I’m Batman: Dual Identities in Literature and Film

I’ve been thinking about the concept of dual (or secret) identities and how it’s handled in books and film. This came to me because I was reading a Star Wars review thread and someone came up with an interesting concept: in the prequels, Darth Vader would be both a person and a title. Anakin defeats Darth Vader, and we never see when he assumes the mantle, just that he goes evil. That way when Darth Vader shows up in the original trilogy, you have no idea why he’s back until the big reveal in Empire. Interesting concept, sort of a Dread Pirate Roberts scenario.

But again, it got me thinking about dual identities. There are a lot of examples, arguably beginning with the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, right up through just about every superhero and their alter egos and Tyler Durden in Fight Club. It’s not that I’m particularly considering adding this to a story that I’m writing, but the concept has always fascinated me on some deep level. Secret origins were always my favorite part of super heroes and villains, and a well-done secret identity that is hidden even from the character him or herself is just icing on the cake (see Durden again).

Handling this takes a great deal of care, though, lest you render your story unbelievable. One of the best examples that I’ve read is the Prestige, which I’ve mentioned here before. Now, fair warning: if you don’t want spoilers, now is the time to skip over what comes afterwards – I’ll try to keep it to one paragraph.

So, as it turns out, the character whom Christian Bale portrayed in the movie, were always twin brothers. It’s fairly clear in the movie that this is what’s going on, so we’re not discussing the movie. It totally blindsided me in the book. Upon re-read, I realized that the hints and clues were there all along, like a clever mystery novel: the waxing and waning of his affections for one woman or another; slight changes in diction and grammar; different attitudes toward his rival. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Once you’ve gone through it one time, you can see these clues. Of course, the concept of his identity is to maintain an illusion for the purposes of a magic act. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t some sort of unconscious inspiration for the story of my Rule of Three story.

But what amazes me is how skilled Christopher Priest is in weaving this thread through the tale. I wonder how much planning and how many passes it took to get that right. And I’ll admit, Tyler Durden was a shock to me, as well. Granted, I watched the movie first, so the book wasn’t shocking. The movie, though? I couldn’t believe I hadn’t picked up on it. Upon rewatching, I realized that there were so many clues and visual cues that betray the narrator’s true nature: as in The Prestige, a woman’s reaction to the character provides a big clue. There are changes in speech patterns and attitudes. Of course, Tyler Durden is overtly presented as a separate character, rather than the way it’s handled in the Prestige, but I think the spirit of the thing is the same.

I don’t know if one approach is trickier than the other. They both present their own problems from a writing standpoint.

So, really, overall, what is my point? I’m not sure I have one. I just wanted to look at a few examples of these, examine the tradition, and see if anyone else had favorites they’d want to add to the list. It’s one of my favorite tropes, but it’s also one that can be handled so badly, just as my concept for weaving two stories can be done so badly.

Maybe that’s ultimately what drew me to this topic: seeing that I’m not quite experienced enough to pull something like that off. It’s humbling, but it helps me to have some perspective when looking at the work of other writers. I don’t know if it’s a question of talent or a learned skill, built upon a refined process that allows you to weave these narratives. Or maybe it’s just not my thing. Maybe I am ultimately a character-driven writer and such plot-driven devices just aren’t my cup of tea, as much as I love them. Perhaps I need a straightforward narrative from an identifiable character.

I don’t know. What do you think? Is this overused? Do you ever feel cheated, or delighted when the box is opened and the contents revealed? I’d also love to hear any other good examples of this.

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5 Comments

  1. Fun post. I didn’t realize The Prestige was a book.

    As to your question, I don’t feel cheated as long as there were subtle clues that I should’ve picked up on. I’ve always heard that you want your reader to feel surprised, not tricked. I tell my students that it’s a good writer who will plant clues in the book that you will either suddenly remember when you get to that big ending, or that you will pick up on the next time you read it.

    Even Mark Twain did this (although not with secret identities… well, kind of). In Huck Finn, when Tom shows up probably 3/4 through the book and Huck tells him he is going to help Jim escape, Tom says something along the lines of “But Jim is–” He stops (obviously taken by the idea of adventure of freeing Jim) and Huck assumes he was about to say Jim is a slave, or black, or something. But what he was really about to say is that Jim has already been legally freed, something we don’t find out until the end.

    And I’m sure you have the ability to pull this off. It’s like you said with Christopher Priest. You just have to spend more passes making it work.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  2. Oh yes, it’s a book, and a great one at that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, while the movie had some serious flaws, I enjoyed it – but the book blows it out of the water. I wish Priest wrote more but that seems to have been his masterpiece.

    Wow, I had forgotten Twain did that. Good example.

    Thanks! Well I *think* Corridors of the Dead does it fairly well, upon re-reading it. There’s a big issue that’s hinted at throughout the book, and finally comes out to hit the protagonist – and the reader- upon the head. Like you said, just a matter of making sure that it’s not a cheat and things are fairly internally consistent.

    BTW, going to be checking out your site today. Missed the last few posts – crazy few weeks. Hope they’ve gone well for you.

    • I’ll have to pick up the book. Can’t remember much about the movie. And I think mixing it with the other movie about magic that came out around the same time. So the book should be pretty fresh.

      And I can completely understand crazy few weeks. I’m always amazed at how much writing you put out. Still looking forward to our interview. I have my second author interview coming up on the 21st, and only posting once a week, it’ll probably be mid-November for yours. Let’s connect via email so I can send you the questions. pdail73@gmail.com.

      Paul D. Dail
      http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  3. Well, there’s always the big shock reveal in My Sweet Audrina. Heh!

    I enjoyed the identity twist in the book “Angel Heart”. I surely wish they hadn’t made that into a crappy, overwraught movie starring Mickey Rourke, but luckily for me, I read the book first.

  4. Damn it, the comment above was mine. Why isn’t this keeping me signed in? GRRR

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