Following the gothic cross-sectional glimpses at Frankenstein and Dracula over the last two years, Jokerside looks at the rocky state of Dr Jekyll and the ever chaotic world of Mr Hyde… From ITV’s recently axed Jekyll and Hyde to what 2016 has in store for the character in adaptation. And yes, requisite mention for NBC…
*May transform into spoilers*
THE DEFINITE ARTICLE SHY NOVELLA STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE WAS PUBLISHED IN 1886. WITH IT, 36 YEAR OLD AUTHOR ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON NOT ONLY ENTERED THE ILLUSTRIOUS PANTHEON OF 19TH CENTURY HORROR WRITERS, BUT PENNED A SLIGHT STORY OVERSTOCKED WITH INFLUENCES. Although set in the far more commercial London, it makes for a heady exploration of the original city of two-sides, Stevenson’s home town of Edinburgh. In the latter days of the Victorian era, it’s also a handy analogy for contemporary fears for the individual, privatisation and public ownership, and class division. As the 20th century brought new concerns, Jekyll and Hyde was readymade to reflect them, much as the universally adaptable themes at the heart of Bram Stoker’s Dracula ensured it permanent relevance. Stevenson’s story was first adapted for the stage a year after its publication and continues to spread into films, music, books, art across the world. To the point that the good Doctor and his dangerous alter-ego make up the third most filmed literary character. The last decade has seen two major British adaptations, both modernising in their own way, while it’s provided inspiration for serials in America and America. There’s little sign of the original horror icon of split personality disappearing any time soon. And indeed, its themes have spawned other works that have stomped their own giant footprint on popular culture. Currently mixing with the best of the box office, it’s impossible to look at the current state of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde without mentioning the Hulk in the room…
The shadow of the Hulk
“I decided I might as well borrow from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well “ – Stan Lee, 1974
Few sources have been as overshadowed by their inspirations as Hyde has been by Hulk, and Jekyll by Banner. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most famous exploration of split personalities is a thinly veiled update, although has had far longer to explore the relationship between both personalities. Banner was similarly driven and doomed by his scientific genius, but never experimented on himself, as Lee drew liberal inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well.
The Incredible Hulk currently finds himself in successful, if not straightforward times. Assimilated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the beginning, The Incredible Hulk was a modest success in 2008 compared to stablemate Iron Man. Through the witty script of Joss Whedon, the Hulk became one of the stand-outs in 2012’s The Avengers although curiously, never with the suggestion that this audience appreciation could translate to a successful solo outing. Indeed, as Mark Ruffalo was the third actor to take on Banner in so many films, the road was rocky. While solo outing rights remained blocked at Universal, forthcoming buddy movie Thor Ragnarok (due 2017) will pit the green brute alongside the Norse God in a build-up to the two Avengers Infinity War movies that Ruffalo has suggested forms a quasi-Hulk solo movie of its own.
Of all the legacies of Stevenson’s creation, the Hulk sits at the top of the pile, and will be dominating blockbusters for years to come. And as a pop culture behemoth, the Hulkification of Hyde was inevitable almost as soon as Marvel’s pop culture behemoth survived cancellation after six issues in 1963, just as Banner had survived the gamma radiation. Over at DC, the home of personified literary grotesque Gotham City threw up a thin, but fascinating most-of-the-time rogue in Harvey Dent. Two Face surfaced from law rather than medicine, but has proved one of the compelling and tragic figures in the rich tapestry of Batman’s friends and rogues. Obsessed with duality and literally split down the middle as the result of an acid attack that reawakened severe and deep-rooted personality disorder. Taken down by his job, from the heights of District Attorney, he’s Batman’s fallen angel and much like the Hulk (although admittedly a little more black and white), never the villain but an amoral presence in the original Hyde mould. Like Hulk, Two Face has had a mixed form in adaptation. His first big screen moment in 1995 showed how poorly he could be treated as Tommy Lee Jones channelled the nuances of personality disorder through alternating talking and shouting. Fortunately, 2008’s The Dark Knight stunned when it pulled a Two Face origin out of its rich script, drawing on many of the same tragic lines as what might remain Harvey Dent’s finest hour: Batman: The Animated Series’ Two Face in 1992. The Dark Knight did highlight the difficulties of the character however – without re-treading his inherent conflict, Nolan’s masterpiece showed that the fleeting last act emergence of the villain was just about all he needed in comparison with other rogues of Gotham.
Crucially, both Hulk and Two Face are victims of circumstance, although scuppered by their own genius. Still, these villainous and superheroic versions of Stevenson’s character might have brought out the comic book potential of the character, but they haven’t stopped the original making his mark on the medium.
One of the most prevalent examples came in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – something even more blatant in the doomed 1997 film adaptation. After Fox’s failed television update has now morphed into a film reboot, that version won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Still, hopefully they’ll stick closer to the source. As one of Britain’s premier adapter’s and adaption curmudgeons, Moore’s love letter to these literary constructs deserves deft work.
The rebounding comic book stylings of the children of Hyde where also clear in the recent ITV adaptation, which imposed the central figure into a comic inspired set-up and even expanded the universe with nods to Marvel. As Hulk stories had soon developed in the sprawling storylines of comic book chronology, Hyde was now become an indefinite article. He is a Hyde and is not alone, least of all with the late arrival of his sister and lycanthropy dripping through another family line. “I’m a Hyde” his sister said knowingly. But that was just one of the references flowing through the blood of his most recent vehicle…
Jekyll and Hyde (ITV, 2015)
The Gordian Knot…
Before purposefully transforming into Hyde for the final time during the tenth episode of ITV’s big budget repurposing of Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Jekyll drew a comparison between his predicament and the Gordian Knot of Alexander the Great lore. How right he was. Sadly, a month since that finale aired, ITV have not only enacted their own quick slicing solution on the show, but Ofcom have found it in breach of broadcasting regulations.
It’s a sorry end for a series that carried a lot of hope and enthusiasm. In hindsight, it really doesn’t deserve these negative connotations – the Ofcom comparison to Doctor Who, pitching it as a pure fantasy violence show for pre-watershed scares was not strictly correct. However, the fact this fresh series was compared to the BBC’s 52 year old monster said a lot. Sadly, Jekyll and Hyde swiftly joined the list of Demons and Primeval as failed ITV attempts to capture weekend teatimes. All the crueller considering how the network has played fast and loose with the slot with the likes of their Thunderbirds reboot and then again (although not always in their control) with Jekyll’s broadcast times.
Eyeing up the potion
“Downton Abbey with monsters”
Charlie Higson was apparently approached by the rather flush ITV to adapt the original story, but after pointing out that the novella can be dispensed in one short reading, a 10 part update was planned. Bringing the story up to the 1930s allowed it the breadth of history, referencing but not slavish compliance with the source novel it’s a sequel to. It could concentrate on successive generations, drawing out the steampunk without encroaching on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen territory and pit villainous foes and government ministries in the age of imperialism and the rise of Nazism. In pre-series publicity Higson called it “Downton Abbey with monsters”. Words to ITV execs’ ears…
Oh the irony that it’s the recreation of Hyde’s bludgeoning of Danvers Carew that drew the first ire from the fainthearted. While Higson’s subsequent dismissal of complaints was right, if a little over the top (he later apologised, expressing his surprise that people hadn’t thought it not scary enough – he after all is no stranger to the target audience as a prolific YA author) the showing of a scene so identified with a perceived monster of horror was odd. The 6.30pm timeslot in a season where even Doctor Who had drifted back to 8.30 starts, the choice of Sunday teatimes – it all seemed a little odd. When the character last took prime British television money it was Steven Moffat’s Jekyll in 2007 and that impressive series was a defiantly adult affair. Higson’s powerful position as showrunner was part of the template laid down by resurgent Doctor Who and carries huge challenges and pressure, as Steven Moffat’s soon to end tenure in charge of the TARDIS keys has also shown.
That perception problem is key. Stevenson’s creations have become so much more than the events of their slight novel, and carry meanings for many who have not read it. Hyde of course, carries some of the greatest potentials of the big monsters of 19th century horror. Unlike the sacrilegious triumph of Frankenstein’s creature or the supernatural truth of Count Dracula, Hyde, like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is something far more human. Far more hidden and far more insidious.
Page to screen
Hyde is not an easy character at all…
In the novella, Jekyll is a “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a stylish cast perhaps…” and Hyde very much indistinguishable. That’s the necessary distinction crucial to the idea of ‘Hyde’ –he isn’t evil, but set on activities and behaviour unbecoming Jekyll’s status. Although Stevenson never really defines those activities, the reader can imagine. In the ITV series, Hyde fathers a child with a cabaret singer. In the book, violence is his chief enjoyment, something certainly carried over to the series although while on occasion relishing a good punch-up, he never shows the fascinating ambivalence as when he absently tramples a girl in the novella (before ensuring compensation). Jekyll describes Hyde as a “genuine man” – and Stevenson describes him as smaller younger and more energetic than the good Doctor. Like a variation on Dorian Gray’s picture (just up the street presumably), it could be that the manifest evil personified by Hyde came with Jekyll’s adulthood. Hyde’s presence is one that encourages evil and fear in others, and seemingly his worst acts of violence come because of the good in others. Like a cross to a vampire, his fatal attack on Sir Danvers Carew boils down to the Knight’s inherent goodness.
Some subsequent versions, notably Stephen Frears’ twist of a concept Mary Reilly (1996) sought to expose a darker side and hypocrisy in Carew. That’s an ambiguity that misses the point. Unfortunately it’s that struggle with anti-hero and the difficulty of displaying unfettered amorality rather than directed evil that the television series found tricky. Forgetting the brevity of the original story, Hyde is not an easy character at all.
Smoothing things out
Hyde can be directed like a missile
Come ITV’s adaptation, Jekyll’s grandson has smoothed out some of his grandfather’s traits. Amorality has faded to rugged misbehaviour, he can be directed like a missile and transform and cooperate with his league of friends for the overriding purpose against a giant evil, although not always in the most helpful way. It’s another template set by comic book adaptations of course. Dramatically it’s pleasing to have a variety of dangerous situations, balanced against the tension of Jekyll needing to deploy the good guys’ secret weapon when the wicket gets particularly sticky. Oddly though, that particular tension between Jekyll and Hyde is not something that’s explored a great deal throughout a 10 part series that makes pains to builds a fantastical world. This Hyde has many superpowers, including an extreme resilience that allows him to survive serious injury, unlike in his Jekyll form. He’s relatively immortal in his alternative state – the transformation effect makes the blood implication clear.
Weight of history
A splattered history that dilutes Hyde…
Often, it’s the series quest to add depth to the light central concept that causes it problems. Part of issue is the history bolted on to Hyde. While it adds breadth. It’s a splattered history that not only dilutes Hyde into a blood carried constant, one of a Hyde legion, but drags him from the upstairs downstairs of Victorian society and dark backstreets to Ceylon, the breadth of Britain and international conspiracy. It’s intriguing when his sister turns up as an apparent vampire, but when she’s revealed as another Hyde there’s little to distinguish her. Despite her upbringing under the watch of the evil Tenebrae, a classic separated twins scenario in the Star Wars mould, little is done to pitch the two different lives against each other. In a flashback to their separation, the reveal of their father undercover just further dilutes the idea of Hyde, as does the idea that Jekyll’s are permanently lost and confused, while Hydes appear to have supernatural coping mechanisms with their situation.
“I am surrounded by enemies that seem to have read the encyclopaedia entry to Robert Jekyll”
Another problem is that expanded universe. Tenebrae, Latin for darkness, pushes Jekyll and Hyde headlong into a fantastical Bond plot, with all the mysticism of the Indiana Jones films that were a key influence on the show, including its violence. But it’s all rather complicated. Even inevitable monster of the week stories (lycanthropy, Spring-Heeled Jack) fed into the central conflict. It’s not simply the strange opposition of MIO and Tenebrae against the international complexity of the 19302. This is part of a story that spans gods and monsters over thousands of years. And again, in a world where many magical monsters escape to ours, Hyde is both the cure and further diluted. It’s difficult to see, in the midst of a story that bends the fantastical with every episode and the main villain as an effectively immortal Frankenstein-like creation, how Hyde can be the great cure. Captain Dance, the main opponent is even referred to as Frankenstein’s Monster near the end of the series, and for half of the run he’s reduced to a reconstituting, desiccated corpse.
Linked to that expanded universe is that Tom Bateman, very well cast in the central role(s), is surrounded by a huge cast. It really is gigantic, and that means that many characters are under-developed, like Hils Barnstable or the highly watchable Mark Bonnar as Lord Protheroe. It’s bad on the side of evil, but particularly acute in the offices of MIO. The young Welsh sniper Mr Sackler is used as a classic, cynical figure who acts as the eyes in introducing viewers to the mysterious world of MIO. But aside from his highly tuned predilection for poetry and sharp shooting, there was little other development. Others remain mysterious – what, for instance, makes the oddly-named Fedora another monster of Tenebrae?
The inevitable result of that huge cast was shifting groupings in a show tried very hard to keep its audience on its toes. Peculiar entrances and exits are a noble aim but if the show isn’t allowed to settle, it really needs stable scheduling and that’s something that the UK broadcast didn’t allow it. There was the later introduction of Hyde’s sister, seen enigmatically in small sequences throughout the series in Tenebrae’s distant HQ. Her arrival lurches the plot to an extraordinary siege house and the odd twists of making MIO distinctly untrustworthy, before she runs off to help from a distance. Of course, she really comes in to fill the place left vacant by the sad death of Maxwell Utterson (if that spot wasn’t already grabbed by the late arrival of Jekyll’s brother Ravi Najaran). Utterson was not only comic relief, but the bridge to the lawyer narrator of the original novella. His was quite an affecting end for a tragically noble character thrust into an adventure, but it seemed utterly (Utterson?) bizarre to lose him in episode five.
Making a series out of short source material…
So, Jekyll and Hyde set itself some steep challenges in its quest to make a series out of the short source material. But if the show had one main difficulty in letting viewers in to its world, it’s that it was just a little too pristine. Everything seemed a little too well cranked such were the immaculate production values. From the wonderful location filming in Ceylon to ornate reconstructions of 1930s and Victorian London. But despite the considerable and complicated story Jekyll and Hyde took on, the substance was imbalanced to the style. In particular, every MIO style shootout – full of slow-mo and musket fire, delicately aimed targeting, bristling moustaches and jovial runs – failed to come together. The peak of that came with episode four. A huge stand-off between all the main players that apparently brought the story to a head at the fourth episodes never really go the tension right. Near the end, the sight of Hyde picking up his tranquilised sister and running behind a giant wooden door among many flailing MIO agents was difficult to watch. It partly failed because of the complexity, the plot advancement and the sheer mass of involved parties. Between this and the shifting cast, it never really felt like it settled down into a format. It certainly buzzed and twisted as references and red herrings came thick and fast. But come the end, the addition of intriguing distractions like that other blood-cursed line of the family, the Jezequiels, appear less part of the greater story and more a clear nod to the Hellmouth of Buffy the vampire Slayer.
Press reviews of the series ranged from “camp” to “mess” to “clever and “fetid”. And of course, there isn’t much time for a fantasy series to establish itself before comparisons to genre giants Doctor Who and Sherlock came up. Jekyll and Hyde failed to distinguish itself during its short life. Of course, most of this was lost among the headlines heralding the “death of the watershed”. And that will be this brief but determined adaptation’s unfortunate legacy.
What would have a been a cliff-hanger ending of that final shot of the series has become a rather sad shot of almost the entire cast dead, buried in the laboratory crypt of Dr Jekyll’s original house.
2016: Hyding places
2016… could prove to be one of Jekyll and Hyde’s greatest years…
But hope is not lost. The next year promises to keep Jekyll and Hyde as close together as they ever were. And they were already doing very well.
2015 saw the Zac Brown Band drop their fourth album, brilliantly called Jekyll + Hyde (but sadly lacking a lead song of the same name). Fortunately Ice Nine Kills did produce a single called Me, Myself and Hyde in February last year, and Five Finger Death Punch released Jekyll and Hyde in June. In Korea the 20 part Hyde, Jekyll, Me leapt from a web toon to add a rom com spin to a modern setting where the Jekyll-like, gentle personality, albeit with a saviour complex, takes over a cold and calculating CEO when he heartbeat rises over 150bpm. Repeated last year, the 2012 adaptation The Strange Case of Dr Hyde had BBC radio relocating and modernising the story to its real home in Edinburgh.
NBC, of course. It wouldn’t be one of these glimpses at horror icons without mention of NBC. Their 2013 series Do No Harm followed a Doctor whose personality switches to evil for 12 hours every day. And inevitably… That 13 first season run was cancelled after only two episodes were aired following low ratings.
The upcoming year will find the good Doctor return in the TV film, Jekyll & Hyde, which is currently most notable for featuring Mickey Rooney in his last film role. But his main hope for 2016 rests in a place familiar to Jokerside, when the excellent Penny Dreadful returns with even higher stakes this spring. And (spoilers), Shazad Latif has been cast as Dr Henry Jekyll.
Following that series’ immaculate repositioning of Frankenstein in its first year, and dedication to keeping Dracula at a mysterious cape-length, the treatment of a character so evidently missing from televisions ultimate League of Extraordinary Monsters is compelling. With the tangent that’s befallen Dorian Gray, a character seemingly occupying the amoral nature so integral to Hyde’s character in Stevenson’s book rather than some of Wilde’s input, the addition of the original split personality of horror could prove to be one of Jekyll and Hyde’s greatest moments.
It’s the potion that keeps on giving.