The Trick of the Game: Adapting a Classic

By Jeffrey Hatcher

When a writer takes on an adaptation assignment like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there are always advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include a built-in interest, a plot that doesn’t have to be ginned-up out of nowhere and audience expectation. The disadvantages all have to do with audience expectation as well. If the audience knows the story and its characters so well that their preconceptions are etched in stone, it’s very easy for the adaptation not to live up to them. Reduced to its basics, it’s the “James Bond/Harry Potter/The Joker Doesn’t Look Like That” problem.

The interesting thing about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that while most audiences think they remember the book, what they really remember are the ideas and the images: the handsome, respected doctor and the misshapen, villainous brute; the notions of duality, good versus evil, repression, addiction and psychosis. We remember various film and TV adaptations, cartoons and comic books and parodies like Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

So, for me, the trick of the game seemed to be this: give the audience what they recall – the top hats, the canes, the fog-shrouded streets of London, the laboratory, the bubbling beakers, the doctor and his doppelganger; but feel free enough to develop ideas and complicate characters in ways the audience won’t expect. The problem with a classic like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as with a classic like Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice, is that if you give the audience exactly what they expect — the theatrical equivalent of reading the Reader’s Digest version of the book — they’ll be greatly disappointed. A stage adaptation must be theatrical, and the decision to produce a new version of an old classic suggests there must be a reason for doing so, that something new has been discovered or something old has been brought into higher relief.

So, in this adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I hope audiences will be satisfied with the sensational thrills that go with the territory. But I hope they’ll also have their expectations tweaked in such a way that on occasion they think, “Oh, I never would have dreamed of that” or “I haven’t seen that in Jekyll and Hyde before,” and that when they leave, a very old and great piece of literature has been given a vivid retelling.

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