December, 2007 saw the release of the Tim Burton film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Based on the Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name (1979), publicity pictures of the classically beautiful Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter in the leading roles promise something akin to a gothic love story. The film presents its audience with a sympathetic antihero – a contrast to the maniacal serial killer that is synonymous with the name of Sweeney Todd. How has Todd evolved from his melodramatic roots to become this dark, charismatic individual troubled by his past? How did this two dimensional villain metamorphosis into a contemporary Hollywood horror icon?
Since his first appearance in the 1846 penny dreadful serialised drama entitled A String of Pearls – A Romance, Sweeney Todd has fascinated audiences. This dark, mysterious figure has become synonymous with psychopathic murder and abhorrent cannibalism. Peter Haining claims that the story of Sweeney Todd is “as familiar in London lore as those of Jack the Ripper and Doctor Crippen” (1993. p7). Todd has captured the imagination of generations, and this study will investigate the reasons behind why the tale of Sweeney Todd still holds such fascination for contemporary audiences. It asks why this melodramatic villain has survived, when the majority of his counterparts, such as Varney the Vampire and Spring-heeled Jack, have long since been resigned to the archives? It will also investigate which contemporary fears and anxieties Todd encapsulates and whether they are the same fears that gripped Victorian audiences? This study will investigate whether, during the course of his journey from page to stage and screen, Todd has moved away from being the detached ‘devil personified’ he is perceived to be. It will trace the evolution of the character from his initial stage appearance in George Dibdin Pitt’s 1847 adaptation, through to his most recent incarnations. The study will look at how Todd is represented within each genre and ascertain how this might affect the perception of the character.
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