December 26, 2014
So I’ve finally started watching Penny Dreadful. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but I’m already simultaneously amused and frustrated, because it’s such the standard Mythic Victorian London. With a little more horror, maybe — but even then, it’s bouncing up against From Hell and various Wolfman and Jekyll and Hyde retellings. Look, everybody: Grubby slums! Garish prostitutes! Jack the Ripper! Upperclass gents in cravats with deep dark secrets! I’m going to keep going with the show, because this is an excellent take on the Frankenstein story so far. I love Proteus. He’s broken my heart three times in two episodes, and I want to see more. (I’d been drinking the rest of the champagne from what was leftover after making cheese fondu — in other words, a lot of champagne — and I turned to my friends and said, “You know why this story’s going to break my heart? Because in every version of Frankenstein, Victor’s always such a shit!” Yeah, I got a bit emotional.)
But it’s got me thinking about mythic settings. Especially mythic historical settings. Because it seems to me at this point most of the shows/stories I see set in Victorian London have very little to do with Victorian London, and are instead amalgams of all the stories about Victorian London that have been handed down to us. This setting got its start with Dickens and Conan Doyle, but it’s now taken entirely for granted that a story set in Victorian London will have grubby slums and garish prostitutes and upperclass gents with deep dark secrets.
World War II is another space where this is happening, and it’s really come to a head over the last few years. We don’t see too many stories about Vietnam anymore, but darn it if we haven’t had half a dozen World War II stories — Monuments Men, Fury, Unbroken, Defiance, Enemy at the Gates — even Captain America counts. Heroic men, impossible odds, triumph over evil and adversity, etc. The mythologization of World War II really comes clear for me when I watch movies about that war that were made in the few years after — because the war in those stories isn’t the mythologized one we’ve grown familiar with. Even the frame story in White Christmas (released 1954, I think) deals with issues we don’t see told about that particular war anymore — coming home, the way war experiences continue to affect the people who fought. But since then, we don’t really tell stories about World War II — we tell stories set in this backdrop that’s been handed down, with a certain expected set of tropes, whole cloth.
Not sure where I’m going with all this. Except maybe that it reinforces my feeling that if you’re going to write about a familiar historical setting, it’s very useful to research that setting, rather than to take for granted the familiar — perhaps overly familiar — tropes of that setting that have been packaged up and handed down to us over and over again. This is not to say using those tropes is automatically bad, but it’s important to recognize which details are perhaps overused tropes, and which are details that will actually seem fresh and interesting.