Penny Dreadful: A Twisted Reflection Of The Dracula Story

With Penny Dreadful in the coffin, we look at how its first season was the most literary adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

This article contains Penny Dreadful spoilers from the first season.

Showtime’s tragically lost Penny Dreadful is gone but not forgotten. After three seasons of Victorian repression and repulsion, the series ended not with a blood-curdling scream, but with a sorrowful wail of pain and suffering. For 27 episodes, we watched these characters play in the demimonde, grappling for an understanding as to why their existences are trapped between life and death, good and evil. For some that meant fulfilling one’s responsibility to a progeny by ending the life of another’s love, and for others still, it meant a not so gentle stroll into that good moonlit night. However, other than Vanessa Ives, none arguably suffered greater than when Sir Malcolm Murray was forced to put a bullet into the heart of his undead daughter.

Once the linchpin that brought all these characters together for her rescue, Mina Murray Harker’s life expired in a red gush when her father terminated this company’s original charter by setting his daughter free of her vampiric curse during the season 1 finale. It was a bitter fate felt by all the heroes, but then again that’s par for the course if you’ve read the novel that the overall Penny Dreadful story is based on.

Yes, series creator and showrunner John Logan pulls from a multitude of sources for this period monster mash with everything from Mary Shelley to John Milton and William Shakespeare thrown in (with a dash of Stephen Sondheim to boot!). Yet, the underlying architecture (of at least that first bewitching season) is ever so subtly rooted in one narrative above the rest: Bram Stoker’s 1897 masterpiece of vampire literature, Dracula. Not bad for a book originally thought of as a first-rate trashy Victorian novel.

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A succinct yet deliberate contemplation on the troubles that plagued the white Protestant Victorian male during the twilight of the English empire and dawning of the 20th (and American) century, Dracula had quite a bit on its plate beyond the buckets of blood many assume are omnipresent in the text. And while on some issues, Stoker’s meditations come across as quite progressive—such as the modern woman’s role in the workforce that is displayed heroically by protagonist Mina Murray Harker—there were others that seem incredibly antiquated today, like the staggeringly implicit disdain present for female sexuality and foreign immigration.

However, almost above all else, Dracula, to the surprise of many curious readers with each passing year, is actually the story of a fellowship of men (and woman) doing something so wonderful that only their Victorian sensibilities could accomplish it! They defeat Old World mysticism and horror by banding together on a mythic journey across the demimonde and into the supernatural unknown.

This story of brotherhood, which is only strengthened by the central role of a woman in perpetual danger of being corrupted by darkness, can be viewed so adventurously that Neil Gaiman rather amusingly asserted in The Annotated Dracula that it serves as a precursor to J.R.R. Tolkien and his decidedly all-male fellowship quest to save the world from evil in The Lord of the Rings. In fact, Stoker’s band of heroes and vampire hunters seems quite modern when compared to that medieval fantasy of tiered classes and wilting, waiting women.

Yet, save for Francis Ford Coppola’s beautiful mess, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), no film or television series has ever attempted to bring this whole fellowship to life. Even Coppola sidelined most of them in favor of other distractions. But much like Penny Dreadful, the sudden deterioration of one specific woman—Lucy Westenra in the book—brings together a collection of men to save first her, and then her best friend who has likewise been marked to be the devil incarnate’s bride. This fellowship includes an American cowboy, a skeptical young physician with a taste for narcotics, and a rich member of the nobility class who would spend every last dime to see the monster(s) destroyed. In Dracula, their names are Quincey P. Morris, Dr. Jack Seward, and Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming).

They all sought Lucy’s hand in life before her descent toward the horrors of a walking woman of the night, and they all serve alongside Lucy and Mina as the inspiration for the main cast of characters on Penny Dreadful now.

Ethan Chandler is Quincey P. Morris

This one is so on-the-nose that it should have any scholar of Bram Stoker howling. Once you get past the cosmetically bone-crunching changes made to the archetypical American from the Victorian author’s prose, and beyond the supernatural tinge to this wounded padre, he is more or less “the Texan with a big knife” brought to life.

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In the book, Quincey—like many in the company of heroes who would seek to kill the monster that all men fear—is one of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors who would have her hand in marriage. However, this young man of wealth has lived a life filled with adventure and wildness, which is only to be expected from his American heritage (at least in English eyes). A Texan by birth, there is more than a hint of romanticism to this roguish hero. He admits to Mina Harker in the book to having a predilection for telling tall tales, yet is himself unabashedly experienced in the rougher parts of the world. And like Ethan Chandler on Penny Dreadful, this isn’t his first rodeo with the unnatural forces of darkness.

Quincey volunteers in Dracula that he had a run in with a type of vampire before, and like Ethan, he has experienced a lifetime of oddities. “I was on the Pampas and had a mare that I was fond of go to grass all in a night. One of those big bats that they call vampires had got at her in the night, and what with his gorge and the vein left open, there wasn’t enough blood in her to let her stand up, and I had to put a bullet through her as she lay.” Quincey’s thick use of American slang is as visible in every line of dialogue as Josh Hartnett’s smiling “darling.”

Qunicey’s worldliness makes his doting on Lucy and later Mina all the sweeter. The best shot and rider of the vampire hunters, he would risk his life to the death to protect these women. But unlike Ethan’s unwavering devotion to saving Ms. Vanessa Ives, it did cost Quincey more since he was skewered by a gypsy follower of Count Dracula during a sunset showdown in the book’s Carpathian climax. But before Quincey died, he demonstrated his invaluable quality as the “trigger” man of the group. While Jonathan Harker avenged himself for months of torment when he slashed Dracula’s throat with a kukri hunting knife, it was Quincey’s long very Texan Bowie knife that ended the monster’s existence with a plunge into the heart.

In gratitude, Jonathan and Mina name their firstborn after Quincey, who arguably represented the future in Stoker’s eyes. As English Jack Seward amusingly condescends, “If America can go on breeding men like that, she will be a power in the world indeed.” Even madman Renfield seems in awe of U.S. potential in the dawning 20th century, proclaiming the Americans shall rule the Western Hemisphere, starting with Panama, as how the English dominate Europe. With all this self-congratulation, it can be easy to overlook the cowboy romance with which Quincey is depicted. And when you take away the wealth, but increase the moonlit cowboy angle, it is exactly the same effect as Ethan Chandler.

Victor Frankenstein is Jack Seward

Another character who plays dual functions on Penny Dreadful is the very young and very ambitious Dr. Victor Frankenstein. On the show, he has already brought three stitched together corpses back from the dead, and it’s not even season two! However, if you step away from that literary pedigree, this good doctor is a shadowy and twisted reflection of another fictional character from 19th century Victorian Gothic: he is loosely based on Dracula’s Dr. John Seward.

Like Quincey Morris, John (or Jack) Seward is introduced early as a potential suitor for Lucy, and like Quincey, he comes up rejected by the chaste ingénue. Nonetheless, he plays an arguably more important role than Quincey since almost all of the chapters pertaining to Lucy Westenra’s fall to vampirism are told from John’s diary and phonograph recordings.

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Which brings us to Frankenstein. Like the TV character, Jack is the first to facilitate the Undead diagnosis. On Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein procures the services of his mentor, English hematologist Professor Van Helsing. Wonderfully played by David Warner, Van Helsing swiftly deduces that Sir Malcolm Murray is hunting a vampire, a creature that Frankenstein is unaware of. And in the bloodsucking source, Dr. Seward is the one to usher in his mentor, Dutch scientist Professor Abraham Van Helsing—the man who figures out Lucy’s ailments are supernatural.

Further, Frankenstein becomes the primary physician for all supernatural problems on Penny Dreadful, and he sits by Vanessa’s sickbed almost as devotedly as Jack did for Lucy. When Lucy’s prospects dim and vanish, Jack partakes in a recreational use of morphine (one of the many narcotics he doles out to Renfield, Lucy, and probably his waiters). While he swears off the drug in a later phonographic recording, it certainly provided the more overt scene of morphine doping in Coppola’s infamous Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which John Logan continues the tradition of in Penny Dreadful. Upon the realization that Vanessa will probably die while in the throes of demonic possession, Victor Frankenstein soothes his senses through an injection of a “cocaine derivative,” with the indication that it is not the only narcotic that he’s familiar with.

Like Seward, Frankenstein is the group’s most intellectual young man, as well as the most awkward and effeminate. Yet, when the time comes, it doesn’t mean he cannot pick up a weapon to end Undead lives just as much as he saves them.

Sir Malcolm Murray is Lord Godalming (Arthur Holmwood)

Admittedly, this one is more strenuous than the other four on this list, yet there are key similarities between Sir Malcolm Murray and the wealthiest, most lording member of Stoker’s literary fellowship.

Arthur Holmwood is the third and final suitor that sought Lucy’s hand in marriage. And for whatever it’s worth, he won…unless you count Dracula’s last minute final bid on entering her nocturnal bedchambers. In any event, Arthur is good friends with both Quincey and John, and is both the final gentleman caller to propose marriage, and the one who is victorious.

For this comparison, it is crucial to underline Holmwood’s previous relationship with Quincey Morris. While it is unclear if either stepped foot inside Sir Malcolm Murray’s beloved African continent, the two are certainly well traveled in their adventures together. Early in Dracula, Quincey writes Arthur Holmwood a letter filled with manly and joyous nostalgia for the campfire nights that they shared while in the prairie of presumably the American West. Further, Quincey namedrops their trips into French Polynesia (Marquesas) and in Peruvian South America (Lake Titicaca). On one of these overseas quests, Quincey and Arthur met bumbling Jack Seward, affectionately referred to as “our old pal at the Korea.”

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While all three suitors are world travelers, it is in Quincey’s biological, slang-espousing American need to be a rough hombre (who somehow winds up in Victorian London); in the case of John Seward, it was more of a one-time deal. However, Arthur Holmwood is by far the richest of these three men, and one of noble birth, yet he likes to spend his time as a journeymen into the strange, “dark” corners of the world.

Like Arthur, Timothy Dalton’s Malcolm Murray is an explorer and adventurer because he feels so bloody entitled as God’s gift to the world: a white Englishman. While Arthur is depicted as a noble sort in Dracula, Dalton and Logan are using the archetype to peel back the layers on the Victorian male fantasy, as well as its inherent hypocrisy. These are men who are entitled to the planet. This is depicted as a virtue in Dracula, but it’s the most damnable of sins in Penny Dreadful. And the comparisons continue.

While the first Nosferatu inflicted lady is Arthur’s fiancée—and not his daughter—he is the one who will spare no expense to bring Van Helsing to London in a ploy to save Lucy’s life. Shortly before Lucy dies, Arthur’s father also passes away, providing him the opportunity to become Lord Godalming. It is that title and wealth that opens up many doors for the vampire hunters. Arthur uses his affluence and connections to force English bankers to turn over their information on Count Dracula once they know they have their demon, and as Lord Godalming, he strong-arms officials in the Bulgarian port of Varna to help them hunt down Dracula. Indeed, he ultimately bankrolls much of the third act expedition to Transylvania to kill the beast, even riding with the novel’s most pure hero Jonathan Harker via steamship through Eastern European rivers. It is all a grand adventure into the backwoods wilds of the “far east” for these men of education and proper Victorian breeding.

It’s just that that is its own monster on Penny Dreadful, albeit a necessary one when it comes time for a good old-fashioned vampire hunt.

Mina Murray Harker is Lucy Westenra

At first glance, this seems so odd that only John Badham and Kate Nelligan could seem to think of it, but in the right context, it is an astute and savvy choice. The star of this show is the unique and unbounded personality John Logan wrote specifically with Eva Green in mind: Vanessa Ives. So, if Vanessa is the female protagonist who has braved horrors and wonders, where does that leave Stoker’s Mina Harker? Not long for this world, I’m afraid.

Despite having the name Mina Murray before her marriage to the perpetually off-screen mystery Jonathan Harker, Penny Dreadful’s Mina Harker bares little in common with the source material’s character of the same name.

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In the book, Mina is a schoolmistress who is struggling to make ends meet in order to marry her beloved law clerk fiancé, Jonathan. Indeed, when he goes mad with brain fever in Transylvania, she takes it on herself to travel to the east to marry him in his resting convent, gray hair and all, and she nurses him back to health when they return to merry old England. All characters are struck by her compassion and independent fire, including Lord Godalming who can only confide his sorrow weeks after Lucy’s passing in Mina’s sympathetic arms. Even the consistently unflappable Abraham Van Helsing is thunderstruck by Mina’s goodness and purity. “There are darknesses in life, and there are lights. You are one of the lights,” Van Helsing remarks upon their first meeting.

But in Penny Dreadful, Mina is the fair-haired child of Sir Malcolm Murray’s wealth, and she is the first victim of “the Master” to have an actual name. While sympathetic in her torture as a victim of an Undead hell—used ultimately as bait to lure in the far more tantalizing Vanessa Ives to the harem of vampires that he keeps around him—Mina is much more victim than heroine. In short, she is much closer to Lucy Westenra than her namesake.

Like Penny Dreadful’s Mina, the literary Lucy is the rich and possibly spoilt daughter of a well-to-do family that vacations in the English seaside town of Whitby. And while I do not believe that Whitby is ever mentioned on the Showtime series, this Mina’s idyllic youth is reminisced by Vanessa as euphoric flights down the English coast. Indeed, like the Lucy of the book, Mina is the sweet and beloved best friend of the story’s actual female protagonist for whom life comes much harder. And while the Mina of the novel is never shown to be overtly jealous of Lucy like Vanessa is to Penny Dreadful’s Mina, the two share a bond “Closer Than Sisters” (just like the name of that pivotal Dreadful episode).

Perhaps most importantly, Lucy serves a key role in Dracula: she is the young woman that all the men come around and form an alliance to save…and then promptly fail. Arthur recruits Quincey and Seward—not unlike how Sir Malcolm Murray through the much more cynical influence of money recruits Ethan Chandler and Victor Frankenstein—and Seward recruits Van Helsing almost identically to how Frankenstein brings in the professor on the show.

But they all of them fail to save Lucy from the pitiable fate worse than death when she is recruited unto the ranks of the Undead by Dracula. And when her tragic fate forces Arthur’s hand (at Van Helsing’s behest) to drive a stake through Lucy’s heart, the alliance of men’s pact and obligation to each other is complete forevermore. So too in the failure of saving Mina has Sir Malcolm Murray’s merry band of vampire killers been permanently sewn together. At least Frankenstein should know all about that.

Vanessa Ives is Mina Murray Harker

So, if Mina is Lucy, then practically by default, Vanessa is the Mina Harker of this story. Except, that was obviously the John Logan design all along.

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Like the literary Mina Murray, Vanessa Ives is the strong-willed, modern woman around whom all men coalesce in admiration, and like Stoker’s heroine, there is something so special about this protagonist that even the Dead are moved to obsess over her. Granted, Dracula’s original attack on Mina is one out of anger for staking and beheading Lucy, but he still would raise Mina up to be one of his brides to live throughout the centuries with him, not dissimilar to the Master, Amun-ra, the Devil, and whomever else is present on Penny Dreadful: they need Vanessa Ives to become “the mother of evil.” Also, while Mina is never demonically possessed, her forced yet sinful taste of Dracula’s bodily plasma (again, Stoker was a Victorian) tainted her as damned until the beast’s destruction. Likewise, Vanessa unwisely couples with Dorian Gray. After she sips from the blood of his chest, she is too condemned to hellacious torment by supernatural forces.

Admittedly, there is something of a hint of Lucy Westenra in the way all the men on Penny Dreadful come to the aide and defense of Vanessa Ives in “Possession,” which sees them spirit to her spirited bedroom one blood-curdling scream into the night at a time—for weeks on end. Also, quite in parallel to Lucy’s story, Vanessa has a supernatural encounter so horrifying that it causes her mother to die on the spot from a heart attack—due to the sight of her child air-thrusting what is possibly Satan as opposed to simply a man in wolf form like the book…but premium cable has its demands!

Still nonetheless, they were already gathered to save one woman by this point, and unlike the show’s Mina, the other men have more of a stake in Vanessa who they view as captivating. Even the cold and aloof Victor Frankenstein is taken with her warmth. As Ethan Chandler attests to a smug Sir Malcolm Murray, this is the most important woman in their lives. “You want a daughter? There she is!”

She is the light in the darkness that all the men are drawn to. Some to keep it; some to strike it out with malevolence. But like Stoker’s Mina, it is irresistible to avoid.

So, there is a compilation of nearly all Penny Dreadful protagonists in line with their literary heritage and doppelgangers from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In my mind that makes the inevitable introduction of Jonathan Harker in a future season all the more curious—though worrisome when one considers the fate of Abraham Van Helsing on this show. Also, perhaps a season of continental chasing to Transylvania may one day be in order?

Agree with this list? Disagree? Have your own theories about Dracula’s far-reaching influence on this show? Let us know in the comment section below!

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***This article was first published on June 30, 2014.