From Book to Film: Stevenson’s 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) and Rouben Mamoulian’s Film Adaptation (1932) – a Comparison

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010
31 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Main Part
2.1 From Stevenson’s Novella to Sullivan’s Stage Adaptation
2.1.1 Jekyll and Hyde as a Complex Mixture of Genres
2.1.2 T.R. Sullivan’s Adaptation of the Source Text
2.2 Mamoulian’s Film Adaptation of The Strange Case
2.2.1 Changes in Literary Macrostructure: Plot and Character Constellation
2.2.2 Mamoulian’s Sexual Reading of Jekyll and Hyde
2.2.3 Mamoulian’s Darwinian Reading of Jekyll and Hyde
2.2.4 Mamoulian’s Adaptation from a Freudian Perspective
2.3 Comparative Narratology
2.3.1 Narrative Structure
2.3.2 Narrative Perspective: Focalization and Ocularization
2.4 Cinematic Devices
2.4.1 Subjective Point-of-View-Shots
2.4.2 Dissolves
2.4.3 Split-screens
2.4.4 Symbols

3 Synopsis

4 Appendix

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

There are some English literary works whose titles have meanings even for those who have never read the story. This phenomenon is due to the fact that those texts are what Brian A. Rose calls “tracer texts”. According to Rose, a tracer text is “a story containing motifs, themes and/or images of archetypic import, which, because of those motifs and because of narratological, generic and stylistic elements, is adopted by a culture for repeated use over a significant time as a seed for a series of adaptations in performative and nonperformative modes [...]”.[1] Two famous examples of this category of texts are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Both texts have been adapted lots and lots of times in various genres. The latter one alone has inspired more than 30 theatre versions, more than 100 film adaptations, several rewritings (for example Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly or Emma Tennant’s Two Women of London), musicals and comic figures (for example The Hulk). The reason why this process of constantly reworking Stevenson’s novella has gone on until today is probably the intriguing subject- matter of the novella: the motif of the double. In spite of the conceptual and thematic complexity of Stevenson’s source text, however, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become “the victim of its own success” and is only preserved as a simple “colloquial metaphor for the good-evil antithesis[2] ” in today’s cultural memory. The reason for this phenomenon is primarily the constant readaptation (which often entails a simplification) of The Strange Case, for example by the film industry. Although a lot of producers do not pay attention to the literary source text at all, but simply readapt a previous screen adaptation and therefore fail to provide an independent interpretation of the literary model, there are also some directors who succeed in producing a filmic translation of the source text in a given temporal, cultural and social context. In this case, a director produces his own work of art and the process of adaptation for the screen then becomes “an investment of ideas that transcend a critique based on verisimilitude and fidelity”. [3]

On the following pages we will have a closer look at the process of film adaptation by analyzing Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) - probably the most accomplished film version of Stevenson’s novella - and by comparing it with its literary model. At first, we will recapitulate the complexity of the source text, especially with regard to the question of genre. We will also examine T.R. Sullivan’s theatrical adaptation, which can in some respects be seen as a blueprint for Mamoulian’s film. Then, we will have a look at the literary macrostructure of the film at hand, discuss Mamoulian’s interpretation of Stevenson’s Strange Case and compare the source text with its screen adaptation from a narratological point of view. To finish our analysis, we will shed light on some techniques used by the director in order to communicate his ideas.

2 Main Part

2.1 From Stevenson’s Novella to Sullivan’s Stage Adaptation

2.1.1 Jekyll and Hyde as a Complex Mixture of Genres

According to James Campbell, the source text for Rouben Mamoulian’s masterwork of 1932 “has inspired as many interpretations as it has film adaptations”.[4] This is partly due to the fact that Stevenson’s classic novella is a complex mixture of genres. In the first place, it can be regarded as a detective story. Cawelti[5] lists three elements that are typical of this genre: Firstly, there is a mystery, which means that certain key facts are concealed. Secondly, the story must be structured around an inquiry into this mystery and thirdly, the concealed facts are made known at the end. All these criteria hold true for Jekyll and Hyde: There are several mysteries in the story (the precise relation of Hyde to Jekyll, for example, is unknown), Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, is the story’s principal investigator and all the riddles seem to be solved by Jekyll’s “full statement of the case”.

Despite this “full statement”, which, by the way, resembles an autobiography (“I was born in the year 18— to a large fortune [...]”)[6] and, at the same time, reminds us of the genre of the epistolary novel, a lot of mysteries remain in the end. Moreover, Utterson fails throughout the story to solve the riddle by logical reasoning, because “the mystery he seeks to solve is at its core a supernatural one, [...] namely, that Dr. Jekyll has divided himself by means of a chemical potion” (Hirsch 1988: 234). Because of the remaining questions at the end and the reference to the theme of scientific experimentation, the text can also be called a gothic novel, or, according to Donald Lawler, a “gothic SF novel”.[7]

Apart from the genres mentioned so far, Stevenson’s novella is clearly conceived as an allegory. Literary critics, however, differ about the interpretation of Jekyll’s split into separate selves. A lot of readers still perceive Jekyll as “the epitome of goodness” (Saposnik 1983: 108) and Hyde as a symbol of evil. Such an interpretation of the two figures as a “simple antithesis of moral opposites” (Saposnik 1983: 108) is also the basis for a religious reading of the story. In fact, the Jekyll/Hyde character was the subject of many sermons soon after the publication of Stevenson’s novella, because a lot of priests regarded the story as the ideal “parable on the wages of sin” and as a “lesson on the perils of straying from the path of righteousness” (Campbell 2008). Even today, more than one hundred years after the publication of The Strange Case, theologians consider the tale an important moral fable which is able to illustrate the struggle of human will explained by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7: 14­25, namely man’s “earnest desire to do what is good, fighting against the equally powerful desire to do that which is evil”[8].

Another common reading of the story is as “a moral tale on the horrors of the sexual appetite unleashed” (Campbell 2008). Readers who favour this kind of interpretation are convinced that Stevenson hints several times at Hyde’s sexual behaviour, for example when he describes the victim of the trampling scene who was left “screaming on the ground” (Stevenson 2008: 7). Since it is possible to interpret this passage as a veiled account of a rape, Hyde’s hidden pleasures are often equated with sexually motivated acts. In other words, it is Hyde’s “sexual deviancy or unbridled lust” that has often been suggested as “the thing that lies at the core of Hyde’s wicked and evil personality” (Kreitzer 1992: 135). This theory is quite influential and plays an important role in many film adaptations, as we will see later on. As the main characters in Jekyll and Hyde are all male, critics sometimes even claim that Hyde’s sexual deviancy consists of being homosexual.

A very sensible interpretation consists in seeing the double life of Jekyll and Hyde as a parallel to the necessary double life of the Victorians. As Saposnik rightly points out, “Victorian man was haunted constantly by an inescapable sense of division. As rational and sensual being, as public and private man, as civilized and bestial creature, he found himself necessary an actor, playing only that part of himself suitable to the occasion” (Saposnik 1983: 109) . It is therefore very likely that Stevenson intended to criticize the “duplicitous life” Victorians had to lead as well as the “faqade of social hypocrisy” (Rose 1996: 35) at that time.

All of the aforementioned explanations and interpretations are reasonable and plausible. If it is true that “Stevenson was against simplicity” (Campbell 200]8), it is probable that he would have subscribed to more than one interpretation. Although Stevenson destroyed the first draft of his tale and rewrote the text immediately, because he had “missed the allegory” (Kreitzer 1992: 128), it is almost certain that “he did not wish to have the allegory rigidly defined” (Campbell 2008).

2.1.2 T.R. Sullivan’s Adaptation of the Source Text

Richard Mansfield, a famous Anglo-American actor at the time of Stevenson, favoured a religious reading of Jekyll and Hyde. As he did not only think that he was able to visualize the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde on stage, but also foresaw the “ethical effect of the noble moral which underlies this fable of the struggle between good and evil in man”[9], he urged his friend, Thomas Russell Sullivan, to dramatize the book. Although Sullivan was very sceptical at first, because Stevenson’s novella is a rather short text and consists only of male characters, he was persuaded to make the play in the end. Sullivan, however, was convinced that he had to render the source text more “dramatic”, i.e. more “intelligible and exciting” (Rose 1996: 55). As a consequence, he established a love life for Jekyll by adding a female character, Agnes Carew, who is engaged to Jekyll in Sullivan’s play. The figure of Sir Danvers Carew, who is only an anonymous Member of Parliament and a client of Utterson in the source text, remains the murder victim of Hyde, but also becomes the father of Jekyll’s fiancee in the stage play. It can therefore be noted that Sullivan remodeled Stevenson’s allegorical tale into a “domestic melodrama with a linear structure” (Rose 1996: 37), in which familial connections play an important role.

The play premiered at the Boston Museum in May 1887, but was also performed in England one year later. The first act begins in the home of Sir Danvers Carew, where also his daughter, Agnes Carew, her fiance, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Utterson and Dr. Lanyon are present. In the evening, all guests leave the home of Carew and the latter one is alone on stage with his daughter when suddenly Hyde, a rude and repulsive monster emerges and commands the father to call back his daughter. As Carew tries to repel the intruder, the furious and unscrupulous Hyde beats the father of Agnes to death. In the following three acts, Jekyll, who regrets his scientific experiments, transforms involuntarily into the monster. Because of these involuntary transformation and because he knows that his soul is lost, he decides to give up his fiancee. Just before Jekyll wants to take leave of Agnes, he is transformed into Hyde for the last time and therefore puts an end to his life by swallowing a poison.[10]

As we will see later on, Sullivan’s stage play is important for our analysis, because it heavily inspired the directors of the early screen adaptations, including Rouben Mamoulian. As James B. Twitchell succinctly puts it, it was clearly T.R. Sullivan’s stage adaptation that “made the story part of the popular culture”; it “straightened out the plot, [...] provided causality [and] made sexual interactions clear”.[11]

2.2 Mamoulian’s Film Adaptation of The Strange Case

2.2.1 Changes in Literary Macrostructure: Plot and Character Constellation

The dramatis personae of Rouben Mamoulian’s famous Hollywood production, which was released in January 1932, shows the influence of Sullivan’s stage play. In this film version, Jekyll remains the fiance of Carew’s daughter, whose name is no longer Agnes, but Muriel. Whereas Stevenson’s Jekyll, however, is a rather ambiguous personality, Mamoulian’s doctor is absolutely “whitewashed” (Rose 1996: 103). Dr. Jekyll, who is portrayed by Fredric March, is a handsome, rich, elegant, proud and selfless gentleman (fig. 4.1, page 21). According to Greber, he is conceived as a hero with mighty antagonists, which is the reason why the viewer normally sympathizes with him[12]. That Jekyll is a well respected, highly estimated person becomes already obvious at the beginning of the film, when Poole, the butler, very politely interrupts Jekyll, who is playing the organ in his house, and informs him that it is time for his lecture (fig. 4.8, page 21). Also on his way to the lecture hall, the doctor and scientist is greeted reverently by the coachman and by passers-by. That Jekyll’s lecture is about “the two halves of the human soul” shows that his studies lead - like in Stevenson’s text - “towards the mystic and transcendental” (Stevenson 2008: 52). One of the more sceptical listeners in the crowded lecture hall is Dr. Lanyon, Jekyll’s friend (fig. 4.2, page 21). Like in the source text, Lanyon feels very concerned about the direction which his colleague’s scientific interests have been taking. It can be seen that Mamoulian and his script writers, Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, retained the most important of the original characters and their relation to each other, whereas other characters, for example Utterson or Enfield, have been completely eliminated.


[1] Brian A. Rose, Jekyll and Hyde Adapted: Dramatizations of Cultural Anxiety (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996) 15.

[2] Irving S. Saposnik, “The Anatomy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion, ed. Harry M. Geduld (New York and London: Garland, 1983) 108.

[3] Darren Kerr, “To Release Himself at the Last Moment: Constructing the Sexual Deviant in Hyde on the Screen.” Screen Methods: Comparative Readings in Film Studies, ed. Jacqueline Furby and Karen Randell (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2005) 83.

[4] James Campbell, “The Beast Within.” 13 Dec. 2008. The Guardian. 24 Feb. 2010. <>.

[5] quoted in: Gordon Hirsch, “Frankenstein, Detective Fiction, and Jekyll and Hyde.” Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde After One Hundred Years, ed. Gordon Hirsch and William Veeder (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988) 229.

[6] Robert L. Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, ed. Roger Luckhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 52.

[7] Donald Lawler, “Reframing Jekyll and Hyde: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Strange Case of Gothic Science Fiction.” Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde After One Hundred Years, ed. Gordon Hirsch and William Veeder (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988) 247.

[8] Larry Kreitzer, “R. L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Romans 7: 14-25: Images of the Moral Duality of Human Nature,” Journal of Literature & Theology 6.2 (1992) 130.

[9] Paul Wilstach, “Richard Mansfield and Jekyll and Hyde.” The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion, ed. Harry M. Geduld (New York and London: Garland, 1983) 159.

[10] for a detailed plot summary, cf. William Winter, “The First Adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde.” The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Companion, ed. Harry M. Geduld (New York and London: Garland, 1983) 163-164.

[11] James B. Twitchell, Dreadful Pleasures. An Anatomy of Modern Horror (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) 233.

[12] cf. Erika Greber, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Literaturverfilmungen, ed. Anne Bohnenkamp (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005) 120.

Excerpt out of 31 pages


From Book to Film: Stevenson’s 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) and Rouben Mamoulian’s Film Adaptation (1932) – a Comparison
University of Regensburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Hauptseminar Victorian Gothic
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ISBN (eBook)
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Stevenson, Strange, Case, Dr, Jekyll, Mr, Hyde, victorian, gothic, film, adaptation, book, rouben, mamoulian, comparison, 1886, 1932, Fredric, March, Miriam, Hopkins
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Michael Brendel (Author), 2010, From Book to Film: Stevenson’s 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) and Rouben Mamoulian’s Film Adaptation (1932) – a Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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