I have seen several adaptations of R. L. Stevenson’s novella, including an amazing British series called Jekyll that follows one of the not-so-good doctor’s progeny in modern times. One of the amazing parts of the story of this book is how it immediately caught the imaginations of the public and was adapted for the stage within a year of its publication. But I realize recently that I had never actually read the slender tome myself.
Unfortunately, the big reveal that Henry Jekyll (properly pronounced JEE-kill, I recently learned) and Edward Hyde are one and the same is the one part of the tale that is always consistent across all adaptations, so it is impossible for the story to titillate and surprise in the same way it would have been for readers in the 1880s. The idea of a split-personality has long been linked to this piece of literature, and the names of the title characters are part of our vernacular.
BUT, this doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading. I really enjoyed Stevenson’s prose, and it is always interesting to return to the source. I surprised to find that in the original that nature of Jekyll’s original “sins” that lead him to want to extricate his two halves from each other are never mentioned, and the details of Hyde’s antics are equally left to the imagination. In order to stretch the story into a full-fledged play or movie the adapters have had to fill in some of these details, which can really alter the tone and nature of Hyde. For instance, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hyde reveals to Mina that Jekyll occasionally had ‘impure thoughts’ about boys, and his overwrought Christian guilt made him consider himself a great and terrible sinner when really he was a pretty boring and upright citizen.
In the foreword to the collected works of Stevenson in which I read the mere 60-page novella, Claire Harman recounts a story of Stevenson seeing a theatrical adaptation in 1887. He is all but horrified to see Hyde depicted as “an unbridled womanizer” because, as Stevenson wrote to John Paul Bocock, “The hypocrite [Jekyll] let out the beast in Hyde… who is the essence of cruelty & malice… these are the diabolical in man– not his poor wish to love a woman.”
I found the ambiguity in the story itself very intriguing, and it seems ripe for someone to explore not only the exploits of Hyde during his short life, but Jekyll’s past and his other experiments that are only hinted at in the original. I was also surprised to see that the Hyde of the original story is nothing like the huge monster versions in Van Helsing and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but a tiny, young and underdeveloped man who does not have amazing strength, but unbridled passions.
I honestly can’t remember any other time this has happened to me, but I think the movie is actually BETTER than the books it is based on! It takes the best elements of Volume 1 a smidge from Volume 2, but the plot is totally different from either in the end.
Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery) if the first recruit after armed men attack him in Africa. Though he is on shaky ground with queen and country he answers the call and finds himself in London face-to-face with a mysterious agent for the crown known only as “M” (Richard Roxburgh). He meets the other members so far assembled like Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Mina Harker (aka Mina Murray, played by Peta Wilson) and Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), who is this version of the League’s Invisible Man.
They set off together to bring a reluctant Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) into the fold, where they are ambushed by The Phantom and his men. Luckily, Tom Sawyer (Shane West) of the CIA had infiltrated the henchmen and saves our heroes with his sharp shooting. After Quartermain and Sawyer capture Mr. Hyde/Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) in Paris the League is complete, and M sends them to Venice to save a group diplomats at a peace summit. The plot thickens when they find out there is a traitor in their midst, and the string of explosions bringing Venice down around them is only the beginning.
This movie is really fun and I love watching it. The effects are special and the action is well-paced. It doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground and besides Nemo’s car it doesn’t really have as many gadgets as one might like to see in their Steampunk, but I love seeing a world where all of these literary heroes (and anti-heroes) get to team up.
There are a few very important differences from the books to the film, some of which were brilliant and some were disappointing. First, Dr. Jekyll gets to play a much larger role in the movie than in the books, and with the addition of Gray and Sawyer the League feels bigger and more complete. Mina is given both a larger and smaller role at the same time, because in the books she is the clear leader of the League but in the movie she is not only a scientist but force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. I think she was subsumed as leader mostly because of the desire for a Sean Connery type to play the part of Quartermain. The League didn’t have quite enough “flash” to it for the big screen, so they needed a more dynamic male lead to be opposite Mina (especially if they had hopes to pursue a romantic storyline in a sequel). There aren’t that many silver fox action heroes out there, so I think they took advantage of having the right actor for that kind of part rather than keeping to the book’s portrayal of Allan as a skinny, wrinkly drug addict.
All in all, I would say the changes that they made helped the movie to feel full and rich in a short amount of time when they didn’t have two books to work with.