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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Jan. 11, 2005 | 10:09 PM

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The Strange Case of Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

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The Strange Case of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde The Story Everyone Remakes—and Always Makes with the Same Mistake by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The late, great Alwin Neu? played both Dr. Jekyll and his ‘altered’ ego in Denmark’s 1910 version of the story, and Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios was less than a year old when he made a 3-reel version of Stevenson’s novel in 1913 that featured actor King Baggot playing both Jekyll and Hyde. The Universal remake was at least the fourth film version made since the very first (now lost) version was presumably made in 1908. Ever since then, cinema has continued to make the same error in casting, and that error is this: Henry and Edward are always played by the same actor*. Sometimes they’re really good (Frederic March won an Oscar for his wonderful turn in the 1931 remake) and sometimes they’re really bad (Spencer Tracy made a convincing Jekyll but a ridiculous Hyde in the 1941 remake), but one thing is for certain: they are always erroneous.
Just think about it for a moment, and the reason becomes clear. Anyone who has bothered to read the novel (and it appears that most screenwriters and casting directors decidedly have not) will immediately realize the blunder of allowing one actor to play both parts.
For example, here are Stevenson’s description of Henry Jekyll, MD: “A large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a slyish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness-”  “The steps fell lightly and oddly; it was different indeed from the heavy creaking tread of Henry Jekyll”  “He became once more their familiar guest and entertainer; ....had always been known for charities;” “...the large handsome face of Dr Jekyll…seemed to open and brighten, as if with an inward consciousness of service.”
And here are the novel’s descriptions of Edward Hyde: “That young man…Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish” “A person of small stature” “He was dressed in clothes far too large for him, clothes of [Dr. Jekyll]‘s bigness;” “Particularly small and particularly wicked-looking” “He gave an impression of deformity without any namable malformation” “He had a displeasing smile” “He must be deformed somewhere…although I couldn’t specify the point.” “He was small; and the look of him, even at that distance, went somehow strongly against the watcher’s inclination;” “It was but for one minute that I saw him, but the hair stood upon my head like quills” “If ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of young [Mr. Hyde]!”
According to Stevenson, the body and mind of the fifty-something Jekyll, like everyone, was composed of both good and bad, and Jekyll’s experiments isolated the bad by ‘dissolving the good that enveloped it.’ This is why Hyde is smaller, younger, somehow deformed - hard to look at. He is pure ‘badness’ that has had less experience and growth - due to being suppressed by the covering layer of ‘good.’ Reading the novel, it’s easy to see Anglo-Saxon types like Sean Connery as the older, urbane, Dr. Jekyll presiding over a fine English house in Chelsea and someone like Colin Farrell as the young, wild-eyed, amoral Edward Hyde stomping about London’s filthy Soho district in 1886. Two actors playing what is essentially the same person? Yes—and even though it has never been done in any of the 21 remakes of Stevenson’s story that have been made since 1913**, the idea can’t be that strange. Remember the CBS series The Incredible Hulk? Can you imagine Bill Bixby playing both parts? Or even more bizarre, Lou Ferrigno playing both monster and scientist? And unlike most popular notions of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Stevenson’s Jekyll does not become bigger, taller and stronger—he becomes smaller, shorter, weaker, and at least 25 years younger.
You see, it doesn’t matter how much Frederic March rolls his eyes, how much Spencer Tracy slobbers, how much Jack Palance purses his lips, how much Kirk Douglas grimaces, how much Michael Caine winces, or how much John Malkovich smirks, not one of these actors can actually make their Hyde smaller and younger than their Jekyll. Not helping the matter are the dozens of critics who spout that playing both roles is a tremendous acting coup de grace. Perhaps for the actor getting the part, but not for the audience. Sure, we’ve seen an actor play two different personalities in the same film before and it was great. 1978’s Superman comes to mind, with Christopher Reeve doing such a good job of disguising his heroic, statuesque Kal-El with the squeaky-voiced, slump-shouldered, bespectacled Clark Kent that you almost forget they are the same man. But near the end of the film, even Lois Lane plays with the idea that Clark and Supes are one-and-the-same, just so we the audience (who are privy to the truth) will see that she’s not a complete idiot.
However, consider this: When Stevenson’s novel first came out, no one was familiar with this story—even though the basic idea had been touched on previously by other authors—a story that would eventually become one of the most recognized classics of Victorian literature. The fact that Harry and Edward are actually the same person came as a complete shock and surprise to the reader, as well as to all the characters in the novel. Jekyll’s best friends despised Mr. Hyde—they thought the young punk was out to get the old man. And when an old friend of Jekyll’s actually watches with his own eyes as the misshapen, despicable Hyde transforms into the handsome, respected doctor, the shock of it kills him. Kent and Superman are both tall, friendly guys in their 30’s, only with very different personalities. Jekyll and Hyde, on the other hand, are not alike in any way—physically, emotionally, or otherwise. And how in God’s name can one person be two physically different people? Egad! And therein lies the real horror.
True, everyone today knows that they are one and the same—“Jekyll & Hyde” is a household term—but how many times has anyone bothered to give us a film that tells the story that’s in the book? Once. Out of 24 remakes, only once. In 1912, Lucius Henderson made a version for a nickleodeon that actually had James Cruze as Jekyll and Harry Benham as Hyde. The first and only time two actors would play this role was in this silent film, 17 years before the first talking picture would be made.
In the past 95 years, there have been few, if any, attempts to do a remake that adheres strictly to—or anywhere near—Stevenson’s original tale. This in spite of the fact that the original novel is quite short, easy to follow, and presented in the so-called “fractured timeline” or “non-linear” style that was first showcased in Kubrick’s The Killing and that has been made so popular by movies like Go, Memento, Out of Sight, Magnolia and, of course, every film directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Also granted, when this classic story was first being filmed, special effects were in their infancy. In 1920, not only was it a plum for Barrymore to play both parts, it was a necessity—otherwise how could you possibly film the pivotal ‘transformation scene’? (The first of which, in the book, has Hyde turning back into Jekyll, by the way.) Special effects, today, however, stand at the brink of infinity—anything is possible. Even with a modest budget one could easily show a Lou Ferrigno morphing into a Bill Bixby—and in one fantastic uninterrupted take, no less. When I screened Stephen Frears’ Mary Reilly in 1996, you can just imagine my chagrin as I watched John Malkovich being transformed, through the magic of computer-generated imagery, into…gasp!, John Malkovich.
Currently, the classic novel inspired writer/director David Mamet to do a version of the story. While the project is now on hold, the script had a contemporary setting and was titled The Diary of a Young London Physician. Jude Law was to play Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde was to be played by—surprise!  -Jude Law. While there are no major female characters in the original story, this new project also featured Penelope Cruz playing a lab assistant character named Leilah. With all fairness, something tells me that this version was to focus more on the intrigue of the psychological aspects of a split personality (as opposed to the horror of what a man becomes when his ‘bad’ side is physically laid bare for all to see).
Though their film will not be a remake, 20th Century-Fox has also mounted an unusual sci-fi fantasy film by graphic novelist Alan Moore titled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Moore’s From Hell made it to film in 2001). The film will include Jason Flemyng ‘as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.’ Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Still, I remain hopeful, that someday, somebody somewhere will have the inclination, the inspiration, and the insight to remake a full-blown telling of the story that retains all the creepiness of Stevenson’s original thriller. Until then, I guess I’ll just look forward to remake No. 25…
*There are exceptions, of course, like in film versions where Jekyll transforms into a woman. In these films, the female part is always played by an actress, which seems odd, as a dual role of this nature would truly be a coup for most actors—just ask Dustin Hoffman or Linda Hunt.
**This number does not include most of the comedies where the Jekyll/Hyde character only appears in an unrelated story, or adult films that use the classic as a ‘basis’ for their story. There are six films of this kind (which can hardly be called remakes), perhaps the most inane being Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s near-pornographic Dr. Jekyll Et Les Femmes (1981), which starred Udo Kier as Jekyll and Gerard Zalcberg as Hyde.