On paper the idea is a bit overwhelming; at a push it feels like it might be adapted from a graphic novel rather than a book, but it was neither. Penny Dreadful was created and written for screen by John Logan; he was a playwright before he began his screenwriting career, and the theatricality he writes into it, sets Penny Dreadful apart from similar TV series.
In the midst of many successful fantasy adaptations, Penny Dreadful is something of a curve ball. It involves many characters we know through previous adaptations and GCSE English literature, but the viewer is left wondering how Logan will use the combined narratives in the series. It’s a powerful premise, and once you get over the fact that the multiple characters and histories have so much going on, it actually makes for gripping viewing, and the stellar cast helps too. Logan has picked quite a bunch of writers – at the imaginary writing table are Mary Shelley (just 21 years old when Frankenstein was published),Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (with five novels behind him). One thing for sure is it would be an awesome writing session, with the novels all meeting at the horror junction but in different ways (I’m secretly hoping that Hamlet will make an appearance).
Logan appears as a sort of writer-puppeteer, as he manoeuvres the script between already-established plots. In drawing together characters he is cleverly playing with our literary and film consciousness.
Logan worked with Sam Mendes on Skyfall, which has the same type of inside nods and reflections as it surveys the history of Bond films, where Penny Dreadful brings together famous storylines from the nineteenth century. This ‘mixing up’ and referencing makes much more sense in a TV series where there is the opportunity to develop plotlines over a number of episodes and through the series (whereas Skyfall felt like an advert for all the famous Bond film snippets). It’s not easy to explain in a few words but it is a prescient charge – Penny Dreadful fuses film and TV styles, specifically in the way the series is directed, produced and cast.
It is set in London and filmed in Dublin, which makes a welcome change from the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, usually used as the backdrop scenery for this period. No spoilers here as it’s well worth a watch, and I think many are still to get around to watching it.The cast is common knowledge though, and (my favourite) Eva Green is fantastic. Her storylines often involve suffering and pain and she effortlessly abandons the obvious expectation to play the beautiful heroine for a realistic, tortured character. She is willing to depict herself as possessed by evil and punished by inexplicable forces – and while not an easy watch, it’s as compelling as it is unsettling. Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton and Helen McCrory are among the other stand-out performers, but the entire cast is impressive. And the fact that it’s been renewed for nine episodes in season three? Dreadfully good.