The initial credits of the film The Double(2013)by British filmmaker Richard Ayoadedeclare clearly that the film has been ‘inspired by’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double (1846). The conspicuous use of the word ‘inspired’ might have been to suggest at the very beginning to the viewer that what he is about to see is not exactly what one may call a proper interpreted ‘adaptation’ of the novella, rather something inspired by (and close to) its central idea. By doing so, the makers perhaps allowed themselves the freedom of taking more liberties in interpreting the idea. When the source material is the fiction of such writers as Dostoevsky, or the likes of Kafka or Marquez, who have constantly dealt with the problems of the modern rationalist society and how they might affect a non-conforming individual psychologically and morally, it becomes all the more difficult to contend with the possibility of having to deal with the scrutiny that comes with an adaptation proper. So in that sense, Ayoade allowed himself much breathing space on all accounts insofar as ‘interpreting’ the novel is concerned without having to stay completely loyal to the plot of the source material.
Yet, even so, it has to be remembered that a visual medium is, at the end of the day, a visual medium, and the restrictions offered, due to its inherent directness of portrayal, to imagination (of the spectator) are partly the reason why despite honest efforts a film properly adapted or even ‘inspired’ by a major literary achievement might inevitably fall short of achieving a similar overall effect as the significant philosophical worthiness of the source material. So the first hurdle is the very nature of the visual medium. One may then argue that it might just as well be so that the makers who undertake such tasks,while mentioning clearly their source of inspiration,never at all in their wildest fantasies hope to replicate the same overall effect but only import the idea with the object of making a good film, and that it is just their fascination for the central theme that might have got them started in the first place. While that may be true in most of these ‘inspired’ cases, still when the source material is a kind of rare philosophically relevant fictional work of a hauntingly lingering nature, the filmmaker is playing with fire even if he is playing safe. For it is not only the central theme or a handful of plot-building moments of the original work that have made the original work philosophically revolutionary (or even hauntingly lingering) but the whole thing, with all its elements having combined to take the theme out of its theoretical-statement shell and make it arrive at the level of a theoretical discourse.It is of course especially so in the case of such literary works as The Double, of which central theme and relevance Dmitri Chizhevsky writes in his essay ‘The Theme of the Double in Dostoevsky’: ‘[…] Dostoevsky’s raising of the problem of the double (in some of his other works too) appears as one of the most significant milestones in the nineteenth-century philosophical struggle against ethical rationalism, a struggle which has not by any means been concluded and which may even have barely begun.’
Moreover, in trying to avoid a disastrous outcome so highly possible in case of a proper interpreted ‘adaptation’ of a major novel(which would normally involve only minor modifications in the plot, if at all), there is also the danger of over-interpreting the original idea, of taking too much liberty in the process of creating altogether new sequences or characters and in selecting from the novel what to think as important and not important with regard to filming.
The problem with taking as source material a novel already etched in the history of literature as one of the ‘great’ works is that the(often) historic importance of its central idea notwithstanding, its originality, scope, rhythm, intellectual depth,the visual immediacy in its narrative style and its emotional intensity, all of these together have taken the novel to such a formidable height in the minds of the patient readers, that the whole experience- and not the central idea alone- has been a profound one for them. Now, because we are concerned with all these elements which have formed the prose, i.e. the language of the novel, to acknowledge the profound effect these elements have all had on the readers’ minds is to acknowledge the power and potential of prose as a medium. Very unlike watching a sequence of moving images, reading and understanding prose involves the mental exercise of firstly imagining or picturing each word as a sign which means something. The theory of the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’ expounded by the founder of modern structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure (in his epoch-making Course in General Linguistics, 1916) is today widely known. The reader understands each word from its ‘signified’ effect. An utterly arresting passage of a narrative in prose, therefore, has its own visual co-existence.Now while ‘images’ in the case of prose happen to be have been imagined by the reader, in case of the audio-visual medium, they are already served to the spectator. With this visual directness of its ‘motivated images’,it becomes difficult to recreate a similar kind of effect as that created by the original novel.For instance, in the case of written fiction, as the story develops, reading and picturing/imagining the gradual worsening of the hero’s psychic condition and the final materialization of his worst fears come with the added advantage of an assured feeling of pleasure on the part of the reader at being able to reach and see the hero’s condition from an extremely close and almost personal level. The reader in his head has created his own hero and often at the most agonizing moments, imagines himself in the hero’s shoes. Herein lies the effectiveness of a great prose, which cannot be matched by the visual medium completely. However, with proper understanding of the language of cinema as regard to what tools it has at its disposal, a filmmaker might get closer. I would cite the example of Indian filmmaker Mani Kaul’s brilliant adaptation of ‘The Idiot’ (Ahmak, 1991)as a yardstick. Also worth mentioning is Orson Welles’ The Trial(1962),which despite polarizing critics, has grown in reputation over the years.
All the same, the nature itself of the visual medium remains a problem for the filmmaker to address while adapting or even interpreting relatively freely a major literary work on screen.It is therefore imperative for us to admit this difficult problem and put this into perspective before discussing a screen adaptation of any major literary work.
Richard Ayoade’s film The Double is far from being bad. With whatever Ayoade has decided to make out of the central idea of Dostoevsky’s novella, he has gone ahead with a good knowledge of his own faculties concerning film-making and his own areas of strength. It is only his second film, after his debut film Submarine (2010). Interestingly, the novella was also Dostoevsky’s second major work after Poor Folk and unlike the response the film got (favourable, to say the least), the novella had largely been taken as a disappointment, although some friends had praised its vision and foresightedness (as is evident in Dostoevsky’s letters to his brother Michael) as regard to its relevance in the society.
The film on the other hand got mostly positive, if not rave, reviews. Technically it is more than just good. Erik Wilson’s cinematography is brilliant in the way it ‘captures the green/brown conformity of Orwellian institutional life to the T’ (The Guardian). The sound-scape is good and compliments the visuals well. And Jesse Eisenberg is memorable in the double role of the stammering hapless hero Simon James and of his gregarious doppelganger James Simon.All in all, the film is very cleverly made with subtle undertones of dry humour thrown in. It is a thoroughly entertaining affair.
However the film could have ventured to go further, deeper, for no other reason but to reach closer to the philosophical significance of the original text which the latter reaches not only through an examination of the modern society and its people ‘in general’ but also, and more importantly, of the individual who is a part of such society.
The Double (the novella), or ‘Petersburg Poem’ as Dostoevsky liked to call it, is not one of his masterpieces. Nor is it one of his best works. Dostoevsky himself, after a series of disappointing reviews, had thought that he should have given a better form to an idea of which he was always very sure. “I have disappointed expectations and bungled the work which could have been a great achievement,” he had written to his brother. Perhaps, as Chizhevsky points out, the reason why he was ‘dissatisfied’ with the form was that the hero of the story was a ‘weak character in a dependent social position- in short, a petty official[…]. Ontological instability of a personality, however, is not necessarily connected with psychological instability (“weakness in character”) or social instability (“dependence”)’. Having said that, Dostoevsky’s art in this work, despite the social position of its hero, lies in weaving such a rich narrative around a disturbed man that his psychological and social instabilities keep increasingly seeping through its textual upper surface until the final materialization of his worst fears- the actual appearance of the double, his ‘double in every respect’, the ‘shameless impostor’ who takes his place in society ‘in all spheres of life’.It does not seem unexpected though. Not even to the rational reader who, although having willfully suspended his rational inclinations, is not facing the same ontological troubles in his personal life as Golyadkin (the hero of the novella) is. Indeed, Mr. Golyadkin had had a presentiment of it earlier (‘Should I pretend that I’m not myself, but somebody else, strikingly like me?’) and his dialogues with himself and the conversation with his doctor betrayed little else. The film, in my humble opinion, could have had similar such sequences rather than making it what it ultimately stands as: a‘meek-one-begets-his-sly-double’ narrative. One knows nothing of what values Simon James stands for and what he thinks about his world. There are no voice-overs, no substantial conversations with anyone outside his office save his mother at a hospital. The problem with this kind of treatment to such a subject full of monologues and conversations is apparent from the pretty unjustly narrowed-down idea it ends up conveying to the informed spectator who has read the novella. For, where and from what characteristic attributes is the split widening in a personality? From what is the double stemming? These questions remain very conveniently and one-dimensionally resolved in the film (in spite of some well-executed absurdist sequences created for the film) unlike in the novella, where the reader follows the workings of Golyadkin’s mind from inside his mind as well as gets a good measure of how the others see him (if at all they do).
Take, for instance, this passage from the novella in which Golyadkin, who has come to visit his doctor, is trying to explain what he stands for:
‘ “Krestyan Ivanovitch,” he began, going on again in the same tone as before, somewhat irritated and puzzled by the doctor’s extreme obstinacy: “I like tranquility and not the noisy gaiety of the world. Among them, I mean, in the noisy world, Krestyan Ivanovitch, one must be able to polish the floor with one’s boots…” (here Mr. Golyadkin made a slight scrape on the floor with his toe); “they expect it, and they expect puns too…one must know how to make a perfumed compliment…that’s what they expect there. And I’ve not learnt to do it, Krestyan Ivanovitch, I’ve never learnt all those tricks, I’ve never had the time. I’m a simple person, and not ingenious, and I’ve no external polish. On that side I surrender, Krestyan Ivanovitch, I lay down my arms, speaking in that sense.”
All this Mr. Golyadkin pronounced with an air which made it perfectly clear that our hero was far from regretting that he was laying down his arms in that sense and that he had not learnt these tricks; quite the contrary, indeed. As Krestyan Ivanovitch listened to him, he looked down with a very unpleasant grimace in his face, seeming to have a presentiment of something. Mr. Golyadkin’s tirade was followed by a rather long and significant silence.
[…] Krestyan Ivanovitch said at last, in a low voice: “I confess I cannot altogether understand you.” ’
As is evident from this conversation, the doctor eventually succumbs to thinking that his patient’s psychic condition is now getting worse very fast. At the same time, although insisting that the appearance of the younger Golyadkin is the result of a ‘peculiar psychic situation’, Dostoevsky never lets one have the feeling that it is all only about that: ‘[…] the strange event might well be explained on the plane of reality.’Chizhevsky also points out that ‘Dostoevsky’s “realistically psychological” analysis (of the personality) is at the same time “transcendentally psychological,” “existential,” and that all events and the whole pattern of his theme are always an ideological construct as well. This duality, where the plot develops on two planes of meaning, is particularly important […].’
The film lacks precisely this duality or multiple shades, or at least the coming through of it in the mind of the spectator who is definitely entertained and amused but thinking on just one plane even during the most abstract scenes or the abstract ending.Right from the start of the film, the hero is part of a dystopian setting and the other people have strange manners, their coldness often unrealistic, which even though intended to drive home an idea in the film, is in stark contrast to Golyadkin’s world where the other people are self-assured and deceitful, rakish and given to chicanery, which in fact is not far removed from modern reality. Dostoevsky does not create a strange world around his hero, but does take the reader through the strange workings of his mind. Some people cannot accept the ways of the world, cannot stoop so low as many others or utter charming words like them.It is a story of one such person, a victim of the modern society.
It seems as though Ayoade in his film expresses concern about such victims who do not have their ‘own place’ in social spaces, he has understood the society well, but has shunned, for some reason, understanding more deeply the victim himself who he is concerned about.
It would certainly have been a better film had Ayoade and his team given the subject matter a more layered treatment, with the occasional voice-over monologues maybe. The work is pretty good-looking though. Ayoade is sure of his faculties with whatever he has chosen to do out of the central idea. However, interpreting such a major work in such a way narrows down the scope too much in my opinion, and I don’t know whether to condemn or praise the filmmaker that he seems to do it deliberately.
About the Author
Presently part of a Kolkata-based Film Research and Appreciation Group named ‘Drishya’.
Independent short-film maker and a keen student of films, having ambitions in film-making.
Also working with Drishya’s founder member (SudebSinha) to complete two separate documentaries on legendary Indian playwrights BadalSircar and GirishKarnad (post-production phase).