Penny Dreadful: The Most Faithful Version of the Frankenstein Legend

Penny Dreadful may have Frankenstein Meet Dracula, but it also has the most pure and faithful rendering of Shelley's creature ever onscreen.

Penny Dreadful is a wartime Universal Monster Mash for the premium cable generation. With vampires, demons, Egyptian mumbo-jumbo, psychics, and Dorian Gray running around, all that was missing is a werewolf or two in even its earliest episodes (they quickly rectified that). And of course near the center of all this, just one shade removed from “the Master” and the company of men who would see him destroyed, is the Frankenstein Monster, aptly named John Clare, née Caliban.

Brilliantly introduced in the second episode of the Showtime hit, Caliban, or the Creature (Rory Kinnear), is a human tragedy who easily became a series highlight alongside Eva Green’s bewitching Ms. Ives. Marked with raven black hair, and the soul of a poet, he could downright be a romantic hero if not for his yellow eyes and grisly facial deformities endured because of the rash enthusiasm by his previously maddened father, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). In a rush to imbue life to the dead, Frankenstein created an existence as wretched as Caliban’s outward appearance.

However, for those mostly familiar with the story of Frankenstein and his ultimately unwanted child through those aforementioned Universal films, or their generations of knock-offs from Hammer to Roger Corman, the sight of this loquacious monstrosity might seem a bit unnervingly new. Indeed, save for a humorous epilogue for Peter Boyle’s rendition of the Sharply Featured Man in Young Frankenstein (1974), never has the Monster been quite so voracious in his vocabulary… or articulate in his pain.

Even Kenneth Branagh’s poor attempt to realize “Mary Shelley’s” Frankenstein with a movie entitled (what else?) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) seemed to shy away from this splendor of a man meant to be an angel, but instead turned into a demon. And this is why despite merely being a subplot that has accounted for about one full-hour of Penny Dreadful‘s first eight episodes, this Frankenstein Monster is the most faithful rendering of Shelley’s creation ever put to screen. And we can prove by just by simply looking at those early, introductory chapters to Rory Kinnear’s heartbreaking performance.

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Now, I am aware that Shelley never featured her damnable Adam working at a London-based Grand Guignol theater, in no small part because the Monster (probably) never stepped foot inside London in the 1818 novel, nor was his literary 18th century setting in line with the 1897 opening of that Parisian horror stage show.

Yet, despite the many cosmetic changes Penny Dreadful creator John Logan has taken in order to allow his 19th century British horror story to take place in the same city at the same time, he has still returned to the root English text that bore these eternal icons into the public consciousness forevermore. And Frankenstein is likely the best representation of this.

When Mary Shelley’s first novel was published in 1818 with the authorship initially left anonymous (many falsely attributed the work to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley), the story was one of ghosts and goblins for the young writer (then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin). The consequences of a fever dream during a stormy and idyllic summer near Lake Geneva several years prior.

However, as someone who was raised on aspirations of the Enlightenment from the previous century—which is also where she would eventually set her novel—and even marrying a philosopher-poet who was disowned by his aristocratic family due to spending his inheritance on “Political Justice” for the destitute, Mary Shelley had more on her mind than simply recreating the terror of a bad night’s sleep. In fact, it can be argued that her “Modern Prometheus” (Frankenstein’s original subtitle) was not so much an anti-science tale of caution, as it is of man’s failings in it.

To be sure, Victor Frankenstein is very much the modern day Prometheus since he steals forbidden knowledge and bestows its horror upon the world; the tragedy of Frankenstein is that in a lust for knowledge, a man destroys his life and the lives of everyone around him in the blood of his creation. And yet, it should also be noted that the entire story is told through the accursed eyes of a woefully self-pitying creator that years later is recalling the misfortune that has befallen him and his ruined family because he birthed this “daemon.” And any reader can easily notice that the most engrossing and entertaining chapters of the novel are in the middle section where, for nearly 50 pages, the Creature’s narration dominates the story. Even the “wronged” protagonist Victor seemingly concedes this when in the novel’s epilogue when he insists on editing these passages for absolute clarity after the book’s narrator, Capt. Walton, finishes transcribing Victor’s ramblings.

This is because the Creature, as with Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, is the most fascinating character in the narrative. But, unlike Milton, the only creator in Shelley’s story is a man devoid of divinity.

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If one returns to the text, it should be considered that Victor, Walton, and the Creature all speak in multitudes about “Nature” and “natural philosophy,” and the workings of the universe in the most abstract scientific wordings of their day. Rarely is God or Heaven and Hell invoked, save at the very end of the novel when Victor has given up on a this mortal coil that he had hoped to enlighten and be deified for doing so—instead he longs for the sweet release of death that will free him from his endless pursuit of the nameless son that has wronged him greatly.

But up until that point, Victor’s early life and idealism stemmed from thoroughly intellectual Swiss parents of incredible charity, as demonstrated when they adopted a beautiful Italian orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, to be Victor’s sister, cousin, and eventual wife. It is they who inspired Victor to seek the workings behind things.

And in keeping with his father and grandfather, the Creature inherits the Frankensteins’ lyrical hearts, thus justifying his vengeance wrought on a creator who left him in as much confusion as a man answered with silence during his nightly prayers. The Creature even has it worse than humanity, because he finds the musings of his Creator in a diary taken from Victor’s laboratory, one that proves he was a failed and unwanted byproduct from a father who rashly abandoned him the morning after his birth, leaving him alone and miserable in a world that he can never fully understand.

These rather profound and challenging concepts—positing a literal “monster” to be the justified (anti-)hero due to man’s hubris, as well as his failing to embrace scientific knowledge and his responsibilities to it—led to an early, fierce backlash of criticism which interpreted Frankenstein to be atheistic. Noted contemporary critic and novelist William Beckford even surmised Shelley’s work to be “the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.”

This is why the earliest stage adaptation of her novel, Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), introduced the concept of the Monster being a silent hulking beast that could not communicate the depths of his sorrow. Also, the character of Fritz (the eventual hunchbacked sidekick of the Universal era) provided a Greek chorus that did not view Victor as a scientific Prometheus whose greatest sin might have been abandoning his discovery. Instead, allusions are made to Faust; the idea of the “presumption” in playing God by creating an abomination in His image is greatly reinforced, which has often been the reading in 20th century renderings of the Creature as well.

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But Penny Dreadful avoids nearly all of these trappings, even downplaying the Creature’s deformity more than in the book. While the Monster of the novel does indeed have raven black hair that Victor intended to be beautiful until the yellow eyes opened, he is also eight feet tall and a behemoth to behold. Rory Kinnear’s slighter features downplay the bestial pop culture image of the Creature popularized by Boris Karloff’s truly brilliant and unique interpretation. Conversely, Caliban is removed from most of the cosmetic disfigurements that have become ubiquitous with Frankenstein. However, like the shift of Victor being a late 19th century English scientist instead of an 18th century Swiss one, it is a superfluous change that gets to the core of both characters.

While due to the practical necessities of television, Treadaway’s Victor is far less remorseful about playing God after imbuing life to the dead, he still captures the early euphoria that literary Victor recollects in the novel.

“My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned, not towards childish pursuits, but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states, possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.”

Victor’s quest for complete and total knowledge of the secrets of life and death—which become more defined after the demise of his mother—leads him to even scoff at Isaac Newton and actual scientists of the day.

“The untaught peasant beheld the elements around him and was acquainted with their practical uses. The most learned philosopher knew little more. He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery…I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly, and ignorantly, I had repined.”

Like Shelley’s Victor, Logan and Treadaway’s character is not so much a mad scientist as a vainglorious youth enamored with his own potential. In both works, Victor is a young man, a college student even, who has scorned the luxuries and refinements of his family fortune to live far and away from home in a student’s apartment where he plays with the instruments of life and death, including fresh corpses. He isn’t insane; he’s just young and arrogant enough to believe he knows better than everybody else.

The callowness with which Shelley depicts Victor and his enraptured transcriptionist Capt. Walton as products of “gentle and feminine fosterage” is even a dangling plot thread on Penny Dreadful. Beyond the “origin” flashback of his doting mother being taken by bloody consumption in “Resurrection,” Victor is also constantly held up as inadequately masculine when compared to Josh Hartnett’s trigger-happy Ethan Chandler within Sir Malcolm Murray’s merry company of vampire hunters.

In fact, Victor’s openness to vampires is arguably befitting his literary heritage since there was always a bit of the “metaphysical” about him. Penny Dreadful pays homage to Frankenstein’s 20th century iconography when Victor goes James Whale on the creation of both Caliban and Proteus (the Creature’s short-lived younger brother) with electricity. But in the novel, Victor’s notation of electricity is a simple passing interest in lightning striking a tree. For Shelley, there was something of sorcery afoot in Victor’s interests, as he was originally a student of occultists and alchemists’ writings like Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. These theological physicians of the Middle Ages and Renaissance Italy believed in a crossroads between the natural and supernatural, an aspect that appealed to both literary Victor and his eventual chemist mentor M. Waldman.

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Indeed, their metaphysical interests very likely could have been the subject of a thesis written by Bram Stoker’s Abraham Van Helsing, a philosophical physician and intellectual who dared to believe in Dracula. Introduced as an English hematologist for just two episodes in Penny Dreadful, he seems every bit as open-minded to Old World mysteries as Stoker’s creation. If Shelley’s Frankenstein ever met Stoker’s Van Helsing, they might have cured death itself.

Instead, Victor harnessed the intentionally vague “instruments of life” in order to infuse the spark of being into a stitched together collage of body parts. More than a little black magic, the action could even be viewed as sinful, if not for the beauty of what he created.

Shelley’s Creature is a warrior poet who is left meaningless in this life when all of humanity revokes its friendship due to his ugly countenance. However, as demonstrated in the episode “Resurrection” by Kinnear’s variation on the stiff, there is something hauntingly wonderful about a creature every bit as soulful as his blind creator who refuses to accept the similarities between himself and his son.

In a bit of fourth wall breaking meta-humor, Caliban waxes nostalgic about discovering Victor’s cornucopia of poetry and romantic literature. Undoubtedly used as storytelling short-hand for the years the Creature had learning from a banished French family in the German countryside while hiding in a hovel, it is still a wonderful sequence where Caliban discovers he has the same divine spark of any intellectually curious man. “From your penciled notations, I learned that you favored Wordsworth and the old romantics. No wonder you fled from me. I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world; I am modernity personified… Did you really imagine your modern creation would hold the values of Keats and Wordsworth?” The only name missing from Caliban’s lips is Percy Shelley.

The actual Creature of Mary Shelley’s hand was not so richly educated in literature, but he did discover one volume of writing he treasured above all else: Milton’s Paradise Lost. Finding common ground with Milton’s vision of the forsaken Satan, the Creature realizes he was Victor’s intended angel that was cast aside into a living Hell. However, the text would also suggest that Victor’s cruelty is responsible for his creation’s later crimes, including the murder of his brother and sister/wife. After all, Shelley insures that the Creature is as well-versed in free-thinking as any enlightened soul around Victor. How else could he speak so eloquently about the plight of Native Americans or the cruelties of man’s history?

“I heard of the slothful Asiatics; of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians; of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans—of their subsequent degenerating—of the decline of that mighty empire; of chivalry, Christianity and kings. I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.

These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm.”

These musings on the Creature’s part get to an underlying theme that Penny Dreadful’sCaliban makes explicit when he smears the blood on his hands across Victor’s face. “We’re the Janus mask; inseparable.”  And much like the literary Victor, Treadaway’s doctor seems unwilling to accept how much his “son’s” actions are of his own doing.

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Like almost any young parent, Victor abandoned his child upon the hour of his birth and shunned it away from every day henceforth. Even after the Creature reveals itself to be every bit the Renaissance Man schooled in the ideals of their age, Victor can only hiss the word “Demon” at him for a name in Penny Dreadful, his sole signifier for the Monster in the book.

The result is a Creature who longs for love, companionship, and tranquility with his fellow man being instead filled with a hate and anguish that he was never taught to manage or control. When the Creature demands Victor fashion him a mate in the novel, the scientist acquiesces for a moment…before balking at the last minute and destroying the female companion before the Monster’s yellow eyes, condemning him to a lifetime of loneliness and resentment—a sensation that he then shares with Victor when he slaughters Elizabeth on Victor’s wedding night. The scientist’s damnable blindness to their duality and shared fate is the true monster.

For a time, it appeared to be the direction the show was heading in as well. In a series where Caliban has shared his beloved volume of Paradise Lost with a Grand Guignol actress who could only laugh at the “love token,” he is truly alone save for Victor. But it would appear the good doctor has no interest in appealing to his Creation’s desires.

In many ways, it is fitting that the Creature found a home in the Grand Guignol. Besides the fact that the French theater served as the genesis for what would become horror cinema (as well as a wink and a nudge to Logan’s own previous work on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), it is also on the Victorian stage where the Monster has previously gotten his biggest due for being the gentle and chatty soul that he is. In the Victorian era, the Monster and Frankenstein were often performed as doppelgangers by actors who interchanged roles on different nights. The latter aspect was resurrected in 2011 for Danny Boyle’s London stage version of Frankenstein that featured Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating between the parts of Victor and his creation.

So too is it now finally alive onscreen in Penny Dreadful, 20 years after Branagh adapted “Mary Shelley’s” Frankenstein, yet still had Robert De Niro’s monster speak in broken (if persuasive) English, only a baby step removed from Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Not that anyone should have an issue with Karloff. In fact, James Whale’s two Universal Frankenstein pictures, Bride and its predecessor Frankenstein (1931), remain my favorite version of the tale. Yet, after 80 years of chasing that masterful interpretation, to finally see the verbose wanderer, a century too late for the Enlightenment, be truly imbued life on the screen, big or small, is an awing creation to behold. That it comes in a format where he has to share screentime with Dracula and Josh Hartnett as a more feral version of Quincy P. Morris makes it all the more electrifying.

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This article was originally published on June 20, 2014.