“Something at the Bottom of Every New Human Thought”: A Spoiler-Free Look at It Follows and…
Currently riding a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, It Follows is the latest rare horror flick to break out among America’s casual filmgoers. It’s a thrilling movie, and should appeal both to people who watch one horror movie a year and those of us who’ve seen Jason X more than once. And as you’ve probably guessed from the link that got you here, there are a few things in It Follows for fans of great literature.
In It Follows, an American teenager and her friends are tormented by a deadly and unpredictable curse. I won’t reveal the curse, or give away any of the film’s nightmarish sequences. But a popular 20th century poem soundtracks an intense early scene, and a lesser-read and equally fascinating work pops up regularly throughout the movie. One of the film’s main characters (you can tell she’s the smart one, because she’s the only one wearing glasses) is constantly seen reading from a seashell-shaped e-reader, periodically interjecting her scenes with quotes from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot.
Why Dostoyevsky, and why not one of his more popular books, like Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karmazov? Why The Idiot, a book that’s only read by scholars and people who want to find out why Iggy Pop named his first solo album after it? To hear Ilja Wachs, a literature professor at Sarah Lawrence College (and full disclosure, one of my favorite people) tell it, The Idiot could be considered at least as traumatizing as any horror film.
“My father said ‘Don’t read it, because you’re going through adolescence and it will upset you,’” recalls Wachs. “I broke into his book case and read it anyway.” Over three nights, reading with a flashlight under the covers, Wachs finished the book.
Wachs’s passion for the book is probably not one that Dostoyevsky would share. “Dostoyevsky thought it was a failure,” says Wachs, “and one of the reasons he felt that way is that his hero is a Christ-like figure, without any capacity for anger and judgment, and there’s something unreal about such a being.”
Failure or not, unrealistic or not, The Idiot’s fingerprints can be found in film, literature, theatre and music, from a Kurosawa adaptation to a Harlan Ellison short story to a joke in The Producers. There have been least a dozen English translations. The protagonist, Prince Myshkin, is an epileptic 26-year-old descended from a noble family. His kindness, empathy and trusting nature earns him the “idiot” title from his peers, including gorgeous femme fatale Natasya, her obsessive, hothead suitor Rogozhin, the aristocratic General Epanchin and his sheltered daughter Aglaya. Of course, the story is doused with Dostoyevsky’s bleak elucidations on humanity, and as one with even a passing sense of Dostoyevsky might guess, there are several unhappy plot twists.
The latter element puts The Idiot in line with It Follows, which has more horrific moments than most horror franchises. Yet even for a fan of both the novel and the film, it’s hard to discern why writer/director David Robert Mitchell chose Dostoyevsky’s novel to be quoted throughout his film. It Follows’s horrors are supernatural, whereas The Idiot’s are man-made. Critics often simplify The Idiot’s characters as inverses of each other (i.e. levelheaded Myshkin vs. unstable Rogozhin, conniving Natasya vs. naive Aglaya), but it seems a stretch to apply those characteristics to It Follows’s teens, who owe more to your standard horror movie teens (particularly the classic ’70s and ’80s slasher era) than anything in Russian lit. The protagonist is likable, but far from Christ-like. If anything, The Idiot enhances It Follows more than it represents it, augmenting the film’s foreboding atmosphere with quotes from a writer who could create anxiety and suspense as artfully as any of the Russian greats.
So is The Idiot a crucial plot point to It Follows? Probably not, and its use in the film might even be superfluous. But just as with watching Lisa Simpson cite Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s a treat for those of us who’ve read the book, and more incentive for the rest of us to check it out. And as for interpreting connections between The Idiot and It Follows, maybe we should take Dostoyevsky’s own advice from the former, via Prince Myshkin himself — “To achieve perfection, one must first begin by not understanding many things! And if we understand too quickly, we may not understand well.”*
*Translation: Pevear and Volokhonsky