Robert Louis Stevenson: Film Before Film

In his book Stage to Screen, A. Nicholas Vardac puts forth the impossible and yet so right and true thesis that theatre-makers on the eve of cinema’s birth in the late 19th century WANTED to be making films, they were somehow tending toward it, as though they knew in their bones it was about to arrive. Documentary realism and elaborate fabulist fantasy both were in the air, all that changed was the medium. As evolutionary theories go, this one is LaMarckian., and it’s fascinating. Is our next destination imprinted within us somewhere? Do we already perceive on some level what’s next in our development and will ourselves to go there? (I’ll tell you it certainly doesn’t feel that way at this historical moment!)

At any rate, I can’t help but think of that theory when I think of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). He seems to me one of the last of the era that included Scott, Hugo, Dumas, Dickens, Conrad, H.G. Wells — when it was possible to be a fine literary writer and an accessible populist at the same time. At its best, Hollywood strives for that same dichotomy. D.W. Griffth’s debt to Dickens, for example, has been written about many times. It’s even truer of Stevenson, who came a bit later — he sadly died young just as the technological breakthroughs were happening in the mid 1890s.

His aesthetic is right on the verge of everything we want from a popcorn movie. The more sensible theory of course (more sensible, less romantic than Vardac’s) is that his successors adapted that aesthetic whole cloth for the telling of films. And yet, how did he “know” that we would need it? His writing suits the younger medium so much that nearly all of Stevenson’s novels have been made into films, not once but many times: Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow and The Master of Ballantrae. (Honorable mention, there is even a wacky sixties comedy made out of the farcical The Wrong Box, featuring Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Peter Sellers, Michael Caine and Peter Cook & Dudley Moore). As an actor, I’ve always wanted to play both Long John Silver and Jekyll/Hyde, but I’m not sure what I could contribute beyond a hodgepodge of quotations of previous performances.

He’s been out of fashion for awhile but something in the wind, in the zeitgeist, prompts me to suspect he’s due for a comeback. (Today is his birthday.)

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