How Classic Literature Was Woven Into Penny Dreadful

Elodie Cure Elodie Cure
June 26th, 2016

French aspiring writer and interviewer. TV shows and films connoisseur. Overpowered by curiosity.

Penny Dreadful is a show that deserves much more attention than it already gets.

Set during the Victorian era in a London, where terror reigns, the series follows a trio of protagonists fighting occult powers in an avenging quest.

Highly original, Penny Dreadful seduces thanks to a brilliant cast, a powerful imagery and an ingenious storyline abounded with literary references. The scenarist and creator John Logan has skilfully weaved a fascinating network where significant characters from classical books cohabit and evolve together. While the third and last season has just been released on Showtime, it is high time to provide an overview of the masterpieces mentioned in the show.

Penny Dreadfuls

Credit : Showtime

Credit : Showtime


The title of the show itself refers to a popular editorial phenomena of the 19th century. What was called pejoratively  the “Penny Dreadfuls” were short horror stories, ostentatiously illustrated and accessible chiefly to small fortunes. John Logan was considerably inspired by them during the writing process.


The Picture of Dorian Gray


Credit Showtime

Brutally welcomed at its release in 1890 and judged as a repugnant piece of work, The Picture of Dorian Gray describes the tragic destiny of a man selling his soul in exchange for internal beauty and youth. However, he is forced to watch his acts and indiscretions through an ageing portrait hanging on his wall. In his fiction, Oscar Wilde depicts a character enslaved by his incessant search of pleasure who becomes aware of the ephemeral quality of handsomeness. Penny Dreadful draws an implacable portrait of this anti-hero, and certainly, one of his most faithful adaptations. Thanks to his marked and deviant psyche, Dorian (Reeve Carney) is a crucial character to the series.


Credit : Showtime

Credit : Showtime

Bram Stoker might not have invented the vampires but his novel remains a great inspirational source for the pop-culture of our days. Newcomer in the Penny Deadful universe, the mysterious and charismatic count dedicates a quite particular interest for Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the heroine. However, if Dracula (Christian Camargo) only showed its teeth in the last season Abraham Van Helsing and Wilhelmina Murray were heavily mentioned in the first season. Like in the book, Mina is victim of an evil charm to which the main heroes are trying to free her.

Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus)

Credit : Showtime

Credit : Showtime

Actively participating to the plot construction of the series by bringing his knowledge, the Doctor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is at the outset a redundant protagonist with dark secrets. Born from Mary Shelley’s pen, Victor Frankenstein is a tortured man, a mad scientist that won’t rest until he penetrates the secret of life. Following a relentless work and some fruitless experiences, he manages to create from pieces a monster whose ugliness and infamy arouses terror and rejection.
In the show, Victor breathes life into not one, but three corpses. Paradoxically, he vows a fierce hatred to his first creation (Rory Kinnear), and a passionate love to his last one (Billie Piper).

The nature of the original beast is rather excessively close to the one describes in the novel. Both left to their own devices, they face the extreme cruelty of the society, despair and the difficulty of the existence.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Credit : Showtime

Credit : Showtime

Arriving in this season, the Doctor Jekyll (Shazad Latif) is introduced as a friend of Victor Frankenstein with whom he shares the common passion of cabalistic sciences. Austere and enigmatic character written by Robert Louis Stevenson, his story is well-known: As a philanthropist obsessed by his dual personality, he finalises a serum that separates his good side from the bad one. It is the latest, night after night, that gets the upper hand and turns him into the abominable Mister Hyde.
If the the series hasn’t revealed his dark side, the split personality was evoked on various occasions, most notably through the couple of Vanessa Ives and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett).

Tremendously well-thought out and of a high standard, Penny Dreadful invites us to plunge back into the classical masterpieces of the Victorian era. All the characters are learnedly portrayed and none of them is left behind. The show is an actual book where each episode is a new chapter of a enthralling story that one savours with voracity until the last episode.

The show ended with a strong and incredible finale last Monday after three seasons. It is never too late to have a look at it!


Elodie Cure is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter @Elodie_Cure.

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