Thursday, July 12, 2012

Surprise! (Rosebud Was the Sled)

I watched the Christopher Lee-Peter Cushing film I, MONSTER last week. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” allowing for the usual cinematic embellishments that stretch it to almost and hour and a half. Even though all the secondary characters have the same names as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, the protagonist is unaccountably renamed “Dr. Marlowe,” with the Hyde persona called “Blake.” Baffling. Anyway, the movie brings to mind how differently a new reader of Stevenson’s story would approach it today, in contrast to the audience for the original publication. We forget (if we’ve read the original at all) that the novella is structured as a mystery: Who is Edward Hyde, and what hold does he have over the upright, highly respected Dr. Jekyll? Until the climax, neither the characters nor the readers know that Jekyll and Hyde share the same body.

Nowadays, the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” has become such a universal metaphor for the divided self that the shocking revelation of Jekyll’s plight couldn’t possibly surprise anyone. No film adaptation I’ve seen has ever tried to hold back that plot point as a surprise. The audience witnesses the doomed doctor swallowing his potion and changing into a monster long before any of the other characters learn the truth. This shift in the expected audience reception of the Jekyll and Hyde story reminds me of a comment by C. S. Lewis about the element of surprise as an artistic virtue. He says its value doesn’t mean this quality can be appreciated only on first exposure. Rather, its appeal is enhanced on later readings or viewings because what’s appreciated isn’t the surprise itself but a certain “surprisingness.” The audience of the work gets extra enjoyment out of anticipating the twist they know is coming.

I think my own reading experience supports this position. On reading a book for the first time, I get pleasure from the suspense of waiting to find out what happens. On later readings, I get a different kind of pleasure from watching how the author prepares for the revelation that I know will occur at the climax. If I really enjoyed the story the first time, it often gives me even more enjoyment on subsequent readings because I’m not distracted by the suspense—what Lewis calls the “sheer narrative lust” of rushing to the end to find out what happens—from appreciating the nuances of plot and character. A story or movie whose appeal depends entirely on not knowing the ending—a work that can be “spoiled”—lacks something compared to works that can be pleasurably reread or re-viewed more than once. That’s why I don’t mind being exposed to spoilers. True, there are some pieces of fiction (print or film) that would lose something if the first exposure didn’t include an unspoiled experience of their surprise ending; still, if they’re solid works to begin with, I don’t think they could be completely ruined by “spoilers.” Okay, a mystery novel especially could be an exception, but I have reread some of Agatha Christie’s very plot-driven books, complete with twists at the end, with delight, even knowing who’ll be revealed as the murderer on the last page. Does any potential reader nowadays NOT already know who killed Roger Ackroyd?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Correction: In the first paragraph, of course I meant "almost AN hour and a half." Sorry. (blush)