In our old movies column, we take a look at the various adaptations, and influences, of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of duality, repression, and madness has been plaguing our minds for over a century. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a novella that tells the story of a scientist who dabbles in an unusual concoction that transforms him into the amoral Mr Hyde who causes mayhem across the streets of Soho.
The novella was wildly successful and continues to attract attention. The themes of the story have remained timeless, with it being a perfect look at Victorian sexual repression and toxic masculinity when it is contained by society. The streak of madness created has trickled down through the years and produced countless adaptations.
The past weekend we’ve had Hope Dickson Leach’s hybrid adaptation of the text in a brilliant live film production. The action takes the story back to Stevenson’s birthplace – Edinburgh and focuses on Utterson’s own descent into madness as he pursues not only Hyde, but wealth and power. The National Theatre of Scotland’s film production looks at the story through Utterson’s eyes but also reshapes his character. The ambitious project saw Lorn MacDonald as Utterson and invited audiences to watch the film being made as well as screened live across theatres. Though it provokes a lot of thought, including musings on the homosexual subtext presented, Hope Dickson Leach’s production is an intriguing one.
Now, you must suffer me to go in my own dark way and indulge in exploring the good and evil of Jekyll and Hyde cinematic adaptations. For I am no stranger to the text – in fact it is my favourite. (I even have a cat named Jekyll.) So, if you wish to start your own journey into the cinematic madness that is Jekyll & Hyde, here is a small overview of the countless amount of adaptations of the novella.
Fun fact, though there are over 100 filmed adaptations of the novel, there has never been a truly faithful translation of the text. Whilst the core of the story – the two dualities of an ambitious scientist – is still key to the retellings, most movies change the narrative. The novel itself is told from the perspective of Dr John Utterson – a dear friend of Jekyll – and most films omit or heavily reduce his role, which, as mentioned, is why this latest adaptation is interesting. Almost all add a female love interest for both the man and the monster, often causing friction between the two personalities struggling for freedom deep within. These changes can be attributed to Thomas Russell Sullivan, who adapted the text for theatre, and centred the story around romance.
In the novel, Hyde is described as having a deformity – but no one can pinpoint the affliction. The big theory is that he is so amoral that his wickedness appears across his face. However, over time this has evolved with some Hyde’s being hideous, depraved monsters with sickening psychopathy and super-strength.
Despite most adaptations following Sullivan’s work, in the very best depictions, the themes of sexual repression and socially bred violence are there.
When the novel was published in 1886, the Victorians wasted no time in putting it on stage. Sullivan’s version of the play was opened in 1887. Lead Actor Richard Mansfield played the role for 20 years as it toured Britain. Mansfield’s work as a madman killer was so convincing that people thought that he was the infamous Jack the Ripper – though he was quickly acquitted of the crime.
As film became more prevalent in the 1900s, the novella and its subsequent play would begin its cinematic adaptations. Though no copies of the first ever 16-minute short exist, featuring Hobart Bosworth in the eponymous roles, the 1908 short is considered to be the first ever American Horror film. It would also be the start of the hundreds of adaptations – with twelve silent films on the subject matter. The best existing version is John S Robertson’s in 1920, which saw John Barrymore as the two titular characters. Barrymore depicts Jekyll’s obsession with ridding man’s soul from the savage within him.
Sound cinema saw Paramount’s 1931 release of the tale. I’ve spoken at great length about this film which is arguably one of the best horrors of all time. In fact, unless you count Silence of the Lambs as a horror, it is the only horror to win an Academy Award, with brilliant Fredric March perfecting the role. Rouben Mamoulian’s inventive horror focuses on carnal desires which pushes Hyde to the surface. The transformation sequence, only revealed after Mamoulian’s death, is still a treasure to watch. March’s performance is outstanding, blending into the monstrous anarchy of Hyde fantastically.
Ten years later, Spencer Tracy would perform as the Doctor in Victor Fleming’s tepid production. Whilst it also stars Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, the 1941 version is a somewhat insipid. There would be two sequels as well, decent enough The Son of Dr Jekyll in 1951 and utter trash The Daughter of Dr Jekyll in 1957, the latter of which violently changes the lore of the original text.
Hammer Horror studios would acquire the text and produce some great, if albeit loose, versions. Its first production was comedy-horror The Ugly Duckling (1959.) The second was The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960) that changed the narrative by making Hyde an extremely suave and handsome man who seduces in sadistic and sinister ways. The film has appearances by Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed. Both of these men would go on the play the infamous Jekyll and Hyde in later productions.
Lee would star as the character in I, Monster (1971) alongside Peter Cushing. Directed by Stephen Weeks, the film changes Dr Jekyll into Dr Charles Marlow (and Hyde into Edward Blake.) The character also injects himself with the serum. Despite these changes, it is often considered one of the most faithful versions of text – with the focus being on Cushing’s Utterson as he follows his friends descent into madness.
Oliver Reed tackles the story in Charles B Griffth’s parody Dr Heckyl and Mr Hype (1980) which is so bizarre and weird, having Heckyl be a hideous man who transforms into the handsome Hype.
Other famed men who have performed in the role include Anthony Perkins in The Edge of Sanity (1989), John Hannah in the 1996 version, and Dougray Scott in the modernised 2006 version – all not so great for their own reasons.
Interestingly, whilst Stevenson’s novel is a particular brooding affair about men and their hidden desires, sometimes a female element can tease out the best depictions. For Hammer Horror, their best version is Roy Ward Baker’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971.) The film blends the original novella with the Jack the Ripper Whitechapel murders and Burke and Hare’s bodysnatching business. The film sees Ralph Bate’s doctor transform into the beautiful but apathic Hyde (Martine Beswick.) It is exquisite to watch a sexually confident murderous navigate Victorian London whilst torturing the man who created her.
The man transforming into a woman version of the story would be redone in Razzie winning comedy Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde in 1995.
Walerian Borowcyzk’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osborne (1981) has Udo Kier as Dr Jekyll. The film takes the restrained and repressed Victorian London to a new level as Hyde is unbound in a night of torturous sexual mayhem. There is a lot to admire about this version, most notably the bathtub riving transformations of the titular Doctor and his fiancé. Though Julia Roberts Irish accent Irish accent is…interesting… Stephen Frears’ Mary Reilly (1996) is intriguing. The character played by Roberts is the maid of Dr Henry Jekyll and starts to fall in love with the man and the malicious monster – played by John Malkovich. Based on a book by Valerie Martin, Mary Reilly has an intriguing premise, and the story is a very great brooding Gothic romp.
There have been some really strenuous depictions of the story and the most famous is The Nutty Professor films. Both Jerry Lewis in 1963 and Eddie Murphy in 1996 star as a hapless, nerdy doctor who creates a serum that turns him into someone more confident and attractive.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has even made its way into comic books with Bruce Banner aka The Hulk being a brilliant subversion of the Jekyll and Hyde lore. Mark Ruffalo does an incredible job at portraying the doctor constantly on edge of the beast he has created within.
There are many Spider-Men villains who could also fall under this trope – especially as men of science who fall on the blade of their own creation, with Green Goblin being the most sinister in relation to Dr Jekyll. Who am I to deny William Dafoe’s performance on this article?
Of course, Dr Jekyll and his beastly alter-ego do make an appearance in Alan Moore’s comic The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The graphic novel was later adapted to the big screen with Sean Connery in 2003, with a rather lacklustre final result (though Jason Flemyng makes a terrific Dr Jekyll).
In 1990, Frank Wildhorn produced a divisive musical adaptation of Stevenson’s novel. Now, reader, I’ll be honest. I am obsessed with the Gothic Musical concept album which is lead by Anthony Warlow (who’d finally perform as the characters on stage a few years ago.) I love it so much that the final Broadway version – with some different songs and singer – bristles me the wrong way. The only recorded version of the Broadway production has David Hasselhoff in the main role. And I simply cannot do it.
It’s not all bad – the musical has had a lot of productions across Europe and is currently in its 19th year in South Korea. You can find some high-school productions on YouTube which, if you are reading from England, it would astonish you with how big their budget is. The best is The King’s Academy in Florida. Workshops are currently happening in London with screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris Jr, alongside Lambert Jackson and Wildhorn, re-working the book for West End theatres. Dinelaris is also planning a film adaptation of the music but there is no word as of yet.
If the small screen is your thing, then there have been two popular television series that dragged the story out – the BBC 2007 modernized version with James Nesbit and a short-lived ITV series with Tom Bateman. Victorian horror series Penny Dreadful brought Jekyll into the fray with Star Trek’s Shazad Latif appearing in the role, though the series ended before the doctor took the elusive anecdote.
This is a lengthy article, but I’ve barely touched the surface on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adaptations which also includes children’s versions of the story and Loony Tunes shorts including Hyde and Hare (1955.) Plus, there is more to come. This year alone there are a multitude of adaptations winging our way which includes this National Theatre production and an Eddie Izzard led television series.
Why does this story still speak to us through the decades? As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.”
Perhaps we turn to the story time after time, not because it is a perfect time capsule of Victorian society, but it reflects our own beasts that we struggle to control deep within us. We have different natures in our online and living life, battling for substance in a hectic and made world.
So, in the end, don’t we all have to chose between our own Hyde lurking within? Well, reader, what will you chose?
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.