The allegory ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ has variously been interpreted as a story about good and evil, the baser instincts of humans, the complexity of personality, hypocrisy, social expectations and constraints, and drug use. It’s the story of Dr Jekyll’s attempts to accommodate the ‘evil’ side of his personality by creating a new identity that embodies his depravities.
The graphic version keeps the structure of the original Stevenson novel, following the rational Utterson as he investigates the ‘strange case’. The theme of leading a double life weaves through the whole narrative. Imagery representing this theme crops up throughout the graphic version, and the first section of the book uses this imagery to offer hints of what is to follow: shadowy reflections in mirrors, looming buildings and long shadows, a skeleton in the laboratory, and Jekyll’s dark prison-like cabinet.
Klimowski and Schejbal stay close to the original text, though it obviously had to be abridged for it to work in graphic form. For instance, Enfield is a minor character, with little use other than to impart his knowledge of Hyde’s violence towards the girl. The authors have excised needless hints at his personality: “I was coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock…” (Stevenson, p35) was changed to “I was returning home one night…” (K&S, p3), and Enfield’s description of the street is obviously not required, as this can be imparted via the drawings. The formal tone remains, however the language is slightly modernised, possibly to make the story more accessible and the dialogue seem more natural.
In both the novel and the graphic version, there are perfectly controlled shifts from omniscient narrator, to Enfield’s point of view, back to omniscient, and a final shift to Jekyll’s narration where he oscillates between ‘I’ and ‘he’, as well as moments where he talks of himself in the third person. These shifts all reflect the story and theme brilliantly, depicting how the boundaries between Jekyll and Hyde are coming undone. Along with the darker imagery, the move to Jekyll/Hyde’s shifting narration takes the reader irrevocably away from Utterson’s safe rationality.
Uttersons narrative is formal, rational, and objective, and the drawings at the beginning of the book partially reflect this, with their lightness and economy of style. However, the drawings have too much of a sketchy cartoon aesthetic, when the story would have benefited from a more precise style.
As we enter the narrative as told by Lanyon and Jekyll, the drawings get darker and shakier, reflecting how Lanyon’s world has been disturbed, and demonstrating Jekyll’s descent into darkness and unreason.
Most of the book consists of two panels per page, making it seem almost like an illustrated book, and it has the effect of keeping the reader at a slow steady pace as we join Utterson on his investigation. When Jekyll tells his story the page layouts remain largely the same, although there are more pages with three panels, offering a slight change in pace as events become heightened. The use of smaller panels on the lead up to the description of the transformation on the splash pages (p88-89), sharpen the contrast between Jekyll and Hyde. There is also a brilliantly effective pause (panel 2, p91) before he sees his reflection as Hyde for the first time (p92). This is one of the few panels in the book with no words, and barely any content. It is simply a dark corridor and has an unnerving, Lynchian effect.
The authors easily could have used a break in the panel borders to reflect Jekyll’s dissolution, though I think this would have undermined the telling of the story. The consistent thick-lined panel style acts as a kind of prison – there’s no way out for Jekyll and Hyde, and the reader is beset by a feeling of claustrophobia, despite most of the panels being large and uncluttered.
There are clearly other techniques in place to demonstrate Jekyll/Hyde’s disintegration, such as the narrative shifts, and the darker shaky drawings towards the end of the book.
There are also other means to use panels to depict this. For instance, the facing panels on p104 (dark and foreboding, Jekyll/Hyde flanked by a skeleton) and p105 (lighter tones, he is surrounded by friends) provide a visual contrast and shift in tone. Although the second panel on p105 suggests a lightness in contrast with its opposite panel on p104, there is also a feeling of discontent and unease, a hint that the return to this life will not last; in the panel on the following page we find him leaning over the potion as an alcoholic returns to the bottle.
There is a particularly effective drawing on p96, where Jekyll looks directly at the reader with a creepy, unnerving smile, the shaky, scratchy artwork demonstrating a feeling of instability and unease. The depiction of Jekyll/Hyde’s breakdown is brilliantly executed in a final frenetic shift of drawing style in the penultimate panel, where we witness Jekyll/Hyde’s death. The drawing portrays an existential agony reminiscent of Munch’s ‘The Scream’. Jekyll and Hyde are in the process of being subsumed by the surrounding darkness. Their eyes are blank inhuman orbs, their mouth a schism, revealing an inner all-consuming darkness that has led to this denouement.
There are some brilliant moments in this graphic version, however, it doesn’t quite work as a whole. The drawing style (particularly in the first half of the book) doesn’t do the story justice.
Secondly, the authors make the assumption/interpretation that frequenting brothels is Jekyll/Hyde’s hidden depravity. The terrible acts we do know about are the trampling of the young girl and the murder of Carew. Jekyll/Hyde’s other depravities are supposed to be so terrible they are not to be spoken of. Stevenson wisely leaves them in the shadows. It hardly seems convincing that frequenting brothels is worse than murder. Of course, this could be one of Jekyll/Hyde’s many sins, but to focus on this diminishes the effectiveness of the story. Moreover, there are hints of homosexuality in the Stevenson text. For the graphic version to emphasise the role of women and brothels kills this potential subtext.
Most importantly, the violent acts don’t have impact; they are comical, rather than frightening or repellent. The facial expressions of characters are often silly when they are supposed to be expressing horror (for example, the girl on p4&5, and Lanyon on p41). This detracts from the tone and effectiveness of the narrative – to have the formal, rational tone broken apart by sudden acts of violence should shake the reader.
Stevenson’s text doesn’t have great descriptive detail, and it is possibly more effective when left up to the reader’s imagination. The graphic version fails in this respect. Describing the girl being trampled, Stevenson writes: “It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see” (Stevenson, p36). There is nothing hellish about the graphic depiction of this scene. It could simply be that this particular style of drawing doesn’t capture the violence adequately, or it could be that these scenes are best executed with only a suggestion of violence. This is a problem for both cinema and graphic adaptations. Prose, even if quite descriptive, still leaves the visualisation to the reader. Graphic versions need to be careful they don’t reveal too much, as there is a risk of leaving the reader with little to do, killing the story on the page, leaving no room for subtext.
This adaptation has its moments, but as a whole it doesn’t work for me; it lacks the feeling of horror and unease that should form its backbone.
Stevenson, Robert Louis ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ in ‘The Essential Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1995) edited by Leonard Wolf
Klimowski, A. and Schejbal, D. (2009) ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, SelfMadeHero, London