In a Lonely Place  Selected cinema essays and articles by Graham Fuller
Robert Louis Stevenson on film

Robert Louis Stevenson, main image

Robert Louis Stevenson was vital to the novel’s evolution during the late Victorian era, but he’s best known as the creator of a one-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder, and a doctor who drinks a potion that transforms him into a monster. Pop culture’s co-opting of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has sapped their literary reputation and probably alienated potential readers. Jekyll has become a byword for Gothic kitsch, spawning theme pubs, a Broadway musical, and a bizarre catalogue of movie parodies. Long John Silver has been reduced to an apocryphal utterance —“Ahhh, Jim lad!” His parrot’s shriek, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”, and the pirate chorus “Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum” were long ago absorbed into the pantomime version of pirate lore. Did Stevenson turn in his Samoan grave when Muppet Treasure Island and Treasure Planet were released?

This prompts another question: Are there any good films of Stevenson’s books? Given their propulsive movement, stirring action, and emotional dynamics, one would expect a trove of compelling adaptations. And one would be disappointed. It’s a dismal record, a saga of failed imagination. It’s as if Stevenson defeated cinema, his gleaming prose—pregnant with modernistic self-consciousness and historical and psychological truths—proving irreducible. A few jewels have turned up, including The Bodysnatcher (1945), Disney’s Treasure Island (1950), the 13-part Anglo-German TV serial Kidnapped (1978), Granada’s The Ebb-Tide (1998), and the BBC’s St. Ives (1998). The latter is slight but charming, and it provides a more dramatic ending to Stevenson’s unfinished romance about a French Hussar in Scotland than the one written by Arthur Quiller-Couch.  All these films draw on Stevenson’s genius for topography.

Stevenson located a special kind of psychic frisson in the places where the land meets the sea. The coastal sequences that begin the above-mentioned films of Treasure Island and The Ebb-Tide are not only as turbulent as the ensuing maritime adventures, but illustrate how Stevenson’s charged pictorialism carried its weight in meanings. By the time Robert Newton’s Silver makes his low-key entrance, director Byron Haskin has established and extinguished a mood of dread, highlighting the unfazeability of the adolescent Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll).  A cut from tide lashing rocks on the Cornish coast reveals the Admiral Benbow inn standing high on a cliff. Via dissolves, a man in black ascends the path toward it, the sky turning a sickly tangerine. He peers through a window, and the inn sign swings and creaks above him in anticipation of the coming narrative storm. His hand—a horror-movie hand—reaches for the door and he enters, spooking a cat. The camera has now adopted the man’s point of view. He crosses the room and sees Jim crouching behind a Dutch door, engaged on some task. Jim looks up from his lowly, threatened perspective—except, crucially, he isn’t threatened. The man, Black Dog, might be the most evil-looking pirate in movies, though, as played by Francis de Wolff, he is benign—the livid cutlass scar that criss-crosses his sun-browned face intimates he’s more victim than victimizer.

While maintaining the atmosphere of Stevenson’s opening, Haskin and screenwriter Larry Watkin restructured it. In the book, it’s the ailing Captain Billy Bones, possessor of the coveted treasure map, who arrives at the Benbow. In the film, Black Dog inherits Bones’s entrance and his scar. Whereas Stevenson’s Bones is a fierce, confiding stand-in for Jim’s father, unseen and ill, the movie’s Bones (Finlay Currie) suggests a rattled grandfather. The decision to introduce Black Dog immediately jumpstarts what Alan Sandison describes, in Robert Louis Stevenson and the Appearance of Modernism, as an “almost phantasmagoric sequence of threatening authority figures or bad fathers”—the Oedipal conflict being central to Stevenson’s life and writing. Next in villainous line is the terrifying Blind Pew (John Laurie). The eliminating of Bones, Pew, and Black Dog, accelerated in the film, clears the field for Silver, the most loved and feared of all the “fathers.” But not even Silver can best Jim. Published in 1881, Treasure Island was Stevenson’s first exegesis in novel form of his conflicted relationship with his own father.  Conscious of it or not, Haskin’s film honours this subtext while delivering a glorious juvenile daydream, one which enables us, as Stevenson wrote to his friend Henry James, “to lay by our judgement, to be submerged by the tale as by a billow”—in cinematic terms, to “suspend disbelief.”

The insufficiency of Stevenson’s reputation as a writer of “boy’s books” was borne out by his last completed novel The Ebb-Tide, written in Samoa in 1893, where he’d become a landowner and anti-imperialist agitator. It tells of three degraded British “beachcombers” who plan to swindle the owners of the champagne cargo ship they are sailing from Tahiti to Australia. Instead, they make landfall on an island ruled by a tyrannical Englishman, who has gathered a fortune in pearls; this self-anointed deity presages Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The film written by Simon Donald and directed by Nicholas Renton partially redistributes the actions and fates of the beachcombers but maintains the story’s pessimism. The opening image of a plague ship being fumigated with burning sulphur could not be more portentous. Chisholm (Robbie Coltrane), a disgraced sea captain in a filthy white suit, watches from the shore, and comments in voiceover: “We were as low as men could get – hunted and starving and sick.” He picks up his sick comrade Bunch (Chris Barnes) and walks away. Nearby, the craven aesthete Swanson (Steven MacIntosh), who is scavenging for food, ducks behind one of the trestles where native women have been entertaining French naval officers. One seaman fastens his flies and leaves. The woman who serviced him comes face to face with Swanston as he emerges from hiding. Her expression accuses not the sailor but Swanson, as if he had been the beneficiary of her mouth; as a man with glimmerings of conscience, he must bear the burden of imperial exploitation. He drifts onto the windswept shore and gazes up at the balcony of a brothel where other officers are carousing with white prostitutes. When one girl fires a revolver into the night, Swanson lurches away toward the surf. He fetches up beside Chisholm and Bunch in the ruined prison cell where they’re camping. It’s clear that the Godforsaken triad can’t prise itself apart; the three will continue to bicker and switch allegiances throughout the film, until the pearl fisher, Ellstrom (Nigel Terry), as much a moral sounding board as a man, lures Swanson to one side with his public school elitism and Nietzschean rhetoric.

The initial sequence builds on less than ten lines of description from Stevenson’s first four chapters, but it takes deep draughts of his meditations on the three men’s squalor, and captures his existential tone. By 1893, he was less reliant on imagery and setting than before, preferring to propel his narratives by appraising his protagonists’ past and present behaviour from a remove. That year, James praised Catriona, Stevenson’s sequel to Kidnapped, but protested that Stevenson transported the Lowland hero David Balfour and his Highland sweetheart Catriona Drummond “from Leyden to Dunkirk without the glint of a hint of all the ambient picture of the 18th century road. However, stick to your own system of evocation so long as what you positively achieve is so big.” Stevenson wrote back, “Your jubilation over Catriona did me good. And still more the subtlety and truth of your remark on the starving of the visual sense in that book.  ’Tis true….and it will be more true I fear in the future.  I hear people talking, and I feel them acting, and that seems to me to be fiction. My two aims may be described as—1st. War to the adjective. 2nd. Death to the optic nerve.” In 1895, a year after Stevenson’s own death at 44, “the optic nerve” received a non-literary boon when the Lumière brothers held the first public movie screening.

Despite Stevenson’s renunciation of “the visual sense,” he remains the most visual of pre-cinema authors. His contemporaries recognized his talent for verbal mise-en-scène, as Edgardo Cozarinsky has put it. James wrote to Stevenson in 1884: “…the current of your admirable style floats pearls and diamonds” —in Renton’s The Ebb-Tide, a shot of Ellstrom’s pearls, arranged in constellations on dark velvet, literally brings James’s compliment to life. John Everett Millais, master of the pre-Raphaelite narrative painting, told Stevenson’s friend Sidney Colvin, “To my mind he is the very first of living artists. I don’t mean writers merely, but painters and all of us. Nobody living can see with such an eye as that fellow, and nobody is such a master of his tools.” To read Stevenson on reading is to appreciate the qualities that would later define movies: “The process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye….The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration.” He added that “epoch-making scenes, which put the last mark of truth upon a story and fill up, at one blow, our capacity for sympathetic pleasure, we so adopt into the very bosom of our mind that neither time nor tide can weaken the impression. This, then, is the plastic part of literature: to embody character, thought or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind’s eye.”  (A Gossip on Romance, 1882.)

Stevenson’s insistence that stories accrued their power through successive incidents leading to a conclusion echoed Aristotle’s Poetics—the original screenwriter’s bible—and anticipated film. He regarded “continuous narration” as “the flat board on which the novelist throws everything.” That eminent Stevensonian Jorge Luis Borges alighted on this “cinematographic procedure,” proposing  “a continuity of discontinuous images,” which he saw in Josef von Sternberg’s “cinematographic novels,” especially Underworld (1927) and Dragnet (1928). Cozarinsky has written that Borges “attempted fiction by cultivating a lucid magic,” entranced as he was by Stevenson’s idea of “the plastic part of literature” and Sternberg’s stylization and use of montage. Even before silent cinema groped to find its own lucid magic, Stevenson had drawn up the blueprint.

That early filmmakers saw the potential in Stevenson’s stories is indicated by the making of 10 Jekylls between 1908 and 1920. Of those that are lost, F.W. Murnau’s 1920 Der Januskopf is the most tantalizing.  Invariably, the book’s allegory about dualism loses its ambivalence on screen. However, the 1920 movie starring John Barrymore—whose Hyde is a swarthy satyr endowed with elongated hands—scythes through the hypocrisy of the Victorian society epitomized by the M.P. father of Jekyll’s fiancée and his fellow upper-class rakes. Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, achieved through cutting and lap-dissolves, mostly through Barrymore’s astonishing acting, has an angst lacking in the slicker transformations in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film and in Victor Fleming’s 1941 remake. The Cronenbergian nightmare in which a giant spider climbs onto the dreaming Jekyll’s bed and melds with his body, prompting another transformation, conjurs Freud’s concept of the spider as “phallic mother” and the fear of being incestuously devoured.

“In the form of Hyde [Jekyll] revels in violence for its own sake,” Jenni Calder wrote in RLS: A Life Study. “Stevenson specifically makes the point that Hyde’s evil is not to be seen in terms of excessive sexuality, although that is the way in which it has been frequently interpreted.” In describing his moral rationale for separating good and evil in his consciousness, Jekyll implies that he had been with prostitutes, but had hid his “irregularities” with an almost morbid sense of shame,” burdened as he was by that “hard law of life,” which lies at the root of religion, and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” The story thus inscribes Stevenson’s frequenting of Edinburgh’s brothels in his early 20s, while enduring his father’s oppressive Calvinism. Jekyll’s admission that, as Hyde, he became aware of “a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy” hints at pornographic fantasies. The book is otherwise as emasculate as Treasure Island and Kidnapped—a condition of Stevenson’s early fiction. As Calder says, it’s violence that turns Hyde on.

Inevitably, forbidden sex has dominated most Jekyll films, the doctor’s virgin-whore dichotomy having originated in the 1887 touring play. Mamoulian made his Expressionistic version just after the Hays Code came into effect, but with Pre-Code license. The scene in which the barmaid Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) tries to seduce Jekyll (Fredric March) is famously erotic, yet unsavoury in its exploitation of the class difference between them. A cheerful blonde, warm and vulnerable, as Jekyll’s patrician fiancée is not, Ivy brings out the beast—the ape-like Hyde—in Jekyll. Her desire for him is pre-echoed in the troubling earlier scene, experienced subjectively by Jekyll, in which he heals a pre-adolescent cripple, also blonde, who gasps and moans ecstatically as she moves toward him: she’s the sexualized equivalent of the little girl Hyde tramples in the book.  Hyde’s class-bound disgust for Ivy, whom he murders, piles on the sexual hate. In Fleming’s film, Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) dreams a montage: water lilies, his chaste fiancée (Lana Turner) and the coquettish barmaid (Ingrid Bergman) as naiads, oozing mud, galloping horses, and himself whipping the naked women as they pull an unseen chariot.  Or is he sodomizing them? Stevenson deplored misogyny, not least because he had known and admired prostitutes, and one suspects he would have loathed these films.  In Mary Reilly (1996), based on Valerie Martin’s novel, Jekyll’s sexual repression is transferred to his Irish maid (Julia Roberts). Because of her father’s sadistic abuse, Mary is drawn to Jekyll as a sensitive substitute and to Hyde as a potent reminder of what she’d escaped. The split in Mary echoes the split in Jekyll; their involvement is cathartic for her, fatal for him. But her passivity and Jekyll/Hyde’s solipsistic ravings weaken Stephen Frears’ film. Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) may be the most trenchant Jekyll.

Stevenson approached the subject of dualism in The Body Snatcher, a story inspired by the Burke and Hare murders of 1827-28. The 1945 film, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, goes further than any Jekyll film in exploring ambiguity: The reptilian resurrectionist Gray (Boris Karloff) is capable of gentleness and functions as the film’s moral conscience when alive and dead, through his ghostly ministrations. In the film’s moral schema, he plays Hyde to the Jekyll embodied in Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), a class-conscious anatomist whose desire to benefit mankind through his experiments doesn’t preclude using disinterred corpses. The exchange of ideas between the Mephistopheleian Gray and the Machiavellian MacFarlane, twinned in their willingness to murder, pushes the movie toward abstraction. “You and I have two bodies. Aye, very different sorts of bodies, but they are closer than if we were in the same skin,” Gray says. Their Edinburgh, dank and shadowy, is unsurpassed in Stevenson films as a necropolis of the mind.

Edinburgh bewilders the impressionable David Balfour (Ekkehardt Belle) in the epic 1978 Kidnapped, which is superbly entwined with Catriona. Within minutes of arriving, David is shocked by the sight of the humiliated Jacobite James More, under Redcoat arrest, and falls for More’s daughter, Catriona (Aude Landry). The sequence resembles Jim’s arrival in Bristol in Treasure Island, but twelve-ish Jim is more adept at adjusting to bustling city ways than 17-year-old David. Thanks to Belle’s performance, the on-screen David proves more mettlesome in dealing with his various father substitutes than the book’s David. Foremost among them is his malign Uncle Ebenezer, masterfully portrayed by Patrick Magee. David’s near-murder by Ebenezer, his kidnapping aboard ship, the killing of the cabin boy Ransome by the drunken first mate—a grotesque magnification of the father-son conflict—the forging of David’s friendship with the Jacobite adventurer Alan Breck (David McCallum), and the cataclysmic Appin Murder build incident on incident to make thrilling cinema…on TV. Burdened with a small budget—Culloden is fought with a cast of dozens in a flashback—director Jean-Pierre Decourt maximized the daunting scenery of the Highlands to dwarf David and Alan on their imperiled flight in the heather, and to show the extent of David’s childlike dependence on his friend. But the omission of David’s Oedipal spat with Alan, signifying his immaturity, was a mistake. Robert Stevenson (no relation) included it in his solid 1960 Kidnapped to little effect—but that film had Peter Finch as the fieriest Alan Breck.

The reason Decourt’s Kidnapped outflanks the others is its fidelity to Stevenson’s mission to write an historical romance that addressed the eradication of the Scottish clan system in the second half of the 18th century. In his book Narrating Scotland: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Imagination, Barry Menikoff explains how the novelist planned “to subvert the English view of Scottish history” by drawing on various texts: “While Kidnapped and David Balfour [Catriona] have always been read together, as a single story of comradeship, courage, and adventure, behind the written texts stands a political allegory of colonial domination, of the subjugation of a native people by an alien and aggrandizing foreign culture.” Rejecting Walter Scott’s vision of “roseate progressivism,” Menikoff adds, Stevenson concentrated “on the loss suffered by the indigenous culture, focusing on how the law of the state was utilized for ends that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the preservation of power.”

In the TV series, as in Catriona, David visits Prestongrange (Patrick Allen), the Lord Advocate of Scotland, in his Edinburgh townhouse. Though a Whig, David seeks to destroy the case against the Jacobite James Stewart, who is to stand trial for the assassination of Colin Campbell, the King’s factor in Appin. He stubbornly makes his case, provoking Prestongrange’s ire and respect. Using zooms, low angles, and close-ups, Decourt milks the televisual claustrophobia to emphasize the seriousness of David’s plight as a witness to the murder, and the implacability of post-Culloden realpolitik. This is a spelled out to David by the sternly paternalistic Prestongrange: If Stewart were to go free, he says, Scotland would face civil war. The intimacy of the scene underscores its effectiveness as the most troubling of David’s struggles with father figures. When David returns the following day, the Highland turncoat Simon Fraser, now a Campbell prosecutor, toys with the terrified youth until the Lord Advocate intervenes. In the first scene, David is seated as Prestongrange paces around the study, pausing to fidget with an hourglass, but the low-angle on David barely puts him at a disadvantage. Expectations are reversed again in the second scene. David towers over the goblin-like Fraser, but there’s no doubt who’s the mouse and who’s the cat. David’s hard road to manhood is made harder by his friendship with the worldliest of Prestongrange’s beautiful daughters and the capricious Catriona, whose presence unmans him when they’re forced to share rooms in Leyden.

Except in the cases mentioned, filmmakers have seldom looked beyond the surfaces of Stevenson’s stories. The most powerful visual interpretations of Stevenson’s work are the illustrations N.C. Wyeth painted for the Scribners’ editions of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, and David Balfour between 1911 and 1924. Wyeth’s compositions crackle with tension, making discreet use of lighting, angles, and symbols. In Wyeth’s painting of the last stage of the treasure hunt, Jim, taken hostage, has an (umbilical) rope round his waist and is being dragged by Silver, whose huge scabbard points backwards at the boy. In the novel, Jim recalls a nightmare of Silver in which he is “a monstrous kind of creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body”; Wyeth adds a maternal pull to Jim’s unconscious Oedipal paranoia. Silver poses no such threat to the indomitable Jim in the 1950 Treasure Island. He acts tenderly toward the boy, though his paternal feelings are compromised by avarice. When Jim faints in the stockade, Silver frets over him—until he spies the treasure map concealed in his shirt. It’s Jim who proves the more protective by allowing Silver to escape after he had initially steered the pirate’s skiff onto a spit. Newton sweats, wheezes, grunts, works his tongue and bulges his eyes. The performance is regarded as a slab of ham, yet it’s thick with humanity. Manipulative and disingenuous, strangely kind, reasonable even, Newton’s is a more ambiguous Silver than those of Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, and Jack Palance. In the underwhelming history of Stevenson on screen, this Long John hobbles close to the coast of greatness.

Sight & Sound, January 2009