"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Friday, October 7, 2011

A split personality

As a young girl, I loved reading Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. My favorite was My Shadow ("I have a littel shadow that goes in and out with me/And what can be the use of him is more than I can see"). I had heard he wrote other things, books, but they did not sound interesting to me because 1) I was not into pirates, and 2) I was not allowed to read scary things any more than I could watch them.

For all their hovering, however, my parents let me watch their TV unsupervised in their bedroom. Which is why, in 1968, I tuned in to a TV movie, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Jack Palance. I've since seen several versions of the story, and I finally read the book sometime in the 1970's, when I bought a used copy at a bookstore in Chicago.

The book is actually no more than a novella, and of course told in that very proper English of the 1880's ("Mr. Utterson had already quailed at the name of Hyde, but when the stick was laid before him, he could doubt no longer"). By today's standards, it's a slog, and yet, once you get into the rhythm of the language and stick your head fully into the past, it's as frightening and sad as Stevenson's children's verses are light and happy.

My favorite version of the book is the 1941 movie with Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, and Ingrid Bergman as the hopeless tavern maid. Tracy shows no fear as Hyde, only sadistic joy. Even as Jekyll, he is only afraid of society might judge him, but he doesn't seem to feel any guilt at what he has unleashed.

The Jack Palance version, however, has a special place in my heart, for two reasons. One is the memory of sitting alone and watching something that was verboten to me. The other was Palance's performance as Jekyll. The more Hyde emerges, and the worse he behaves, the more guilt-ridden, and even docile Palance plays the doctor.

Even at 14, I could see the emotional distinctions.

What's your favorite rendition of this classic? You can name one of the more literal translations (Frederic March?), the comedies (Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), or the homages (Mary Reilly).

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