an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 19, Summer 2022, ISSN 1552-5112
Blatant disloyalties of cinema adaptations: some diabolically clumsy cases
in Robert Louis Stevenson's works
Stevenson died right before the advent of that new form of art we call, today, “the cinema.” The very special way Tusitala –‘The Teller of Tales’, as the native Samoans called him - moves his characters turning them into “figures in landscape”, as a critic put it; his thrift and precision of style; his fleeing from the three-decker Victorian novel, even more so, from the detailed realism of the decadents, speak clearly of the fascination he would have felt for motion pictures and for the many possibilities of a film script.
We are then here presented but with the one vision, for all the film versions of his works appeared posthumously.
Stevenson based his craft on the image projected through action rather than on psychological characterisation. His novels are “filmic”. His scenes could be cut up with scissors and shot. His essays, more especially his early ones, were described as “picturesque” owing to his enormous capacity to recreate the atmosphere of a place as the background to his thought. This is even more obvious in “A Gossip on Romance”, on which we shall dwell in the coming chapters.
The right kind of thing shall fall out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like notes in music. The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature... This then, is the plastic part of literature; to embody character, thought or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind’s eye. (T28:123, emphasis mine).
These words read, shockingly, like sound pieces of advice offered to a filmmaker. They speak, undauntedly, against those static illustrations, those stagnant images nailed in the nursery, contravening and defying the whole dictum of Louis’ art, “kinesis”. To state, that the cinema, by reason of its nature, came to the rescue offering the author the very platform he needed to enable a wider understanding and appreciation of his works is, nonetheless, pettifogging and inexact. There are, no doubt, some excellent film versions of his classics, ponderously celebrated by cinema reviewers and, more notably and aptly by Stevenson scholars. For instance, Robert Wise’s 1945 film version of The Body Snatcher, casting Boris Karloff as Gray, Bela Lugosi as Dr. MacFarlane, and Russell Wade as Fettes, is still hailed as “a rare artistic achievement”. Robert Stevenson’s 1960 Disney adaptation of Kidnapped, starring an excellent Peter Finch as Alan Breck, is highly appreciated for its fidelity to the original and the resemblance of the characters “to their literary counterpart”.
Yet, as our most reliable authority, together with Swearingen, J.C. Furnas, voices:
Films have even more to answer for in the sabotage of the third Stevenson item still high in public awareness; though perhaps not one in ten who has seen a film version of Jekyll knows who wrote it... Resistance as well as ignorance may enter here... (Furnas, 1952:378, emphasis mine).
Our critic’s opinion is duly sketched. For, as was the case with publishers and their namby-pamby illustrations and other mishandling of his essays and poems, the film industry has deliberately mangled Stevenson’s stories for over a century now. Unlike the former, the latter story is well documented.
And yet like it, and because of it, the nature of my work here precludes both extensive enumeration and careful consideration of those too many “apelike horrors perpetrated... in scenarios smoky with sex in the interpolated orgy scenes”. All these money-making, notwithstanding its few merits, boomed Louis “on the basis of sensational effects” and “creeping renown” (...) “to identify him with literary genres of low prestige. Grave observers prone to mistrust popularity and virtuosity found this hard to overlook. Stevenson was hardly cold in his grave when the first peevish exceptions to his literary apotheosis were entered”. (Furnas, ibid. 379)
In a technological era that has made visual representation vapid by reason of intemperance of effects, a mention of those marcescent film versions attached to the stem of “adaptations”; of but a few “scenes” concomitant with that disparagement on the big screen must suffice. Scenes rather than stills, for a still is not the film, same as an illustration is not the novel. Among the most blatant felonies are those of odd titles bringing the action to recent events; transferring settings; deviating too grossly to be labeled “inspired by”; making everything pale by comparison with their barely recognisable originals. That is the case, for instance, of the 1972 experimental TV Italian production of Giacomo Battiato’s rendering of The Dynamiter, which appeared under Dentro la casa della vecchia signora. Of Peter Stewart’s 1947 Adventure Island for Paramount which is but a work of “fabrication and caricature” of The Ebb Tide. Of Jesús Franco’s 1987 Lago de las vírgenes, casting Eduardo Fajardo and Lola Gaos, loosely based on The Isle of Voices. Of the TV mini-series in Giorgio Moser’s 1966 Aventure di mare e di costa, supposedly “inspired” by The Bottle Inn, yet not as abominable as the most recent, 2005, BBC production by Brendan Maher of Kidnapped and its sequel, Catriona, shot in New Zealand. Still more censurable, by reason of its much wider distribution is The Strange Door, Joseph Pevney’s 1951 production for Universal International, with such stars as Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, which was set to adapt Stevenson’s story The Sire of Maledroit’s Door. 
Fortunately, these illusive and allusive derivative works appear on screen but rarely, and are not easy to find. And yet, some, like Dylan Thomas’s screenplay based on The Beach of Falesá, “the first realistic South Seas story; I mean with real South Sea character and details of life” (L7:161), have never been produced no matter how interesting for both the literary enthusiast and the academic.
Countless are the cinema versions of Tusitala’s classics. Prof. Dury, of the University of Bergamo, lists over a hundred items - leaving aside those of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to which we shall dedicate the coming paragraphs. Of these, twelve entries are of The Black Arrow, some seventeen of Kidnapped and The Suicide Club. With a few exceptions, they document how much the cinema industry has been drawn to the imaginative force and the filmic value of the writer’s fiction. Yet also, how incurious it has shown itself to his travel books and other non-fictional works that are equally absorbing and susceptible of adaptation. We are glad, notwithstanding, that no biopic on Stevenson has been filmed to date, other than documentaries and dramatisations on his life and works . Coming to the flagships of Stevenson’s fiction, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the filmed versions quickly multiplied. However, most of these are based on humdrum stage adaptations rather than on Louis’ originals . Of these, T. R. Sullivan’s dramatisation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Richard Mansfield in the double act, at the Madison Square Theatre, New York, on 12th September 1887, is of greatest importance, since family members actually attended what was the first production in that city and Louis tells us about it in his letters.
Once again, reading his comments on his works in his marvellous correspondence is to vouch for that uncommon self-consciousness and foresight about his books. He consistently proves himself his more outstanding and yet stinging critic.
In 1889, Louis writes to Longman from Honolulu, in his usual half-acrimonious, half-playful tone:
Yours received with news of your brilliant feats of war against the man, Mansfield. I have had some experience of him in his native lair (though I believe as a matter of history the man’s Irish) and I can appreciate the high nature of your task. His agent was I thought -if possible-worthy of him: a tougher grain of the wood, only wanting polish I should like to put up statues of both of them... (L6:260, emphasis mine).
There was something amiss about Richard Mansfield’s production of Dr Jekyll in London in August 1888. In a letter to the editor of the New York Sun, Louis had written:
From Mr. Sullivan (the author of Mr. Mansfield’s version) I have met with every civility, and from Mansfield himself I am now in receipt of monthly cheques. The version is fully authorised by me (L6:125).
Whatever happened to be the trouble? What were these “brilliant feats of war” against Mansfield? Mehew conjectures there was some trouble with the shared royalties on the play (L6: 260, n.1); although a closer look at the letters suggests a less vague reason as I contend. As usually, the answer is provided by RLS in a letter, to Bocock he wrote...
Your prominent dramatic critic, writing like a journalist, has written like a braying ass; what he meant is probably quite different and true enough -that the book is ugly and the allegory too like the usual pulpit fudge and not just enough to the modesty of facts.. Hyde was... not, Great Gods! a mere voluptuary. There is no harm in a voluptuary; and none, with my hand on my heart and in the sight of God, none -no harm whatever - in what prurient fools call “immorality”. The harm was in Jekyll because he was a hypocrite -not because he was fond of women; he says so himself; but people are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality. The Hypocrite let out the beast Hyde, who is no more sexual than another, but who is the essence of cruelty and malice, and selfishness and cowardice: and these are the diabolic in man -not this poor wish to have a woman; that they make such a cry about... (L6:56, emphasis added).
He knew that the “allegory”, if such, was going to be wrongly represented even when he could still not possibly think of cinematic versions. This first dramatisation was enough to provoke his distrust. He was right, for the passage quoted above might well serve as the most straight to the point, perceptive criticism of the three best known adaptations of his novella for the screen, those starred by John Barrymore (John Robertson’s 1920), Frederic March (Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931) and Spencer Tracy (Victor Fleming’s 1941).
The true Stevenson admirer will find these, no matter how popular and celebrated, among the most baleful and disgusting to watch. All three interpret nebulous Mr. Hyde as Jekyll’s repressed sexual drive. All three see in the scientism of this highly respectable man his “trick” to unleash and to satisfy his sexual appetite leaving his reputation still intact. As Linehan contends, “Stevenson vents (here) his exasperation with Victorian prudery that equates sexual appetite with evil, and thereby fails to see that Hyde’s cruelty stems not from Hyde’s drive for sex, but from Jekyll’s drive for concealment”. 
In other words, it is Jekyll’s hypocrisy that RLS finds repugnant. He would, surely, be as indignant about these films as he is in this letter at the insinuation that sexual desire is intrinsically evil. It is Hyde’s cruelty trampling “calmly over the child’s body and” leaving “her screaming on the ground” that is diabolical; it is his cowardice murdering Carew that is utterly evil. Another fabrication common in the three films is the inclusion of female characters deliberately conceived to add a strong sexual content. These are both as salacious as they are sordid; and none of them appears in the original.
Two examples will do.
Source: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) theatrical poster
Fleming’s version casts Ingrid Bergman as prostitute Ivy Peterson - who was not even conceived by Stevenson - just because Hollywood wanted to give the young voluptuous actress of the recent “Intermezzo”, a part in the production. Among other deceptions there is the sequence of sexual fantasies Jekyll undergoes in his incomplete transformation. Overtaken by some paroxysm of athletic-like seizures, we see an elegant Spencer Tracy transmogrified into a dishevelled Spencer Tracy much closer to a brute than to the devilish monster.
Mamoulian casts Rose Hobart as Muriel Carew, Carew’s daughter and Jekyll’s fiancée, - also invented - the kind of unattainable lady whose natural desires are restrained by her rigorous father; which would trigger Jekyll’s latent urge to murder Carew and to gratify, as Hyde, his sensual pleasures with Ivy Pierson, a night performer and prostitute. The seduction scene in which Ivy removes her clothes behind a blanket was taken as a sign, by a censor, to cut some ten minutes which would be later restored in the video version. As professor Dury notes, it was “the many innovative cinematic ideas”, such as “diagonally split screens, voice-overs (for thoughts), spinning camera and wipes for scene transitions” that made it so popular. So much so, that Nollen still calls it "one of the classic American cinema’s true masterpieces" regardless of its many abominations.
And it was not just Hollywood, for Continental cinema-makers adhered to these shifts and modifications, both perpetuating and accentuating them. Of these, surely the most repulsive is Borowczyk’s Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981), which Guy Barefoot says constitutes “a further case of the story being transformed so as to fit the conventions of the time... this strand of post-1960 European cinema demanded not love interest and comic relief but a display of, and often assault on, the female body”. Borowczyk, Barefoot goes on to assert, was unscrupulous “to claim that his version was based on Stevenson’s original notes which he had discovered while undertaking research at Oxford University.” He later dismissed the story as a gag.
Film versions make the classic a big case addition, aside from Jekyll’s transforming potions and his miscalculations there is no intimation in RLS’s original that Jekyll was doing drugs unlike Conan Doyle’s hero overtly smoking marijuana.
Among these machinations, run mostly by the greed of money-making and to compete with other remades, the most spurious to Stevenson’s conception and treatment of the story is that disclosing, from the outset, that Jekyll and Hyde are not two independent beings but that they embody the same and only man. The enormous G. K. Chesterton had pointed, way before these irruptions onto the screen, that Stevenson was under attack from “the Post-Victorian mudslingers”.
… those anonymous authorities in the newspapers, who dismiss Stevenson with such languid grace, will say that there is something quite cheap and obvious about the idea that one man is really two men and can be divided into the evil and the good. Unfortunately for them, that does not happen to be the idea. The real stab of the story is not in the discovery that the one man is two men; but in the discovery that the two men are one man. After all the diverse wandering and warring of those two incompatible beings, there was still one man born and only one man buried. Jekyll and Hyde have become a proverb and a joke; only it is a proverb read backwards and a joke that nobody really sees (Chesterton, 1927: 51, emphasis added).
Chesterton was right, Stevenson constructed the novella meticulously so that there is no intimation of such hellish duplicity in his pages, no spoiler as there is in the fleeing images thrust onto the screen. The novella cannot be read afresh, because its motive is too well known. The mystery is solved and more than sparsely given out in the very first minutes. But in the original the truth is revealed only when we reach the very last pages of the final chapter, “Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case”. That is where the real punch against the too many false virtues of the dogmatic, philistine and prude Victorian society lies. It is, precisely, that dreadful game on ambivalence that cinema makers overlooked. They were vastly possessed by the ghostly yarn, too intent on their Freudian interpretations to grasp the subversive critique. It was easier to lose the poignant argument to “adapt” the beasty tale.
All of these “pecadillos”, and many such more, where already present in the earliest version mentioned here, to wit, Robertson’s 1920 for Paramount, where, Dury tells us, Carew “suggests Jekyll should "go on the town", and encourages an exotic dancer to seduce him”; “Barrymore’s Jekyll is the first to indulge in sexual depravity and lacks the virtuous justification added by later Hollywood versions”. And still again Nollen states, though it "deviates considerably from the novella, yet it… ranks as one of the definitive interpretations of a Stevenson work" (Nollen, 1994:183)
We could point to many more recent cinema versions of the great story about the “vivisection of a soul” to the same critical comment: that Stevenson was well alert for all these ominous representations were already present in the stage adaptations of his day. Further evidence added to that in his correspondence is the following excerpt from an interview, in which Stevenson, complains about these “forerunners to this trend”,
... Dr. Jekyll should be the central figure and not Mr. Hyde, but on the stage the first character is made subservient to the second, which was not my idea at all.
These melodramas, especially the “long-running Sullivan-Mansfield version overshadowed competing serious stage adaptations in the years that followed, becoming a central influence on the many silent film versions created in the early twentieth century”... And through its popularity, it took “a further leap in the era of sound films” (Linehan, 2003: 150). The audience who contemplates these adaptations and has some familiarity with the books, surmises that something is not quite right with them. Though captivated by Stevenson’s stories, in which he found the vehicle for his popular recreations, Victor Fleming’s 1934 Treasure Island, for MGM, with an annoying Jim (Jackie Cooper) is described by Nollen as “maudlin” and full of “Hollywood hokum” (Nollen, 1984: 417).
Source: Treasure Island (1934) theatrical poster
Furnas condemns, very rightly, Byron Haskin’s 1950 Disney production of Treasure Island, with Robert Newton playing Long John Silver and Bobby Driscoll as Jim Hawkins, which he says, “has taken the worst beating”... “casting Jim as a child instead of a vigorous youth in mid-teens, and particularly distinguished itself by carefully throwing away the story’s best sound-film scenes, such as the squawking of the parrot in the dark blockhouse, Ben Gunn’s parlour” (Furnas, 1952: 458, n.8).
Scriptwriters show a vast ignorance of Stevenson’s stance as an author of the Scottish Calvinist tradition he strove to leave behind, and, above all, of his essays. In “Lay Morals” they would have found what Louis really meant. The danger is not to be “tormented by a very imperious physical desire” which is “a physical need, like the want of food or slumber”. This is adequate inasmuch as we don’t become hypocrites and fall on the “one declension which is irretrievable and draws on the rest. And this is to lose consciousness of oneself”... (T26:28, emphasis added).
In “Reflections and Remarks on Human Life” RLS gives us his musings in a strikingly beautiful paragraph that accounts both for the use of violence in Treasure Island, he had been unsparingly accused of, and for “love’s capacity to promote psychic self-unification and moral self-awareness” (Linehan, 2003:208).
... And while I may still continue by my inconsiderate or violent life to spread far-reaching havoc throughout man’s confederacy, I can do so no more, at least, in ignorance and levity; one face shall wince before me in flesh; I have taken home the sorrows I create to my own hearth and bed; and though I continue to sin, it must be now with open eyes (T26:89).
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 19, Summer 2022, ISSN 1552-5112
 In 1984, McFarland Incorporated published an in-depth study of Stevenson’s cinematic legacy, Robert Louis Stevenson: Life, Literature and the Silver Screen, by the prestigious film critic, Scott Allen Nollen, together with a thorough discussion and demonstration of how Stevenson’s stories have been misinterpreted by Hollywood. References to such disfiguring are also found in William Luhr and Peter Lehman’s reflective Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema. New York: G.P. Putnams’s Sons, 1977, and in the many interviews with directors who like Rouben Mamoulian -see The Film Journal, 2:2 (Jan-Mar 1973): 36-44- adapted Stevenson’s novels.
 (The RLS Web, www.robert-louis-stevenson.org, last access June 2022).
 Dylan Thomas’ 1959 The Beach of Falesá, a film script by Dylan Thomas. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Scarborough House.
 Richard Dury lists no less than fifty of the first, and some hundred and twenty of the second. (The RLS Website at www.robert-louis-stevenson.org). Still, we must bear in mind these include loose “adaptations”, recreations, parodies, elaborations and spin-offs, of the original. For a chronological listing of “particularly aesthetically and culturally significant English-language stage, film and television adaptations” of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, see Linehan, 2003:170-180; Brian Rose, “Jekyll and Hyde” Adapted: Dramatisation of Cultural Anxiety. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996; and Charles King, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: A Filmography.” The Journal of Popular Film and Television, 25:1 (Spring 1997:9-20).
 Mansfield was the American star actor of the day; he asked the writer Thomas Sullivan to adapt the novel for the stage. It was the performance and interpretation that laid the foundation for subsequent dramatic treatments (See C. Alex Pinkston, JR’s “The Stage Premiere of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in Linehan, 2003: 157).
 The MS of this letter -Mid-November 1887, from Saranac Lake, is located in the Huntington Library (call number 2114), San Marino, California. John Paul Bocock, was an American essayist, novelist and poet who begun corresponding with RLS shortly after Stevenson came to America. It is important here to notice that Stevenson is responding here to a report Bocock had sent on the reception given to the Sullivan-Mansfield stage adaptation which had played at New York’s Madison Square Theatre from September 12 to October 1, 1887. (See Lineham, 2003:86 n. 7.)
 Katherine Linehan, “Sex, Secrecy, and Self-Alienation in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Jones, 2003. Reprinted in Linehan 2003:204-213.
 See The RLS Website, www.robert-louis-stevenson.org
 Scott Allen Nollen, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, in Nollen, 1994: 179
 Guy Barefoot’s “Lost and Found in Translation and Adaptation: Walerian Borowczyk and Docteur Jekyll Et Les Femmes (1981) in Ambrosini and Dury (2009:244-5).
 In this respect, in Mamoulian’ s version, at least Jekyll changes to a youthful, exuberant and primitive Hyde in the last scene before being shot by the police (The RLS Website).
 See The RLS Website, www.robert-louis-stevenson.org
 Charles Warren Stoddard, “Submerged in Billows of Bedclothes”, in Terry, 1996: 90.
 Interview article contained in Monterey Stevenson Museum Scrapbook, 2. p. 64.
 Mansfield toured Britain and performed the play for twenty years till his death in 1907.
 For instance, When Quackel Did Hyde (Charles Gramlich, 1920), and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride (Percy Pembroke, 1925). Of this Naugrette says, “comic effects and sexual innuendos overlap when a repellent Mr. Pride keeps on assaulting people in the streets with a series of phallic objects” (”The Strange Cases of Doctors Haeckel and Jekels”, in Ambrosini and Dury, 2009: 172).
 Swearingen, tells us the essay was first published in the Edinburgh Edition, 2 (1896), 313-77 which included different drafts corresponding to, at least, “two separate efforts on this work” which was started as early as in 1879, then retaken in 1883. T, 26:1-49, does not include some 7 pp. still unpublished and “conflates the various versions”. (Swearingen,1980:41).
 Fragment XIII on Results of Action ends at mid-phrase; with the editorial note, (1978?) (Cf. T26:90). But Swearingen clarifies, “Notes originally from his notebook... among various pending projects, probably written during the spring of 1880 in San Francisco” (Swearingen, ibid: 50) - right before marrying Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcee ten years his senior, at the home of a Presbyterian Minister in May.
Allen Nollen, Scott. (2011) Robert Louis Stevenson: Life, Literature and the Silver Screen. McFarland, Incorporated.
Ambrosini R, and Dury, R. (Eds.) (2009) European Stevenson. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Ambrosini, R. Dury, R. Arata, S. (2006) Robert Louis Stevenson: Writer of Boundaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Barefoot's, Guy (1981) “Lost and Found in Translation and Adaptation: Walerian Borowczyk and Docteur Jekyll Et Les Femmes, in Ambrosini and Dury (2009:244)
Booth, A. and Mehew, Ernest (1994-1995) The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, 8 vols., ed. Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith (1927) Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Dury, Richard (n-d-) “Film Versions (And Filmscripts) of works by Robert Louis Stevenson” at http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/richard-dury-archive-film (Visited May 2022).
Furnas, J.C. (1952). Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Faber & Faber Limited.
Jones Jr., William B. (ed.) (2003). Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered. New Critical Perspectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
King, Charles (1997) “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: A Filmography.” The Journal of Popular Film and Television, 25:1 (Spring 1997:9-20).
Linehan, Katherine (2003) “Sex, Secrecy, and Self-Alienation in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In Jones, 2003:204-213.
Luhr, William & Lehman, Peter (1977) Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Mamoulian, Rouben -see The Film Journal, 2:2 (Jan-Mar 1973): 36-44- on Stevenson’s novels adapted.
Pinkaton, J.R (2003) “The Stage Premiere of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, in Linehan (2003: 157)
Rose, Brian (1966) “Jekyll and Hyde” Adapted: Dramatisation of Cultural Anxiety. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Stevenson, Robert Louis (1923-4) The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Tusitala Edition. 35 vols. London: William Heinemann, Ltd.
In Association with Chatto & Windus: Cassell & Company, Ltd; and Longmans, Green & Company.
Stoddard, Charles Warre, (1996) “Submerged in Billows and Bedclothes”, in Terry, (1996:90).
Sweringen, Roger (1980) The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide. London & New York: The Macmillan Press Ltd.
Terry, R.C. (1996) Robert Louis Stevenson: Interviews and Recollections. London: MacMillan.
Thomas, Dylan (1959) The Beach of Falesá, a film script by Dylan Thomas. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Scarborough House.