Becoming Hyde

Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) isn't the first movie version of Stevenson's classic novel. Nor is it the last, obviously, not by a long chalk. It is however pretty phenomenal in its way, better by far than most of its successors: the special effects are in fact quite stunning - not only for its time but any which way one cares to look at them. They convince even today, even the jaded viewer who's seen everything done digitally cannot help but emit a slight gasp at the sheer audacity of the effects. How ever did they do it?

The angelic Dr. Jekyll transforms into the beastlike Mr. Hyde in front of the camera with nary a cut and with almost an unpleasant realism; the clean and sober, suave and debonair charmer Frederick March becomes, before our very eyes, a rough and gruff protosimian creature with hair sprouting in unruly tufts in the most unlikely places and a forehead lower than that of a Neanderthal. (I would in fact be slightly surprised if the grotesquely gorillaesque comic book version of Hyde by messieurs Moor & O'Neill didn't owe more than a nodding thanks to March's precursor.)

An achievement indeed.

Every single Jekyll & Hyde movie has to show how Jekyll painfully morphs into Hyde, and show it as graphically and in as much detail as possible. Makes or breaks the movie. Most of them do it abominably badly. Which of course kills off any credibility.

Jekyll turning into Hyde is the crowning moment of the story, has been since the earliest theatre days, probably. It's a wonderful piece of show biz at its best.

I happen to think it pretty redundant.

Even cataclysmically wrong.

It's a brilliant metaphor of man's Manichean duality, ever duelling within us. When examined closer it becomes, well, a bit dodgy at best. Its clearly a concept of and for the mind, to be visualised by the mind's eye but not seen. When put on stage or on film it immediately becomes crude and unconvincing - nothing more than crass showmanship. It is not Hyde's physical appearance that is essential but his soul. His outer visage is but an aspect of his soul and its reflection, of course, but focusing so doggedly on his brutish and apelike physique - and the almost magic transformation - makes it all seem so very shallow. Not at all like Stevenson's immortal poetic vision.

The quintessence of the tale is far subtler.

Hyde's atavistic looks are a metaphor for his black and crooked soul, not the focus of the entire tale. Splitting Jekyll into two is a magnificent tool whereby Stevenson tells his poignant tale of good and evil. What works so magnificently well on the page becomes self-indulgent when we see it. What is subtle becomes banal. What is real becomes improbable.

Which, in my view, is why all movie versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are failures. And are bound to be so.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a gripping tale of the soul. Almost a parable. It cannot be taken too literally. It belongs in the shadows of the subcoscious. Make a realistic version of it and its meaning fades away. And what is left is merely an empty shell, a fairly entertaining story about a doctor who meddles with things "man is not meant to know."

And that's one of the biggest bores there is.

I'm not saying it would be entirely impossible to make a good and true movie (or theatre) version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've just never come across any.

What I am saying is: you can't beat the book. Don't even try.

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