The Story You Don’t Know

I finished The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this morning. I’ve seen the musical and Mary Reilly and run into versions of the character in Marvel Comics and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but this is the first time I read the book. I’d just finished Kidnapped, also by Robert Louis Stevenson, and, having enjoyed that, figured that I might enjoy J&H. I hadn’t had much interest in it before because, y’know, I already knew the story. Even without seeing the musical I’d read enough descriptions of various movie versions of the story that I figured that story couldn’t have many surprises to it.

Fortunately I’m used to being proven wrong. The surprise wasn’t so much in finding more in the novel than I expected, the surprise was in finding less. J&H is a short mystery novel told from the viewpoint of Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer. It tells of Utterson’s investigation into the identity of Edward Hyde and background of his strange hold over Henry Jekyll. It’s only in the final fifth of the book that it’s revealed that Hyde is Jekyll. There’s no prostitute in love with Hyde, Jekyll has no upstanding fiancee, Hyde is short and young and Jekyll is tall and in his fifties.

I now want to see some of the movie adaptations of the story. I want to see what movie makers brought to story. I’m assuming that the musical was adapted from one of the films. It’s hardly a direct adaptation of the novel. I described it to Nizzibet and she said the plot sounded familiar. No doubt the films were originally adapted from a play – that’s what was done with Frankenstein and Dracula.

I’m interested because I’d like to know what story the filmmakers think they’re adapting. I’m pretty sure it’s not the one I read. The novel is a fertile little thing, ripe with larger possibilities. It could be expanded in so many different ways. Yet, while the story gets remade every few years, it lags far behind Frankenstein and Dracula in sequels. It’s not that I’m especially a fan of sequels, it’s that having sequels is usually a sign that a storyteller sees more possibilities in the character or the original idea. With exception of Abbott and Costello and Alan Moore, I don’t think anyone has seen (heard?) new riffs in J&H.

But take this passage from Jekyll’s “confession” –

Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend. The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth.

I get all sorts of ideas from that.

And also consider – the novel ends with Utterson’s reading of the “confession”. The authorities have not been informed. Jekyll, in the form of Hyde, is dead; the body shut up in the laboratory until Utterson returns and gives the servants direction. But is Jekyll/Hyde dead? He created a formula to physically transform himself, might he not also know formulas to simulate death? It seems more likely to me than Hyde, now in possession of their form, killing himself. Hyde is pure evil. Hyde loves life. Jekyll is an ass who didn’t want to take responsibility for his moral flaws.

Also – Jekyll’s “confession” is written after Hyde has taken over, supposed during a brief time when Jekyll is able to be himself again. But Jekyll and Hyde have the same hand writing. We only know what happened second hand through Utterson’s investigations. Hyde could have written the confession as a cover for a much more complicated story.

I can imagine a host of ways to continue or expand the story without having to change a thing that Stevenson wrote. Maybe if I live long enough I’ll get around to it. Long live the public domain!