Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is one of those richly polyvalent works that, like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), deploys a central conceptual image variable enough to acquire a startling metaphorical complexity. The dual and divisible image of human nature at the heart of Stevenson’s work may be read in a number of different ways at different moments, and sometimes even simultaneously, within the space of the work. Is this harrowing tale ultimately concerned with addiction, homosexual repression, domestic abuse, or something else? Due to this freedom of textual interpretation which Stevenson built into his enduring work, the various film adaptations of Jekyll & Hyde have tended to differ wildly from one another in both tone and approach. It’s a testament to the power of the original text — a sterling piece of genre literature — that this narrative continues to fascinate and disturb so many of us today.
For me, the greatest film adaptation of Stevenson’s novella remains the first sound version, directed by Rouben Mamoulian in 1931 and starring Fredric March in the title roles. Certainly, it’s the most adventurous piece of visual storytelling of the films in question — a genuinely atmospheric work of horror cinema that uses camera movements and practical effects in sophisticated and compelling ways. The transformation scenes of Jekyll turning into Hyde, always important in the screen versions of this work, are a tour de force of acting and direction. Many early American sound features from the first couple years of the ‘30s tend to be decidedly un-cinematic, as if Hollywood directors were so occupied by the integration of sound that they neglected the more pictorial aspects of the medium which were so central to the beauty of silent cinema, and this makes Mamoulian’s achievement here all the more contextually unique and refreshing.
The Mamoulian version also seems to go the furthest in exploring the more disturbing aspects of the source material, in some ways even extending the concerns of the original into the realm of misogyny and domestic space. Miriam Hopkins and Rose Hobart play two women from opposite ends of the socioeconomic stratum whose lives are both deeply scarred by their associations with, respectively, Hyde and Jekyll, and these are crucially two characters that aren’t even present in the original novella. This strategy of using horror aesthetics to explore misogyny and domestic abuse, an aspect of the genre that’s still very much with us today in works like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), is strengthened here by March’s lead performance, which seems to tap into his overtly affable and genial star qualities in order to remind us that monstrous figures may be hiding behind a pretty face, wealth, or a good-natured façade.
The better-known 1941 film adaptation, directed by Victor Fleming, strikes me as much inferior to the pre-Code version of a decade earlier, despite its stacked cast of Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner. This version seems to be limited by its status as a kind of costume drama about cruelty rather than a work of horror; visually, it’s closer to Jane Eyre (1943) than it is to The Wolf Man (1941). Interestingly, the 1941 film retains the two female characters of the earlier version, making it feel more like a remake of that film than an adaptation of Stevenson’s text. Tracy’s performance here is a bit too studied and conventional for my taste, though Bergman is good, as she usually is. Thematically, this version also turns its focus toward the treatment of women. I find it fascinating that both Mamoulian and Fleming chose to interpret the material in this way, as it figures much less centrally in Stevenson’s text than notions of homosexual experience (and repression) do. Likely this latter topic was simply seen as unfit for the screen in these mainstream Hollywood productions of the day.
Predating each of these studio versions is an earlier American version, the silent film adaptation of 1920, directed by John S. Robertson with John Barrymore assuming the lead roles. This version, well worth seeing, remains celebrated above all for Barrymore’s turn as Hyde, a triumph of stage makeup and hammy acting. Of the three versions in question, this one delves more deeply than the others into the work’s buried themes of drug abuse and addiction, with Barrymore spending time as Hyde in a number of seedy opium dens in Soho. This version is basically a kind of Victorian morality tale, and owes a great deal of its aesthetic strategies to earlier forms of stage melodrama. It’s being screened virtually by the IU Cinema on November 6 with a new orchestral score composed by Ryn Jorgensen that had its initial premiere at an earlier Cinema screening in February of this year. I was lucky enough to attend the February screening, and for those who are interested in the spellbinding power of silent film, it shouldn’t be missed.
As the most frighteningly human of the great nineteenth-century monsters, the dual character of Jekyll/Hyde has been reincarnated many times on screen in the years following these versions, most notably in the lurid and colorful Hammer romp The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), in the gender-shifting Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), in the blaxploitation version Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), as well as in a Looney Tunes cartoon, “Hyde and Hare” (1955). Jerry Lewis also used the concept wonderfully as an exploration into the fragility of twentieth-century American masculinity in The Nutty Professor (1963). The richness of Stevenson’s central image continues to be a source of interest for artists concerned with the possibilities of narrative doubling and conceptual duality, one that seems especially well-suited for the medium of cinema.
The 1920 silent film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will be screened virtually by the IU Cinema on November 6 with a new orchestral score composed by Ryn Jorgensen that had its initial premiere in February of this year as part of the Jon Vickers Scoring Award. Composer Ryn Jorgensen, Scoring Engineer Carl Newmark, and IU Jacobs School of Music Associate Professor Larry Groupé are scheduled to be present for a virtual conversation and interactive Q&A.
The 1931 and 1941 versions are both available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.