What makes a story an enduring classic? Certainly, there are some agreed-upon criteria of "classic" that must be met: things like age and—subjective though it may be—quality. But even those benchmarks can't prevent a story from being relegated to the forgotten annals of history. So, what gives the story the ability to remain in the literary consciousness of readers worldwide? This is where human intervention comes in. It takes publishers who continually republish books at the demand of readers of who keep buying it. It takes teachers who keep assigning it so it finds new audiences. I would argue that there's another factor at play: reinventing the story for new audiences.
Re-imaginings and retellings are not new. There is seemingly no end to how writers can leverage a story to make something uniquely their own. There would have to be, if Georges Polti is to be believed. He enumerated all possible dramatic situations that could exist in a story and came up with Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. It stands to reason that, with hundreds of new books published each month, many of them are, after a fashion, telling similar stories and yet reading these stories is an entirely new experience.
The malleability of fiction fascinates me. In previous reading projects I've explored this by pairing classic stories with their modern-day counterparts. For my latest reading project, I look at a single science fiction classic and a pair of its modern-day retellings.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson's classic science fiction novella, written in 1886, details the suspicious events discovered by a lawyer named Gabriel John Utterson concerning his client Dr. Henry Jekyll. Jekyll, we learn, has crafted a most bizarre will and testament. In it, he names as his sole beneficiary a man named Mr. Hyde, who will receive the sum of Jekyll's wealth should Jekyll die or otherwise disappear. However, as Utterson comes to learn, Hyde is a somewhat shady character and, fearing that the will may be some form of blackmail, investigates Hyde. Utterson comes to learn that the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is one that is indeed very bizarre.
A story that is more than thirteen decades old has certainly passed the expiration date for spoilers—let alone that the phrase "Jekyll & Hyde" has become a common-enough term in English vernacular—so I present the surprise-not-a-surprise ending of the story here: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same person. Jekyll, it seems, harbored secret desires to commit crimes and found, through a chemical concoction, a way to assume another persona; indeed, one who is physically different enough so as to be seen as a different person altogether. In his guise as Mr. Hyde, a man who embodies all the evil within Jekyll yet without any morals holding him back, he is able to satisfy these dark tendencies. This is the crux of Stevenson's story and the reason it has become a long-lasting classic: it explores the dual nature on humanity. By personifying good and evil in two separate personages yet one single character, the story makes its point. There is darkness within all of us.
Hyde by Daniel Levine
Stevenson's classic tells a good story, but according to Daniel Levine's Hyde, perhaps not the complete story. Hyde takes the original novella and expands it to novel length, recounting the same events but from the perspective of Mr. Hyde himself. The reason for the longer length is a handful of entirely new elements seen from the new viewpoint. For example, we learn, among other things, that Hyde has daddy issues, a penchant for young girls, and an entire life of his own including a house and a housekeeper. Hyde's version of the events differs from Jekyll's, if not in content then in motivation and misfortune. (There are no coincidences, Hyde laments.) To hear Hyde tell it, he is a victim as much as anyone, if not more so. The reason? Hyde is essentially a newborn in terms of learning between right and wrong. He's a fast learner, to be sure. He can mostly see what goes on when Jekyll is in control of the body. There's also evidence that a third party may be manipulating events against Hyde.
The success of Mr. Hyde's argument hinges on the believability of his story. To be clear, Hyde's first-person narrative goes a long way to elicit sympathy at times, enough to make unwary readers fall into the trap of believing the monster. It's good to remember that Hyde is a murderer and also revealed to be a pedophile. He is the most unreliable of narrators. But therein lies the appeal of a retelling like Hyde. The point-of-view of a different character gives us a new perspective on events. If you can't believe his version, at least you can believe he is a tortured soul who sees little options open to him. Levine's depiction of Hyde is more comprehensive then we see in Stevenson's original, which makes him alternately more sympathetic and yet more despicable. Thus, even though the core events are the same, Hyde takes the story to new places that make it an enjoyable complement to the original.
Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd
Even Hyde supports Stevenson's original assertion that there is darkness in all of us. That simple truth is also evidenced in the several characters in Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd, the second book of The Madman's Daughter trilogy. The first book, The Madman's Daughter (discussed here), was a reimagining of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells and featured the young protagonist Juliet Moreau, daughter of the famous doctor who was deemed a madman for practicing dangerous science. In Moreau's case, he performed vivisections on animals, fusing parts together to make human-like creatures. In Her Dark Curiosity, a reimagining of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Juliet has returned to London to piece her life back together, only to find that one of the creatures has seemingly escaped the island and followed her. At least, that's what it appears like as victims of the serial killer "the Wolf of Whitechapel" begin to appear across the city—all of them connected in some way to Juliet herself.
The infamous Wolf of Whitechapel is the most obvious parallel to Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, not only in his actions, but also in his nature. However, Juliet exhibits a dual nature, too. As hinted at in the first novel, Juliet goes much further in exploring her dark tendencies, especially in the third act, in which events merge to a satisfying conclusion. Along the way there are several scenes to satisfy the intended young adult audience. There are also a good number of unexpected turns, conspiracies and thought-provoking events to please readers of all ages. Shepherd delivers even more reimagination goodness in the final book of the series, The Cold Legacy. Looks like I have another reading project on my hands.