115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Robert Louis Stevenson, Literary Style and Early Cinema

Richard Hill, Chaminade University of Honolulu

Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the most filmed authors of the nineteenth century. His literary style is one of the most critical aspects of this influence, particularly on early cinema. This paper will demonstrate this style, and its influence on other significant authors, using Treasure Island as a model.


This paper will explore the subtle, yet significant, influence that the literary style, and the illustrated editions, of Robert Louis Stevenson had on the visual and narrative discourse of early cinema. Stevenson died in 1894, the same year that Thomas Edison obtained the first ever patent for a moving picture.  According to a filmography by Richard Dury, several of the very earliest full-length silent films were adaptations of Stevenson stories, including most notably versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island

Using Treasure Island as the obvious model, I argue that Stevenson's literary style, combined with his ability to invoke powerful visual imagery and striking characters, lend themselves to cinematic interpretation. Stevenson wrote several essays pertaining to literary style, and his fascination with contemporary visual arts guided him to a style that eschewed unnecessary descriptive or narrative detail, in favor of a dynamic narrative movement.  Works such as Jekyll and Hyde, as well as The Black Arrow, The Ebb-Tide, and The Pavilion on the Links, demonstrate this style perfectly.  The style is sparse, visually evocative, and leaves "holes" for cinematic interpretations to experiment with.  In addition, Stevenson's illustrated works, many of which he proofed himself, formed a framework of visual reference for future cinematic interpretations.  Writers such as Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, H. Rider Haggard, J. M. Barrie, H. G. Wells, John Buchan and Joseph Conrad might seem stronger candidates for early cinematic influence, but as I have argued in my recent book, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Pictorial Text, all these authors owed stylistic and artistic debts to Stevenson, whether they acknowledged them or not.  I offer Stevenson as the progenitor of a literary-visual discourse that, immediately prior to the dawn of cinema, contributed in part to a cinematic discourse that can still be found in adventure and mystery films.

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