Unfilmable?: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which oddly lacks an initial “The” in the original release) is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s best-known short stories, and a cultural touchstone that everybody is familiar with; who hasn’t heard of someone having a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality complex? The case of the good-natured doctor and his devilish alter-ego is one which captivated the imagination of the public as soon as it was published, and has never quite let go.

Having the story in my Nook collection, and a version of it in my Hulu queue, and having seen occasional versions before, I thought it might be a worthy consideration for a “Version vs. Version” treatment. But it’s proving to be an odd one (a neat trick for the second entry in the category), as the question became one of what versions to compare. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most adapted stories in history. I took a look at IMDB, doing searches for feature films and TV movies with “Jekyll” or “Hyde” in them, and eliminating any duplicates and any where it was coincidental (such as “Hyde Park”), keeping only those that were based on the story. I came up with 42 different movies, 3 of which are currently in production. Since 1920, there hasn’t been a decade without at least one; Hollywood has seldom gone more than 5 years without one. And that’s just ones with one or both names in the title, it doesn’t count Jekyll & Hyde stories without the names in title (such as 1989’s Edge of Sanity), or cases where the story was used but the names were changed (such as 1971’s I, Monster, starring Peter Cushing). And given the usual defaults of IMDB’s advanced search, I think it’s only giving me the ones released in the U.S. Wikipedia claims there are 123 Jekyll & Hyde films, and it’s entirely believable.

So it became difficult to pick and choose which versions to compare, until I read the story in question and realized that it might make the most sense to simply compare the story on one hand, and the entirety of its adaptations on the other. Why?

Because it’s quite possible that there has never been a truly faithful adaptation of the short story, and it may be that there never will be.

This may seem like a strange assertion, and you might wonder how it could be true. After all, we all know the story: Kindly, well-respected Dr. Henry Jekyll secretly doses himself with a formula that brings out his monstrous evil side, whom he dubs Mr. Edward Hyde. Hyde gradually commits worse and worse acts of depravity, while Jekyll gradually finds himself losing control of his ability to restrain Hyde. We’ve all seen it several times, because of those aforementioned Hollywood adaptations.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? We all know the story, and that makes us a less-than-ideal audience for a faithful rendition of Stevenson’s short story. Because while the movies tend to use Dr. Jekyll as the focal character, and often the viewpoint character, the short story is told through the eyes of Jekyll’s friend, lawyer G.J. Utterson, a character often omitted from the movies. The reason Utterson is the viewpoint character instead of Jekyll is simple: the relationship between Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll is a mystery to Mr. Utterson and the revelation that they are one and the same was a twist ending, revealed only in the last chapter of the story. Until then, the reader was meant to be in the dark as much as Mr. Utterson.

But the thing about stories that become part of the public’s media vocabulary is that all the twists are known — especially when the story is known because of the twist. While it’s possible to pretend one doesn’t know the twist when reading the story (and doing so, it’s easy to see how this story would have been jaw-dropping to the genuinely unknowing), it’s not something that you can rely on the audience being willing to do. The story was adapted to stage plays as little as a year after publication, with different productions making a selling point out of how well their lead actor could transition between Jekyll and Hyde, so the secret was out pretty early. If a movie audience — particularly a modern movie audience — went to a Jekyll & Hyde film that tried to pretend the audience didn’t know they were the same, they’d probably walk out feeling cheated. The only way I can think of it working is if the names were changed and the line “Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s…” only appeared at the end.

But Hollywood has more fun simply jumping straight into it, playing the story less for mystery and more for horror, and it’s hard to blame them. The dichotomy is fun to play with, and provides ample story hooks. Of course, Hollywood has a tendency to change the dichotomy between the two somewhat, often portraying Jekyll as even more virtuous than the novella, with noble intentions in the creation of his Hyde formula, hoping to oust the evil from men’s souls. In the story, though, while Jekyll is basically good he has his unseemly urges (never spelled out, but apparently shameful to him as a respectable man of town; the implication would be things like frequenting prostitution.) He creates the Hyde formula in order to alleviate the feelings of guilt, as the purely evil side would feel no guilt, and the normal side could excuse the actions as being solely those of the evil side (after Hyde kills a man, Jekyll is disabused of this notion). He even states, in his summary of events at the end, that the formula doesn’t release evil, but merely what is inside, with the implication being that if Jekyll had entered into it with loftier goals, his alter-ego may have been more benevolent than Jekyll himself. Hollywood, of course, usually ignores this speculation (especially when using the Hyde formula as a stand-in for drug use).

It’s not the only change Hollywood makes to the relationship. Mr. Hyde is almost always depicted differently than in the written work. In the story, Hyde is smaller than Jekyll, younger, and scrawnier; Jekyll speculates that this is because he hasn’t exercised his evil side as much. And though Hyde does gradually become more robust, even at the end he is still markedly smaller than Jekyll’s full size. Hyde is also hairier, and has a peculiar undefinable sort of ugliness to him; several observers note that while he has no visible deformities, he seems like he should be deformed (Jekyll speculates that this is because while most people are good and evil commingled, Hyde is pure evil, and people can sense the wrongness of him). Hollywood typically makes the ugliness more overt, adding actual deformities to his appearance (unless they choose to go the opposite route and make him look more appealing than Jekyll for the sake of irony or other purposes). Also, Hyde is larger and/or stronger than Jekyll in many versions, with some taking it to an extreme degree.

Divulging the nature of Jekyll and Hyde at the outset also requires some other changes to the story, in order to replace the jettisoned narrative and provide enough content to fill a movie. Hyde’s crimes are usually expanded upon, with him committing multiple murders as opposed to the singular one he commits in the novel. The loss of control over the changes generally happens sooner in the narrative to compensate, and still make Jekyll look good(ish), which would be difficult if he voluntarily changed into Hyde after killing someone. Hyde, by contrast, is typically both remorseless and fearless in continuing his killing spree; in the story, Hyde is remorseless (having no conscience with which to feel remorse), but is aware of the risk of being killed for the crime, and so reluctantly submits himself to the formula to change back into Jekyll. This is another detail often changed; in the novella, one formula is responsible both for the change to Hyde and the return to Jekyll. In the movies, the return to Jekyll usually happens only after the formula wears off. However, the story does have the element that eventually Jekyll starts involuntarily transforming without the formula, and Hollywood typically keeps this element intact.

Movies typically add a love interest for Dr. Jekyll, and sometimes even add a second, contrasting one, for Mr. Hyde. This usually forms a large part of the basis for the new plot, with Jekyll initially creating the formula out of a desire to be a better man for his love, and the resulting Hyde putting her in danger. This is wholly Hollywood; the only female part of note in the short story is that of a maid who witnesses Hyde committing murder, and that only a brief part. Friends and family are often made up as well, as only a handful of characters are given lines to speak in the book.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a strange case indeed when it comes to adaptations. Nearly the entirety of every adaptation is made up from whole cloth by the writers of the movie, with only the absolute core concept being taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing. But this is necessitated by the high degree of familiarity everybody has with the story. While some stories get altered tellings in an effort to stand out from the crowd, differences in Jekyll & Hyde come about simply out of the need to tell a story that isn’t relying on surprising the audience with what they already know. The novella is a good read if you can pretend to be taken in by it, but many of Hollywood’s movies are enjoyable in their own right and require no such pretense.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
This entry was posted in Ramblings and Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Unfilmable?: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

  1. I was so excited to read Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde” after so many years of hearing about it.

    It was… interesting. It wasn’t exactly what I was especting, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps the perspective of Mr Utterson caught me unaware. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed it, even with the twist fully known.

    That is surely the sign of a great book or film – when you already know how it turns out, but still thoroughly enjoy it.

    (Case in point: I have only just seen “The Sixth Sense”. Twist completely ruined after years of pop references and friends’ comments, but still a bloody good film!) 😉

    • Yes… there are some books and films where, if you know the twist, they’re ruined. And there are others which are still very enjoyable. The Usual Suspects was like that for me; knew the twist since it’s one of the movies most commonly cited about twist endings, but it was still very good. And The Sixth Sense is enjoyable on a whole other level if you know the twist; you can look for all the subtle little clues throughout the film.

      Glad you liked Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; while it’s definite different from what people would expect, I think it still holds up well.

  2. Pingback: Jekyll & Hyde (1990) | Morgan on Media

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