Thursday, September 1, 2011

How would you update Jekyll and Hyde?

A translator once told me that foreign books have to be re-translated on a generational basis--every 50 years or so, if I remember correctly--because of shifts in the target language. It seems to me that a similar thing may be true of all sorts of texts: we need someone to update them as we go along.

I don't mean that we can't enjoy the original Sherlock Holmes stories as they are; I just mean that certain issues can shift in focus, so that an updated version may help us to understand our present, in a way that the original couldn't. (Although switch it around: the original can help us understand the past; and comparisons between the two may help us understand the process of history. Yay, something for everyone!)

Look at Steven Moffat's Sherlock: Holmes is still a sociopath savant, Watson is still helpful but slower than Holmes, the crimes are still a little ridiculous--just like the originals. But rather than just play the old stories over again, Moffat's Sherlock can play with the homosociality of Holmes & Watson (which raises the mashup idea: Sherlock on the Jersey Shore) and with the notion of the instability of labor.

(In other words, Holmes is a consulting detective, which sure sounds nice; but how is that different than the hellish uncertainty of an adjunct professor or a day laborer? Monk also played with the economic uncertainty of being outside the institution.)

So, let's say you wanted to update the Jekyll and Hyde story, what should get emphasized while keeping the same general themes of the book?

It seems to me that you would have to jettison the central mystery of the Stevenson story (Jekyll and Hyde are the same man!) since everyone probably knows that already. But perhaps there's some other suspenseful mystery that could be added. (I've only just started watching Steven Moffat's version of the story, which includes a potential conspiracy, so it seems like that's the mystery: what do other people want with Jekyll?)

In my mind, Jekyll and Hyde lives near Frankenstein in that they both have a Gothic imagination of science; I guess you could push that element and make Jekyll into... a rogue AI avatar of Hyde. Say, Hyde is a computer specialist and a therapist, he creates a program to help cure people--which does help, but the program turns out to be malevolent. (Rather than just helping you deal with your issues of abuse, the AI would become the abuser.)

But it doesn't seem to me that Jekyll and Hyde is primarily a story about science-out-of-control. (And how many evil computer programs do we really need in fiction to help us deal with our insecurities about computers?) It's primarily a story about sin and repression--Dracula without the invasion worries.  So the question isn't "what technology are we worried about?" (as it would be with Frankenstein), but "what do we feel about sin and repression?"

What's the answer to that? I'm not sure.

(Although it occurs to me now that Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea takes a very Jungian position on Jekyll and Hyde; that is, Ged splits off his shadow,  just like Jekyll does with Hyde; and the shadow then ruins things a bit, like Hyde; but the solution for Ged is to reabsorb that shadow and accept it as part of him, which seems like an unthinkable solution for Stevenson's text. And then there's the Dorian Gray solution, which isn't very clear.)

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