The Strangely Immortal Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written by the illustrious Robert Louis Stevenson, has had some of the greatest lasting power of any story. The first time I encountered the original novella, I had already become quite familiar with the story, and yet that first reading was entirely unexpected. The general gist of the story one might get from a random person would probably be along these lines: A timid doctor concocts a potion or conducts an experiment on himself which results in a horrifying transformation into a disgustingly evil troll of a man. Some might describe this evil man as a hulking giant, while others would see him as average, or smaller. I was surprised by this one major deviation from the second hand stories I had heard paraphrased all those years prior. From popular culture I was more familiar with a raging monster of larger than life proportions. Most things seemed to mirror that misconception, as the story has been adapted and reworked for other media and other stories so much the idea is now an archetype.
Transformation was certainly nothing new in literature by the time Stevenson wrote his strange case, but perhaps the metaphor had never been more on the nose. But still, the transformation of Dr. Jekyll became such a compelling story that was eagerly consumed by the reading public that doesn’t seem to be leaving the collective unconscious any time soon.
Some see the story as an early examination of mental health, concentrating on a disorder that is still largely not understood. But the central metaphor is more complex than that, instead being an examination of the duality of all humans, and might have been meant to be more complex than even that, as the good doctor postulates there might be more than just the two personalities, only that he wanted to concentrate on the one that would become Mr. Edward Hyde. This complex yet simple metaphor is responsible for the story being adapted ad infinitum.
Aside from direct adaptations springing from every artistic medium, there have been numerous re-workings of the tale. Probably the most prevalent in today’s pop culture is the Marvel Comics anti-hero: The Incredible Hulk. Like Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Bruce Banner suffers through transformations brought on by his own hand (though not so deliberately in the latter), and ultimately has to deal with the problems created by his other self. Here we might also begin to understand where the misinterpretation of Hyde’s size comes from. Stan Lee, co-creator of the Hulk, has said many times how he was the model for the Hulk – one second a timid writer, the next a raging monster, and has even confirmed that the Hulk’s story was derivative of Stevenson’s character. The Hulk debuted in the 1960s and despite a lackluster response initially has remained one of Marvel’s flagship characters having had two movies and a TV series as well as several cartoons directly based on the giant not to mention all the shows in which the Hulk as had a cameo. Being so much in the forefront of popular consciousness has probably colored the general public’s idea of the source material.
Even in Alan Moore’s and Kevin O’Neill’s comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series that boasts of being true to classic stories on which the protagonists are based, Mr. Hyde is a gigantic monster more closely resembling an overgrown rabid gorilla than a small, unpleasant and mysteriously hideous man.