Since I saw the film first, there were inevitably preconceptions when reading the novella (unfortunately the same thing happened with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Thankfully, the only thing the book and film share is the overall concept, so both versions are easy enough to discuss on their own merits without drawing heavy comparisons between the two. I’ll avoid discussing any major plot points since I’m not sure how many people will have both read the book and seen the film (in the tiny readership of this blog anyway!).
Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin is a painfully shy low-level government clerk, who’s instructed to become more socially active by his doctor. He jumps headlong from one awkward social scenario to the next, committing an array of social faux-pas; he is full of contradictions, often not contemplating the consequences and deciding that it will all turn out “for the best”, yet working himself up into a panic at other instances. Despite first being written 170 years ago, the depiction of social anxiety is all too familiar, and there are some entertaining moments of dark comedy in his constant re-evaluation of every situation, whether it’s important of not. It’s at his lowest point that he meets his titular double, who is the epitome of everything Golyadkin wants to be: charming, confident and charismatic. He even shares Golyadkin’s name and job, and begins to take over the original’s life and turns others against him.
I’d never read Dostoyevsky before now (I’ll get round to Crime and Punishment eventually. Maybe...), so it was interesting to read one of his earlier stories (1846, but revised in 1866 which resulted in this version), and particularly one which he himself said “as far as form was concerned, [he] failed utterly”. Looking at reviews from both then and now, the novella has provoked mixed responses since its release, but has been interpreted in many ways over the years. The story struck me as particularly Kafka-esque, despite it being written about sixty years before his work, in its exploration of identity and existential themes, as well as the alienating effects of society and bureaucracy. Although a Kafka story such as The Metamorphosis involves a transformation, it’s more blatantly allegorical than literal, but The Double constantly challenges the reader to question the reality of what they’re reading.
This is largely conveyed through the intriguing narrative voice; despite the main character, Golyadkin, being repeatedly referred to as “our hero” by an omniscient narrator (and there’s very little that’s ‘heroic’ about him), the book is dominated by long segments of stream of consciousness, creating a largely subjective perspective through his progressively fragmented state of mind. Indeed, there’s a sense that the majority of everything which happens in the story is filtered through his mind, and you begin to question his sanity as the line between the supposedly outside voice and his internal monologues becomes increasingly blurred.
Dostoyevsky’s unique writing style is captivating yet maddening; the novella is written with a breathless pace, featuring constant off-tangent imaginings in Golyadkin’s head which are sometimes difficult to decipher. His dialogue, when he actually manages to communicate with someone, consists of him constantly restarting his sentences and overusing terms of endearment, which often end up coming across as insincere or antagonising. We remain suffocatingly close to him throughout, and it’s easy to sympathise with his humiliation yet cringe at his social incompetence. The writing feels claustrophobic, including the dialogue, and it’s sometimes difficult to picture and follow the action. This results in a rather surreal novella, but it’s highly effective in terms of evoking the mental state and alienation of “our hero”; the unreliable narration makes us question whether it’s all just a paranoid delusion.
But amidst all the confusion, Dostoyevsky raises some interesting questions about identity and our inherent desire to be accepted by others. Arguably, it can be difficult to dig out the deeper meanings, and literary devices such as metaphor or symbolism can also be easily lost amongst the dense prose. I preferred the first half of the novel, mainly because the character interactions are more interesting and provide some kind of basis in reality, before we really go into the nightmare-like weirdness of Golyadkin’s head. It’s no coincidence that this shift occurs at the same time as the introduction of the double, who has a smaller presence in the story than you might expect. I’d have liked further direct interaction between the two, but I understand that he is more of a catalyst for Golyadkin’s introspection than a character in his own right (which is one of the film’s main deviations).
I have to say that I was a bit disappointed immediately after finishing it, and left with a sense that I didn’t quite ‘get’ it; it seemed to be building up to something which never came (don’t expect any explicit Fight Club-like revelation), and the end felt somewhat unsatisfactory. However, it makes more sense after having some time to think about it as a whole, and it probably warrants another read though when I have the energy. I wouldn’t say it’s a book I enjoyed, and it was often an exasperating chore to get through, but I am glad I read it; despite it being challenging, Dostoyevsky’s style is unique and there are enough thought-provoking ideas about our psychology and identity.
“For his part, Mr Golyadkin would almost invariably, and at precisely the wrong moment, falter and become flustered just when he was about to approach someone about his personal affairs – and so it was now: having failed to prepare the opening sentence, which was always a real stumbling block for him on such occasions, he became dreadfully embarrassed, muttered something – apparently an apology – and, at a loss what to do next, took a chair and sat down”.
Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of The Double proves that Submarine wasn’t just a fluke, and in doing so demonstrates the range of his directorial abilities; in fact, The Double couldn’t be more different from his debut. Bright, open landscape shots are traded for artificially lit, claustrophobic corridors, populated by mechanical people leading mechanical lives. It’s amongst this film-Noir inspired setting that we encounter Simon James; like his novella counterpart, he’s an office drone with few ambitions and a distinct lack of confidence. As expected, the arrival of Simon James’s double, James Simon, plunges his ordered life into disarray.
One of the main areas in which it differs from the book (I won’t keep on comparing them, because they’re both very different works) is the emphasis on a love interest, Hannah, who happens to work in the photocopying room. A lot of Simon’s social incapability is shown through his interaction with her, or rather lack of interaction; he watches her from his window with a telescope but has difficulty talking to her in person. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as James/Simon, and his ability to play both awkward and arrogant is used to great effect in creating the two easily distinguishable characters. Although I like him as an actor, I’ll be interested to see how he plays Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman/Superman film, and whether we’ll see a more diverse range of his acting skills. Mia Wasikowska, who stars as Hannah, is just as good; her other-worldly performance is compelling, seamlessly going from whimsical to harder-edged, and the character draws some interesting parallels with Simon.
The use of lighting and shadow is highly effective, making it one of the most memorable Neo-Noir style films I’ve seen for a while. There are a few visual touches reminiscent of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, and the overall result is extremely stylish. Other highlights include cameos from more of the IT Crowd gang, Chris Morris and Chris O’Dowd, as well as a fantastically 80’s cheap sci-fi TV programme. The great sound design and soundtrack are also worth noting (although there’s no Alex Turner this time); at one point the sound of footsteps subtly becomes non-diegetic and immerses itself into the background.
Like the book, it’s not for those who oppose ambiguity (or “bullshit”, as a friend elegantly put it), and it could be argued that it’s a case of style over substance; but unlike literature, it’s generally harder to understand a character when we’re not inside their head, and I think the film does a very good job of exploring the main ideas of identity and isolation. Although it won’t appeal to everyone, it’s a very well crafted piece of cinema, with spot-on performances and an absorbing atmosphere, as well as a witty script. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ayoade does next!
On a side-note, I now have Twitter, 'cause apparently that's where all the cool kids hang out. It's @TheScreenVortex if you'd like to follow!