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Monday, May 19, 2008

The Many Faces of Hyde, Part 2 (originally published 7/03)

Very few stories, if any at all, have maintained a more consistent hold on the imagination of filmmakers than Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." By the end of the silent film era, there were already nearly a dozen different movie versions on the shelf, dating back to 1908. Nor did the coming of talkies by any means stem the tide. Since then, dozens more movie adaptations of Stevenson's classic have been added to the tally, so that by now it is an act of considerable hubris to go to the well yet again. Anyone who wishes to attempt a new screen version of this well-worn chestnut had better have some sort of new angle to offer.

Often, this is accomplished by means of a variation on the story that takes the basic theme and transmutes it into another context altogether. That's the approach followed in the current release of "The Hulk," which offers us a truly fearsome Hyde figure in the form of a green-skinned monster. Last week we looked at some other broad variations on the Jekyll-Hyde theme. If you like your adaptations to follow the original material a bit more closely, however, there are plenty of screen versions that remain faithful to Stevenson's own story. Here are a few to look for on home video.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920). Here is a rare opportunity to see John Barrymore at the height of his powers, predating the descent into gin-soaked self-parody that marred much of his later film work. Granted, his Hyde is played pretty broadly, but would you really want to see an underplayed Hyde? Those who are familiar with the story will note that the screenwriter has departed from the text to create an entirely new character, that of the dance hall girl with whom the licentious Hyde keeps company. Hyde's cruel mistreatment of this unfortunate woman becomes a significant plot element. It isn't hard to see why this change was necessary. Stevenson, after all, had set his story up as a mystery, revealing the true connection between Dr. Jekyll and the mysterious Mr. Hyde only at the end. By 1920, however, the secret of Dr. Jekyll was already common knowledge, even to people who had never read the book. Any attempt to build a version of the narrative around the mystery angle would simply look foolish.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1932). With the release of both "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" by Universal in 1931, horror movies had suddenly become trendy. Paramount's bid for a piece of the pie was this first talkie version of the Stevenson classic, starring Frederic March. Since there was no going back to Stevenson's mystery angle, the subplot involving Hyde's cockney girlfriend was lifted from the Barrymore film, and even amplified. The director was the imaginative and innovative Rouben Mamoulian, whose camera trickery using special filters over the lens made March's transformation into Hyde a genuinely creepy spectacle. March won an Academy Award for his performance in the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1941). This MGM version stars Spencer Tracy in the title roles. This is easily the most polished and glitzy version, typical of the expensive, high-gloss look of MGM in this period. Ingrid Bergman plays Hyde's lower-class consort, who has by now become more of a fixture in the story than most of Stevenson's own characters. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll" (1960). The British Hammer studio had been busily remaking the horror classics of the 1930s and 1940s for three years before they got around to dusting off Dr. Jekyll. The twist here is that the good Dr. Jekyll is a rather rough looking old buzzard, while the evil Hyde is young and attractive. This variation clearly echoes Oscar Wilde's story of Dorian Gray and his portrait, which, come to think of it, does dovetail nicely with the story of Jekyll and Hyde.

With so many adaptations of this familiar tale already in existence, you can clearly see the challenge faced by those who would add to the stockpile. Strangely, part of me wants filmmakers to continue making new screen versions of the story and part of me wishes that they would stop. It's a mystery.

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