The Double (2013)


Literary Reincarnation

—  Long before Sigmund Freud, Fyodor Dostoyevsky explored the doppleganger motif in his early novel, The Double: A Petersburg Poem (1846). The story concerns Yakov Golyadkin, a lowly civil servant who aspires to be successful, but is held back by his ineffectual personality. One day, Golyadkin discovers at his place of work an exact double, whom he recognizes as a mirror image, but whom others see as a separate, more likeable person. The double is outgoing and successful, rising to prominence in a way that Golyadkin could only dream of. The novel ends with an insane Golyadkin carted off to an asylum, unable to get anyone to recognize that his hatred of his doppleganger is justified by the man having stolen his life, and bettered it.

The Double seems inspired by a surprising literary doppleganger, Edgar Allen Poe. Dostoevsky’s embrace of a central character overcome by mental devastation, amidst a social order seemingly oblivious to human suffering, reminds one of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). Thus, as Poe ended his career writing about madness and civilization—the American died in 1849—the Russian Dostoevsky began his, beginning with Poor Folk in 1845, and The Double a year later. Dostoevsky was then banished to Siberia for radicalism, only to return and pen a series of proto-modernist novels, culminating in The Brothers Karamazov in 1880. He died a year later.

Comedian Richard Ayoade’s new film version of The Double (2014) builds an intertextual system which points to a most unexpected subsequent literary doppleganger for Dostoevsky, Carlo Collodi, the Italian children’s novelist who wrote Pinocchio (1883). Ayoade’s adaptation features Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) in the role of the Golyadkin figure. The film begins on a subway car. A man threatens Simon, claiming that he’s in his seat. Simon looks around to discover that the car is empty; he moves anyway, preferring to completely subsume his desires in the interest of keeping order.

While the ending of Ayoade’s film is vastly different from Dostoevsky, the build up is very similar. Simon meets his doppleganger, the invertedly named James Simon (also played by Eisenberg, but less laconically). James proceeds to steal Simon’s would-be girlfriend, and also his work (his boss, Mr. Papadopolous is played by the tragically underused Wallace Shawn).

In a scene later in the film, Simon and James ride the subway together. Plying Simon for information he can use against him, James asks: “How come you don’t have a girlfriend?” Simon explains that he can’t express to Hannah (played by Mia Wasikowska) what he feels: “I’m permanently outside of myself. You could push your hand right through me if you wanted to… I’m like Pinocchio. I’m a wooden boy, not a real boy, and it kills me.” Pretending to not listen to Simon pouring his heart out, James the doppleganger falls asleep during the story. Later in the film, as Simon is in full crisis mode at James stealing his identity, he runs to Hannah, exasperated: “I don’t want to be a boy held up by string.”

By invoking Pinocchio as a secondary intertext for Dostoevsky’s The Double, Ayoade’s film performs significant critical work. The brilliant children’s novel about a rebellious teenage puppet becoming a real boy—once he learns discipline—links Dostoevsky’s early novel to his late masterpieces. In “The Persistent Puppet,” her essay on Collodi’s novel, the great British essayist Rebecca West explains the Italian novel as if it were Dostoevsky’s mature fiction: “[Collodi] was basically suspicious of any programs that codified conformity, seeing them as a threat to individuality and personal freedom. The clash between collective conformity and individual creativity finds expression in his tale of the puppet, which can be read as a story about both the need to conform and the appeal of transgressive freedom” (166).

The collision between conformity and freedom is the thematic infrastructure of The Double, the difference between the two Golyadkin’s, one timid and lost, the other effervescent and successful. It is also, of course, the basis of Dostoevsky’s later fiction, particularly Crime and Punishment (1866), where Pinocchio’s transgressions overspill the allegory of Toyland into the realm of premeditated murder. Ayoade’s linkage is the stuff of great criticism, seeking out hidden connections in the cultural web not previously appreciated.

However, for a film scholar, the collision of Dostoevsky and Collodi is made more significant by the fact that very few people in the United States know the Italian Pinocchio at all. The aesthetic masterpiece that is Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film has come to virtually erase one of the most globally beloved children’s novels. As a filmmaker, Ayoade’s intervention is profound. Disney’s Pinocchio has had tremendous influence on Hollywood dream factory cinema, most prominently in the films of Stephen Spielberg. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), electrical worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) sculpts his vision of the alien landing strip atop Devil’s Tower in mashed potatoes while his family watches Pinocchio on television in the living room behind him. The final half of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Spielberg’s reconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s last film project, is dedicated to a robot boy trying to become human at the feet of the blue fairy.

The 20th century disappearance of Collodi at the hands of Disney was so severe that the New York Review of Books had to release an English language edition of the 19th century Pinocchio as late as 2009. By using The Double as his framework for linking Dostoevsky to Collodi, Ayoade positions himself as a post-Disney filmmaker, grappling with the crises that result when selfish human beings have to live together in social groupings. Via Dostoevsky, Ayoade produces a mature cinema, one capable of transcending Disney and Spielberg, while at the same time maintaining the child-like directness of Collodi’s beautiful puppet.

– Walter Metz