As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect…“What’s happened to me?” he thought. It was no dream.

– Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)

The concept of “the other self”, or the doppelgänger, has fascinated art, literature, and mythology for centuries. Conceptually, it can be rooted into a schizophrenic manifestation of self-idealisation; that is, the ‘improved’ version of oneself. One’s better half, as it were, can be more confident, more accomplished, and more self-assured. In contrast, while desired attributes are realised, it is often the case that one’s fundamental morality and sense of self is inverted in the double; the doppelgänger is often amoral if not outrightly wicked, and usually possess some desire to essentially erase the original, or even subsume the original entirely. Variations on the evil twin trace back to the mediaeval epic Beowulf, who faces a host of monsters which figuratively reflect and distort Beowulf’s own personal attributes. Moreover, the Romantic poets Shelley and Byron made use of doppelgänger imagery to conceptualise the internal struggles of the self, while Poe’s own grotesque short story “William Wilson” tells the tale of a man plagued throughout his life by a sinister shadow of himself. Indeed, the projection of one’s hidden and often malevolent qualities onto another being are endless throughout literature – the perpetual Jekyll/Hyde conundrum – and is a theme revisited often.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s curious novella “The Double” paints the picture of a meek and lifeless civil servant named Golyadkin who is confronted with his titular dvoynik: a brazen and extroverted individual who initially becomes his friend, but who eventually instigates a complete detachment from reality for Golyadkin and triggers a psychotic break. Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of The Double  evokes the sense of paranoia and distended reality in Dostoyevsky’s original work, even lending to it a certain sense of tragicomedy that was absent in the original. Denis Villeneuve similarly tackles the presence of the doppelgänger in the modern world in Enemy, a direct reference to the malignant intentions of the second self. In tackling similar subject matter, both films reveal both the internal war of the split self, as well as identity vis–à–vis the modern world.

It has become something of a hackneyed affair to refer to something as “Kafka-esque”, and yet both The Double and Enemy retain something of this quality, the latter even moreso. While Ayoade paints his doppelgänger tale with a wry dystopian brush (think a Fritz Lang feature directed by Terry Gilliam), Villeneuve retreats into the realm of the nightmarish and grotesque (a Cronenberg-Kubrick delight). The alter-Toronto landscape appears sparse yet suffocating, the tinted smog of the city seems both oppressive and otherwordly. The streetcar wires and cracks in glass windows stretch across the skyline like spiderwebs, giving the impression that the modern world itself is prey caught in the larger net of some ominous strain threading throughout the modern world. And indeed, these two adaptations frame the dilemma of the other self squarely in a version of the modern world, with all its sense of dissatisfaction and anomie. In Enemy, the main character Adam is a history professor, and quite saliently points out the impacts of dictatorships and totalitarianism throughout history (even citing Marx’s poignant statement on history repeating itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”), the very factors which almost certainly inspired Dostoyevsky’s The Double. Indeed, the original novella can be seen as a blackly comedic take on the effects of an individual living within – and being eventually driven to the point of madness by – an oppressively bureaucratic system of mindless machinations and soul-crushing tedium. Simon, in Ayoade’s adaptation, is just as unremarkable and meek as any cog in the wheel of humdrum office life; similarly, Villeneuve’s Adam seems to simply drift through people, leaving to tangible trace of an identity. The appearance of their respective doppelgängers thus represent a reaction to their stillwater existence – a form of wish fulfillment, escapism, and, as both films progress in decidedly darker turns, indicative of the splintered psyche in the modern world.

Rather than physically different people, doppelgängers throughout art and literature have always represented a different facet of the individual’s identity, whether for better or for worse. The finales in both The Double and Enemy are as Jekyll/Hyde as they come, asking whether, if it is indeed the case that the doppelgänger is an extension of the self, how does one get rid of it? The solutions range from darkly funny (Ayoade) to absurdly horrific (Villeneuve), and although the concept of an usurped identity in an indifferent world will see many reincarnations yet, these two films are fine additions to the doppelgänger oeuvre.