Whereas the 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is an apple, the 2008 TV movie version of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Dougray Scott as Jekyll/Hyde, is an orange. Granted, they are both fruit, of a terrifying sort, but that’s where any similarity ends. Overall, the novel is a psychological drama, in which the virtuous Dr. Jekyll uses a drug to transform himself into the evil Mr. Hyde. It is horrifying, it involves homicide, but it doesn’t fit into the genres of horror or crime. This 2008 version of the story definitely does.
Stevenson’s Dr, Jekyll states his spiritual dilemma in a confession that he leaves for his friend, a lawyer, Mr. Utterson:
If [good and evil] could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable: the unjust might go his way…[while] the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… (Stevenson, 105)
The dilemma becomes a scientific experiment. The scientific experiment goes horribly wrong. It turns out good and evil cannot be safely housed in separate identities. The evil Hyde takes over the good Jekyll, who becomes increasingly unable to control Hyde. The story of Dr. Jekyll is an existential tragedy, like Frankenstein (1818), in which Victor Frankenstein becomes the victim of his own scientific experiment.
The 2008 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is mainly a horror movie, with a side of police/courtroom drama (like “Law & Order”). It starts off with the murder of a prostitute (which brings serial killer Jack the Ripper to mind), a murder that is preceded by a horrific cat-and-mouse game. The horror of it is underlined not much later by Dr. Jekyll’s friend, Gabe Utterson (Tom Skerrit), who exclaims to Jekyll, “What kind of monster would do this?,” never suspecting that Jekyll is that kind of monster. Jekyll kills again. He confesses to a lawyer, Claire Wheaton (Krista Bridges), who does not believe him at first but eventually suspects the scary reality. Meanwhile, Jekyll kills a hospital patient, Bob Lanyon (Gordon Masten), whom he had assaulted. The lawyer, Claire, who has continued to investigate, is pursued and almost killed by Jekyll/Hyde, but she survives long enough to end on an ominous cliffhanger.
Stevenson’s book does not end on a cliffhanger. At book’s end, the horror ends. The book isn’t even entirely about Dr. Jekyll. It is as much about Jekyll’s friend, Mr. Utterson the lawyer, who functions as detective on the case. In fact, the first words of the book are “Mr. Utterson the lawyer”. Utterson first hears of Hyde from his cousin in the opening chapter. Utterson then seeks Hyde in the next chapter, only to unproductively confront him. Undaunted, Utterson continues to investigate with an inspector from Scotland Yard. In the end, it is Utterson who discovers the truth, from documents that Jekyll left to Utterson. No question, Utterson is of central importance in Stevenson’s story of Jekyll and Hyde.
Utterson is not of central importance in this movie. He is an amiable art gallery owner named Gabe, who, out of loyal friendship, refers a conscience-stricken Jekyll to Claire. It is this lawyer–a pretty young female, not a stodgy middle-aged male–who becomes of central importance in the story. It is this lawyer who investigates Jekyll, then defends Jekyll, then is open to a romantic relationship with Jekyll. This is new. Like the young women on the expedition in the movie version of Conan Doyle’s all-male The Lost World, a young woman lawyer in this movie version of Stevenson’s all-male story of Jekyll and Hyde brings in a key note of sexual tension, which did not exist before.
Another major aspect of this movie that didn’t exist in Stevenson’s story is its courtroom drama, since Jekyll in the book is never arrested for murder. The courtroom drama is thorough, with a variety of witnesses, including a psychologist on Dissociative Identity Disorder and a persuasive closing argument for the defense based not on insanity but on DNA evidence. The courtroom drama is well-done, probably because it’s been done frequently on television, i.e. “Law & Order” and its spin-offs. It does add a new dimension to the story, which then generates a continuation of horror—a plus for what is, above all, a horror movie.
And it is a focus on Freddy Krueger-like horror that turns this 2008 version of the Jekyll and Hyde story into an orange, distinct from Stevenson’s apple, with its focus on psychological drama. According to most IMDb User reviews, the movie is a rotten orange. To me, it is a problematic orange, but it does have memorable moments, especially that cliffhanger ending…
Note: I used a Signet Classic edition of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a long introduction by Vladimir Nabokov. The text begins on page 37.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.