Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Penny Dreadful: Pleasures of the Post-Text
As the author myself of a post-text, I can appreciate the pleasures of revamping and re-interpreting an established classic. When done well, it opens up new vistas on the established work, and new insights into why it speaks to the reader or viewer.
Penny Dreadful has, in its forst two seasons, gleefully subverted a series of iconic tales, and has woven them together. It's a melange, but one that works more often than not.
It's principal source, of course, is Dracula. Set a few years before the action of that novel, with only a fleeting appearance by Van Helsing, and an utter subversion of Stoker's Mina Harker, the core of the show is in Mina's life;go friend, and betrayer, Vanessa Ives. Near the center is Sir Malcolm Murray, Mina's father, Vanessa's father-figure. The rest of the characters--Victor Frankenstein and his creation, ripped from their Georgian origins, Dorian Grey, Ethan Chandler (well, not really), and various friends and foes, circle around Eva Green's Vanessa.
What makes Penny Dreadful work is its patience; the show takes a very slow burn approach. Ethan's identity is revealed very gradually, Dracula is offstage for two full seasons, and Dr. Seward has just arrived. The characters are developed in long, slow story lines (enlivened by periodic outbursts of gore and violence--not for the little ones!) And what should be a bloody mess holds together, because in the action sequences, the characters remain themselves.
Also, the full commitment of the extraordinary cast makes the program. Eva Green's Vanessa is beautiful, yes, but harrowed. Her smile is rare, and often wry. The producers and Green have no compunction about deglamorizing Vanessa--indeed though there is nudity, with Vanessa it is never prurient--she is vulnerable, not desirable in those scenes. And Billie Piper, who I quite liked as Rose Tyler, has upped her game dramatically. In season 2 and 3, she goes from vulnerable to genuinely frightening, without losing the complexity of her character.
Rory Kinnear has found a way of making Frankenstein's Monster at once more human and more ruthless than any prior incarnation.
By mashing these monsters together, has John Logan taught us anything?
Yes; the monsters are us. Or, perhaps, we are they. The "heroes" are battling their own dark sides, the monsters are striving to enjoy their humanity. Only at the extremes are the demarcations clear.
Why do we love to be afraid?
because it allows us to "other" that in ourselves which we fear, and then, hesitantly, to accept it.