Jekyll and Hyde was written and then completely re-written over the course of a very few days in the autumn of 1885. Stevenson and his publisher, Longman’s, had aimed to have the story in bookshops in time to cash in on the British taste for chilling tales at holiday time. (Think Dickens’s A Christmas Carol with its ghostly visitations.) By the time the shilling volume was printed, though, the bookshops had already filled their seasonal inventory. J&H had to wait until January 1886 to find its way to readers.
The book’s actual title is Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—with no introductory “the.” Stevenson wanted to capture the form of a newspaper headline, perhaps shouted aloud by street-side hawkers. Many modern editions—and some of them from extremely reputable presses—add the initial article. None of them, as far as I know, also publish editions of Herman Melville’s The Moby Dick.
Stevenson always pronounced “Jekyll” as though it rhymed with “treacle”—a fact that likely contributed to Punch magazine putting out a parody of the novel that featured a man transformed by adulterated sweets. By 1946, though, enough readers and commentators must have sounded the name as though it rhymed with “heckle” that Paul Terry’s mischievous cartoon magpies are named, accordingly, “Heckle and Jeckle.”
The basic story of Jekyll and Hyde—one man exercising two separate identities—is so widely known that it’s virtually impossible for a modern reader to experience the tale “cold” as Stevenson meant us to. The novel’s very first published review, in fact, neglected to include a spoiler alert and revealed that the story’s “secret” was “the double personality in every man.”
Stevenson’s novel was not the first to turn on human duality. By the time he wrote J&H, Stevenson had read Edgar Allen Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839) though not, apparently, Théophile Gautier’s earlier Le Chevalier Double (1811). For an engaging 20th-century treatment of the double motif, try Italo Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount (1952).
Not surprisingly, Jekyll and Hyde has been filmed dozens of times, with noteworthy American productions directed by John S. Robertson (1920, with John Barrymore as Jekyll/Hyde), Rouben Mamoulian (1931, starring Frederic March), and Victor Fleming (1941, with Spencer Tracy)—Fleming having directed The Wizard of Oz just two years earlier. Two of the more off-the-wall adaptations are Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) and Roy Ward Baker’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971).
The earliest dramatic adaptation of the novel was Thomas Russell Sullivan’s play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which opened in Boston in 1887, going on to tour the United States and Great Britain to great popular acclaim. In London, Richard Mansfield’s performance in the leading role was so convincing that he was briefly suspected of being “Jack the Ripper.” Fortunately for Mansfield, W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) was among the London luminaries who could provide him with exculpating alibis.
The Sullivan/Mansfield play provided Jekyll with a female love interest, resorting to a conventional romantic formula that almost every subsequent adaptation has followed. No less esteemed a reader than Henry James, though, observed that Stevenson’s original succeeded “without the aid of the ladies”: none of the novel’s named characters appear to be married. Perhaps as a result, at least one of Stevenson’s original readers, John Addington Symonds, seems to have understood the story as a veiled exploration of homosexuality.
The contemporary American novelist Valerie Martin, noting the way Stevenson slighted female principals in the original, decided to re-tell the story from the perspective of a maid in Jekyll’s household, a woman the novel describes as breaking into “hysterical whimpering” the night Jekyll dies. The result is Mary Reilly (1990), made into a film by Stephen Frears (1996, starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich.) Martin confessed that, when her own version of the story reached “the final night,” the heroine’s trials had made her too strong and stoic to weep.