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5 Great Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Adaptations Worth Revisiting



5 Great Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Adaptations Worth Revisiting

For some reason, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has never become as beloved as other classic monsters, like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. When it comes to putting together a so-called “monster row,” those three rank at the top, followed by the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Phantom of the Opera, and Jekyll and Hyde. Perhaps it’s because the first talking film version of Jekyll and Hyde did not come from Universal Studios, which produced and promoted so many of the most popular monster movies of the 1930s. Or maybe it’s because the original source material, a medium-length story written by Robert Louis Stevenson, has never achieved the same level of fame as the written works of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley.

Stevenson’s story is not a full-length book or a short story, but rather something in-between—a novella, in literary terminology. Published under the title of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, the story centers on the observations of a lawyer named Gabriel Utterson. He begins to investigate activity involving his old friend, the respected Dr. Henry Jekyll, and a beastly man named Edward Hyde. Utterson will eventually learn that Jekyll is transforming himself into the evil Hyde by drinking a powerful serum.

Although The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was initially published with little fanfare by Longman’s, Green and Company, it resonated with readers of the late 19th century. Within six months, the novella had sold nearly 40,000 copies. It would become one of Stevenson’s best-selling works and eventually the inspiration for over 120 film and TV adaptations, most of which exclude the character of Utterson while concentrating the story on Jekyll and Hyde themselves.

None of those 120-plus adaptations has achieved the on-screen fame of movies like Dracula and Frankenstein, but there have been several that have emerged as worthy productions, and at least one that deserves to be recognized as a classic. Here are five adaptations that are worth re-visiting, presented in chronological order.

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931):

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) Fredric March

Of all the film and TV adaptations of the story, the 1931 version remains the standard bearer, largely because of the performance of Fredric March. The accomplished actor plays both title characters brilliantly, to the point where it seems like two different actors have been called upon to handle the diametrically opposite roles.

The film, produced by Paramount Pictures, introduces us to Dr. Henry Jekyll, whose name is correctly pronounced as JEE-kul, making it faithful to Stevenson’s novella. Dr. Jekyll believes that man’s good side can be separated from its evil counterpart. He then creates a chemical formula and consumes it; the potion changes Jekyll from a rational, well-respected physician into a diabolical and violent madman who is called “Edward Hyde.”

Hyde has no redeeming qualities. Not only is he physically repulsive, but he treats others with disdain, sometimes to the extent of murder. Hyde also becomes involved with a prostitute named Ivy Pearson, upon whom he inflicts physical pain, including sexual abuse. Jekyll becomes so repulsed by the behavior of Hyde that he stops taking the formula, but by this point, he can no longer prevent the transformation from good doctor into evil monster.

March is brilliant in both roles, showing his full range as an actor and earning the Oscar on merit rather than reputation. It’s almost as if two different actors took on the two characters, but it is indeed March all along.

March earned the Academy Award for his performance and also received help from director Rouben Mamoulian, whose ability to contrast light and shadow while overseeing seamless camera work helps make the movie a first-class production. The special effects, which involve the removal of color filters frame by frame, are also brilliant, presenting us with a believable on-screen transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.

This version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has never been matched. Any current day director will face a monumental challenge in trying to remake a film that remains underrated as a classic from the early days of horror on film.

2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941):

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) Spencer Tracy

A remake of the 1931 classic, the new adaptation of the Jekyll and Hyde story starred Spencer Tracy as Jekyll, in this case, Harry and not Henry. It was Tracy’s only turn in a full-fledged horror movie. The film also featured Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, two other stars not exactly known as mainstays of horror.

At the time, critics were not particularly praiseworthy of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remake, and Tracy himself described his performance as “awful.” To be fair, Tracy was far too negative in his self-assessment; while he wasn’t Fredric March in this role, it’s not like he was Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme either.

Over the years, appreciation has grown for this adaptation of the film. It’s not nearly as gripping as the 1931 classic with March, but it’s not bad, either. The production values are very good, as is the cinematography. The performance of Donald Crisp as Sir Charles Emery, the father to Jekyll’s fiancée, also stands out.

While critics will debate the caliber of the 1941 film, this much is certain: it is far tamer than the 1931 film. That’s because of the imposition of the Hays Code, which did not allow as much sex or violence to be shown in films, beginning in the mid-1930s. In 1941’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the character of Ivy Pearson is no longer a prostitute, but now works as a barmaid.

The tameness of the film, along with its slow pacing, hurt this remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s certainly not a classic, but basically a middle-of-the-road turn at Stevenson’s source material.

3. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953):

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

Though not as good as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, this 1953 venture from the comedians into the world of monsters is highly entertaining.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play two American police officers, Slim and Tubby, who have been assigned to work out of London so that they can study British policing techniques. The two bumbling cops wind up in jail, where they are bailed out by the seemingly amiable Dr. Jekyll. Of course, Slim and Tubby have little idea that Dr. Jekyll has been conducting experiments, turning himself into a raving madman named Mr. Hyde.

Director Charles Lamont inserted a twist into the traditional Jekyll and Hyde story. Rather than portray Dr. Jekyll as a good man who is unaware of what he does as Mr. Hyde, he makes Karloff’s character completely mindful of the ramifications of his experiments. There is no doubt as to Jekyll’s complicity in the crimes; he can stop whenever he wants, but chooses not to do so.

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is enhanced by the presence of Boris Karloff; he plays Dr. Jekyll, respected and admired by the outside world, but completely evil and fully in favor of the awful crimes being perpetrated by Mr. Hyde.

Another interesting character is Jekyll’s henchman Batley, played by character actor John Dierkes. Batley doesn’t speak, but his look and size are perfect for the part of a ghoulish servant who does Jekyll’s bidding.

When the film came out, Universal Studios promoted Karloff as playing both Jekyll and Hyde, but that’s not true. In portraying Hyde, Lamont opted for Parker, a veteran of over 300 stuntman appearances. Parker effectively dons the hideous Hyde mask, while bringing a physicality and athleticism to his movements that an aging Karloff might not have been able to achieve. Lamont’s decision works brilliantly, allowing Parker and Karloff to shine in their respective roles.

While Karloff and Parker supply ample levels of horror, there is also plenty of comedy, thanks mostly to Lou Costello. Perhaps the funniest scene is one in which Costello’s Tubby drinks a potion and turns into a giant mouse! Hysterical.

As with most Universal productions, the sets and the music are both excellent, creating a Victorian feel to the film. The presence of Karloff, the action scenes involving Parker, and the comedic twist to a Gothic story all make Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde an entertaining romp from the early 1950s.

4. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971):

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Though once again set in the Victorian Era, the film incorporates a different twist: Dr. Henry Jekyll is now involved in a different kind of scientific experiment. Instead of trying to separate the good from the evil within man, Dr. Jekyll wants to extend the lifespan of men by extracting female hormones, all based on scientific studies that show that women live longer than men. Jekyll tries the new serum on himself, but it transforms himself into a woman—and one who is both beautiful and evil.

The film stars Ralph Bates as Dr. Jekyll and Martine Beswick as Hyde, who goes by the name of “Mrs. Edwina Hyde.” Both are very effective in headlining the film under the direction of Roy Ward Baker. Beswick’s performance is even more impressive given the difficulties she faced from director Baker. Perhaps under pressure from the producer, Baker wanted Beswick to appear fully nude in at least one scene. Beswick objected to the demand, leading to an argument and her temporary departure from the set. She eventually worked out a compromise with Baker, with Beswick agreeing to go topless in a few scenes.

For Hammer, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde was the studio’s third venture into the original novella written by Stevenson. Of the three, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is the best. It is stylish, atmospheric, and well-acted. It isn’t entirely serious—with a few moments of humor sprinkled in—but it’s a move that deserves credit for taking the original concept of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and turning it into something more creative and modern.

5. Mary Reilly (1996):

Mary Reilly (1996) Julia Roberts

Of the more modern versions of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, Mary Reilly might be the best. This story is told from the perspective of Jekyll’s housemaid, the title character, who is played by Julia Roberts. (The character was not featured in Stevenson’s book, but was first introduced in a 1990 novel by Valerie Martin.) In working for the good doctor, Mary falls in love with both versions of his character, including the evil Hyde.

In a non-traditional role for Roberts, she is surprisingly effective as Mary, putting her in good company with the great John Malkovich, who plays both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The two stars did not get along on set, but that tension did not damage the content of the film. Another good performance comes from Glenn Close, who plays Mrs. Farraday, who owns and operates a local brothel.

Mary Reilly has drawn some criticism for its slow pacing and dull tone, with some reviewers pointing out Roberts’ mediocre attempt at an Irish accent. These criticisms have merit, but don’t prevent Mary Reilly from being an effective film, one that creatively presents a classic story in a more romantic context. It’s certainly worth a look.

While these are five of the best Jekyll and Hyde productions, the absence of a modern day classic continues to be felt. There has been talk in recent years of a big budget production starring Chris Evans in the Jekyll role, but that has not come to pass. With so many good actors delving into horror, along with the improved filmmaking techniques of today, it seems like a good time for someone to make another run at the Jekyll and Hyde story. If done right, it’s the kind of film that could elevate Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation into a more prominent place on monster row.

Bruce has a new book out titled Hosted Horror on Television, which you can order right now through the McfarlandBooks website.