Double Take: Dostoevsky’s influence on the world of film

Richard Ayoade follows the success of his debut film Submarine with The Double. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon, a timid soul who’s as invisible in his office job as he is to his attractive neighbour and co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), and even to his mother, now located in a care home. The sudden arrival of new colleague James changes everything: despite being Simon’s exact physical double, James’s entire personality is the exact polar opposite.

The Double is based upon the 19th century novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky in which Golyadkin suffers a similar situation to that of Simon. Perhaps its enduring quality is its sense of mystery. Is Golyadkin going insane? Is he crushed by society’s all-pervading influence over his very existence? Or is his doppelganger simply a projection of his deepest, unobtainable desires?

“The premise of it was so interesting: that someone so invisible that if their exact replica appears no-one even notices seemed funny to me,” said Ayoade at a Q&A at last year’s London Film Festival. “And also, when that person points it out to other people, everyone goes, ‘yeah, I suppose, maybe’. That’s as remarkable as they find it and I found that very interesting. I felt like I hadn’t really read anything like that.”

Born in Moscow in 1821, Fyodor Dostoevsky is regarded as one of the greatest figures in literature, notably for his ability to convey philosophical issues in novels which often addressed characters in the midst of psychological trauma. His own life encompassed similar struggles: debt, gambling addiction, and even a close reprieve from a death sentence by firing squad due to his involvement with the progressive / Utopian / intellectual collective The Petrashevsky Circle. His new fate was to be sent to a katorga camp in Siberia where he’d undergo four years of hard labour and where his epilepsy worsened.

Dostoevsky’s The Double has also proven to be an influence on other films, notably Brad Anderson’s The Machinist which is best remembered for Christian Bale’s commitment to recasting his physicality to that of the emaciated, insomniac lead character Trevor Reznik. The film’s writer, Scott Kosar, commented: “Dostoevsky’s The Double was another powerful influence, with its story about a man who is psychologically unhinged by encountering his double. These works were the thematic ancestors of the story I wanted to create, rife with obsessions, unpredictability and doubt.”

Other Dostoevsky works have been adapted or reimagined for film with mixed results: on one hand there’s Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise which was inspired by The Possessed, but on the other there’s Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner’s critically panned rom-com Alex & Emma which was loosely based on The Gambler. Yet it’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov attempts to find a moral justification for the murder of Alyona Ivanovna, which has consistently drawn the attention of filmmakers from all over the world for over a century.

It’s a cliché of contemporary cinema that American cinemas throw huge amounts of money at adaptations of foreign source material while ignoring the essence of what made the original notable. The possibly apocryphal story behind the 1935 production by Columbia Pictures demonstrates that this new trend is almost as old as cinema itself. Boosted by the acclaim he received for his role in Fritz Lang’s M, Peter Lorre wanted his next role to be as Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov. Convinced that Columbia would turn it down, he hired a writer to rework the synopsis in words of one syllable – a move which convinced the company’s head Harry Cohn to approve the project, even if it seems that he didn’t recognise its inspiration. The result wasn’t a movie that director Josef von Sternberg was proud of. He quipped that it was “no more related to the true text of the novel than the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower is related to the Russian environment.”

Despite its obvious influence on Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Woody Allen’s Match Point to updated interpretations such as Aki Kaurismäki’s debut and the more faithful 2002 BBC adaptation, Crime and Punishment indirectly informs numerous other films, good, bad and indifferent. Raskolnikov and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle share a broadly similar experience, loners informed by grand ideas but ultimately cast away from society. The difference is that Raskolnikov’s fate is a prison camp, but is Bickle’s fate – a celebrity of sorts but still disconnected from humanity – any worse?

Elsewhere, Raskolnikov’s conscience is pursued by the vividity of his dreams, an idea which worked almost too well when transferred to other cinematic works. Now, it seems, it’s a concept so obvious that it can only be employed in parodies. Similarly, one of the earliest descriptions of Raskolnikov – “exceptionally handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair” – is effectively the prototype on which every Hollywood leading man pitched to an audience of teenagers is built upon; even more so if you add a smidgen of Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff to the mix. Raskolnikov’s friend Sonia is similarly influential, building the story of Mary Magdalene into the “hooker with a heart” character which has been twisted into everything from grimy urban dramas (London To Brighton) to fantastical flights such as Pretty Woman.

The paucity of new ideas and the strength of Dostoevsky’s means that his influence on film which remain undiminished into the future. In fact, a remake of the 1974 film The Gambler, itself based on the novel, is due to be released next year with Mark Wahlberg in the title role.

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