Monday, January 9, 2012

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

     Should I admit that I have seen Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995) with Tim Daly and Sean Young multiple times?  Or that my enduring image of Edward Hyde comes from The Impatient Patient (1942), a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoon?  I guess that is my way of saying that while I have been immensely familiar with the idea behind The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) – and I knew the title well enough to have thrown a fit when a contestant on Jeopardy! (1984-present) was credited with a correct answer while leaving "The Strange Case of" off the title – I had never gotten around to reading it.
     Robert Louis Stevenson's novella is rather brief, and it does not disclose much of the activity of Edward Hyde.  Instead, it functions as a precursor to the modern investigative thriller with a lawyer as the protagonist (see the works of John Grisham or Scott Turow).  Stevenson does not escape the device of having a character recount a lengthy story – the final two chapters function in this manner – but he doesn't lean on it like a crutch or drain the suspense away from the tale when using the device.  For the most part (and maybe this isn't surprising to those who have read Stevenson), he writes in something very similar to a modern style.
     However, I did learn that Hyde is almost always misrepresented in film.  Stevenson represents him as a hirsute man of diminished stature and bearing, and younger in appearance as Jekyll had not fed his selfish, malignant character as he had filled his nominally good self with a life well lived.  Movies tend to make Hyde into a gigantic mass of muscle and rampaging destruction.  Stevenson seemed to picture him as a slight, though powerful man with animalistic gait and savagery.  Hyde represented the seed of evil given form, and as such it was necessarily smaller than the whole from which it sprung. 
     I liked this story.  It was far better than the film versions I have seen, though I will freely admit that adapting this faithfully would result in a slow moving, cerebral movie.  Stevenson doesn't quite invest it in the investigation of morality or self-control to which I became accustomed in my philosophy or psychology classes, but I would be wrong to expect it from him.  There is a compelling investigation here, and the threat of what madness (of a sort) can inflict on both the self and others.  Ultimately, I feel stupid for not having read it before now.

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