Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Signal Reads: The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by R. L. Stevenson

The only other Robert Louis Stevenson I've ever read was Treasure Island back in elementary school.  I remember it being quite good, but that was also 1984-85, so it's been a while.  I will also state that, in third grade, I read an adaptation for kids that was still very gripping to me at the time, and pretty scary, but I think it had elements from the movies sprinkled in.

I have seen multiple version of the Jeckyll/ Hyde story in film, from silent versions to Mary Riley, so it's not like I was unfamiliar with the story, but as Dracula and Frankenstein are adapted again and again, the books they sprang from often seem forgotten entirely in the adaptation - so I wanted to give the novella a spin.  I found a copy a long time ago narrated by Christopher Lee, but it doesn't appear to be available on Audible anymore.  Needless to say, Christopher Lee is a tremendous talent, and his range suits the book incredibly well.

But this was my first time reading the actual novella of The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde by Stevenson.

Here's the thing about this book...

It's become so ingrained in the culture, and Hollywood was in such a rush to get to the crazy part where he changes, that the entire narrative structure of the novella is devastated by the twist leading into the third act when you learn Hyde and Jeckyll are, in fact, the same man.  It'd be a bit like going into The Crying Game knowing what surprise was going to pop out at you literally your entire life before seeing the movie.

Unlike films of the story, the book more or less is told from the perspective of Jeckyll's friends uncovering what fate has taken poor Harry Jeckyll and if he's at the mercy of this awful Hyde fellow.  As such, there's no girl in harm's path as in the earliest movie adaptations.  We're left to wonder what perversion Hyde was up to that Jeckyll refuses to catalog once the truth is out.  We are assured that the murder that occurs that puts Jeckyll into hiding is a first - but for how "wicked" Hyde is, we're left to imagine.  And that, in of itself, is an interesting exercise in the exploration of one's own, inner-Hyde.

The themes of duality are certainly there, but this was also the first time I stopped to think at length about the change that Jeckyll goes through en route to Hyde.  It's described as splitting the good from the wicked, but...

Stevenson also makes mention and clear that Jeckyll may have been a bit of a scoundrel in his youth, he's aware of his own capacity for evil.  I do think Stevenson was of the mind that Jeckyll was good and Hyde bad - that man (or at least a proper English gentleman) is innately good but with the capacity for evil if unchecked - but that man's conscience will drive him to do right.  Hyde was free of that conscience, but vile to look upon, reflecting the bad impulses.

But, again - I sort of wonder about two different scenarios or interpretations.

1)  Perhaps Jeckyll was not so changed in spirit, just physicality to Hyde - but he took the liberty of his transfiguration to do the evil he wished, evil he admitted he had done before to lesser degrees.

2)  The potion Jeckyll drinks that turns him into Hyde is supposedly splitting Jeckyll's "evil" side from his "good".  But that's not really what happens.  It turns the Jeckyll of both good and bad tendencies into a bad person.  We never see the opposite occur, where Jeckyll is made "better" or "more good".

There's an indication there that you can't get much more good than a wealthy British guy of means and society that doesn't necessarily follow.  But there's your movie pitch for you, young go-getters.  Hyde, Jeckyll and Mr. Swellpants.

Anyway, after knowing the Jeckyll and Hyde story for this many years, it was interesting to get a fresh opinion of the tale from the book itself.

Again, Christopher Lee just nails it.  It's a terrific listen, if you can get your hands on it, and very brief at under 3 hours.

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