley Digital’s representatives were very happy to send over screenshots of their YouTube demographics data, which yielded some very interesting results. Below are the audience demographics for the two most popular Pemberley Digital series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice) and Emma Approved (based on Austen’s 1815 novel Emma).

LBD Demographics
LBD Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics

As you can see from the infographics, the audience for these series overwhelmingly identifies as female, and most are under the age of 24.

Unlike its other shows, Pemberley Digital produced Frankenstein, MD in cooperation with PBS Digital Studios, part of the online arm of the American Public Broadcasting Service (a free-to-view, non-profit, and largely educational media platform). This meant that while I could obtain demographics for all the extra videos produced for Frankenstein, MD (spinoff vlogs by Iggy DeLacey and Eli Lavenza) from Pemberley Digital, I would need to approach PBS Digital Studios for statistics on the main episodes. Fortunately, they too were happy to provide the information I needed.

Frankenstein MD Vlogs Demographics
Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Bonus Content, Pemberley Digital)
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Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Main Episodes, PBS Digital Studios)

As you can see, viewers for Frankenstein, MD content skew slightly older and identify more often as male – especially on main episodes of the series. Part of this difference in demographics is no doubt due to the diverse makeup of PBS audiences more generally. It’s likely that, due to its more diverse content, PBS Digital Studios simply has more men in its audience than Pemberley Digital, and these viewers were attracted to the show because it was broadcast on the PBS YouTube channel. The Frankenstein, MD production team, which is composed much more heavily of men than the average Pemberley Digital production, may also have helped skew the demographic. As a social network, YouTube users are split pretty evenly between male and female, though many gender stereotypes prevail nonetheless.

FMDSlider

While I’m still working out what exactly this data can tell me about the audiences of historical monster mashup, it also led me to the question of who generally watches horror. Surely, as one Flavorwire list of ‘50 Must-See Horror Films Directed by Women’ points out:

Genre filmmaking has a reputation as a man’s field. That goes for audiences as well as filmmakers. To the novice, it’s easy to see why. For a long time women’s bodies have been used to titillate male adolescent horror fans — shrieking, squirming, disposable ciphers.

As it turns out, however, the audience for horror on big screen and small is not as male-dominated as one might expect. In fact, several recent studies have suggested that it’s pretty much 50/50 (these studies tend to stick pretty strictly to a binary gender system).

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Of course, this information will likely come as no surprise to scholars of the Gothic, a genre with a strong history of female readership (and viewership), but it’s worth noting that horror’s popularity with women crosses into visual media as well as textual media. In a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Lorenza Munoz argues that female support for horror not only fuels its box office success, but ‘has revolutionized the genre’:

No marketing decision on these horror films is made without considering how to attract girls and women younger than 25, added Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line Cinema, which distributed “Texas.”

“This young audience has been such a boon to movies over the past five years,” he said, noting that “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reinvigorated the genre and introduced it to a new generation of girls. “They can go in groups on a Friday night.

“It becomes a pack thing, the same way an action movie is a pack thing for guys.”

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The article continues:

 

Weinstein, who began distributing Barker’s “Hellraiser” movies starting with the third in the series after he launched Miramax’s Dimension Films label, said Barker had to convince him that females should be targeted in the marketing campaign.

“I questioned that,” said Weinstein. “I didn’t realize that women were as big an audience as men. It’s not perception of action or violence” that draws them. “What you are selling is fright.”

[…] “The girls run the show.”

If these excerpts interest you, then I strongly recommend you check out the entire article (it’s a short read).

Of course, the fact that women make up 50% of the audience doesn’t mean that women are well represented behind the scenes of horror cinema. You may be aware that women only make up 4,7% of the Hollywood film directors in the past five years. Horror is lurking at the very back of the industry, with the crews on these films just 9% female on average. There have been numerous calls for female-led horror in the past few years, but it remains to be seen whether things will actually improve for women making horror as dramatically as it has for horror’s audiences.

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Cultural Afterlives of Frankenstein

0467-lego-8804-frankenstein-monster2The following post was originally delivered as part of a Cardiff BookTalk screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). After watching the film, three academics (including myself) delivered short presentations on the story’s cultural contexts. A report of the event will be available shortly, but you can find the contents of my presentation reproduced below, with some minor modifications and corrections.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the creature has the following to say about human communication:

I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. (Chapter 12, paragraph 9)

Here the creature identifies communication (in this case, speech) as a stimulant that, when used correctly, produces human emotion – a ‘godlike science’ much like the one Victor Frankenstein used to give him life.

Fittingly, it was Mary Shelley’s communication of emotion nearly 200 years ago that provided the spark of life for the Frankenstein myth, which is still very much with us. She didn’t immortalise Frankenstein alone, however. Other texts, in other media and over many decades, have contributed to the legend and remade it along the way.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Rather than tracing all of these adaptations and revisions, which is a formidable task even for Wikipedia, instead I want to address one question:

What does it take to make a text immortal?

In his 1987 reception history of Mary Shelley’s novel, Chris Baldick suggests that all books (and Frankenstein in particular) have this potential:

Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […Shelley’s] novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)

For Baldick, then, something about the novel itself encourages textual resurrection and transformation. This by itself is not enough, of course. In an article about the cultural success of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield suggest that ‘the key to cultural survival of a text is to adapt it to a changing audience; the key to cultural growth of a reputation is to expand it beyond the text’s native reach’ (p. 432).

As demonstrated by their choice of authors, the actual content of the stories matters less for the immortality of a text than the cultural processes that take over once they are written. Shakespeare’s melodrama is worlds away from Austen’s understated comedy of manners, and Shelley’s serious, somber work again differs dramatically from Shakespeare and Austen. There is no exact formula for writing an immortal story. Instead (for Troost and Greenfield), it takes three forces: fictionalisation of the author, adaptation, and travesty. So. both author and text need to come alive in fiction as well as in history, and new audiences need to feel free to use the author’s name and work in ways they were probably never meant to be used. Only then does a text enter the realm of myth.

RothwellMaryShelleyIconic images and ‘little personal stories’ are key ingredients in bringing the author to life (p. 442). We’ve got an iconic image, painted by Richard Rothwell in the mid nineteenth century, and we have the story of Frankenstein’s inception at Villa Diodat, by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This is the story that is most often revisited when Shelley makes an appearance in fiction. While Mary Shelley herself hasn’t quite reached the same level of fictionalisation as Shakespeare or Austen, she has made cameos in a number of films and television shows – usually works of genre fiction (fantasy, horror, sci-fi).

In a 1997 episode of Highlander: The Series, Duncan MacLeod visits Lord Byron and the Shelleys, inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. In the 10th season of the TV show Supernatural, which aired just last year, the Stynes are an ancient family of magic practitioners, who had to change their surname from Frankenstein after Mary Shelley wrote about them. In the 1990 film Frankenstein, Unbound (based on a 1973 novel of the same name), a scientist travels back in time to meet Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, as well as Mary Shelley herself (played by Bridget Fonda). In a 2006 episode of the children’s animated series Time Warp Trio, Frankenstein’s creature becomes real and shows up in the main character’s apartment, necessitating a trip back to 1816 Switzerland to bring him face to face with his creator – Mary Shelley.

Fictionalisation of the author? Check. What about adaptation, then? As Troost and Greenfield write:

Works of literature prosper not through simple reproductions but through re-interpretations, quotations and transformations […] Megastardom for a writer comes only by being adapted to interest an audience far beyond the natural one. (p. 431, 438)

Shelley’s other work has received minimal attention from adaptors, but her best-known novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, absolutely fits this category. Its most iconic adaptation, the 1931 film version directed by James Whale, has also spawned countless adaptations, references, and reimaginings.

Again, it would be futile to try and take you through more than a small sampling of these adaptations, but as it’s always more effective to show than to tell, I’ve put together a brief montage:

The last clip in this montage is from an episode of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, a show that ran from 2010 to 2012 on the Adult Swim network. In the show, fictional and historical characters seek help at Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, which is accessible through a series of space-time portals. The scene, in which Frankenstein’s creature and Adolf Hitler have a beer together at the local pub, is one great example of the unexpected ways in which Frankenstein’s creature can be read.

The show could also easily be considered a case of what Troost and Greenfield call travesty – extreme adaptations that stretch our definition of the term. While some may even appear to attack the text they are adapting, Troost and Greenfield argue that they too are vital to a text’s immortality: ‘travesties are themselves markers of high reputation and respond to textual transformations that have already occurred’, and ‘transformations that play against the forms and reputations of the works actually promote them while mocking them’ (p. 439).

In the case of Frankenstein, we have examples of the story stretching far beyond what we would traditionally call adaptation. The text is embedded in our very language. Think of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat, the Frankenfish, Frankenfoods or Frankenstorms. My current research is on Frankenfiction. All of these references carry the text far beyond its natural habitat, to new audiences and new meanings.

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Without all three of these elements – adaptation, travesty, and fictionalization – our relationship to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be quite different, 200 years on. In the end, as Baldick argues: ‘That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth’ (p. 4).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and James Whale’s Frankenstein, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Frankenstein, and Pemberley Digital’s Frankenstein are all Frankenstein. Every time we read or watch them, we recreate Frankenstein as well.

In the end, the story of Frankenstein has power because we give it power, by using it over and over again. If you love Frankenstein, then – whether we’re talking about the novel or the film or some other version – the best thing you can do to ensure it lives on for another 200 years is to keep watching it, keep reading it, and keep re-writing it. Keep re-stitching it into something new. And while you’re at it, add a few anachronous bolts (or gears) for good measure.

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References

Baldick, Chris, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987)
Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield, ‘“Strange Mutations”: Shakespeare, Austen and Cultural Success’, Shakespeare, 6 (2010), 431–45