The Literary Influences Behind Jordan Peele's "Us"
SPOILERS ABOUND BELOW
Whether you're a fan or not, there's not denying that Jordan Peele's Us is a wildly successful cultural phenomenon, one loaded with references to other media and commentary about duality—especially as it relates to personal identity and America's class divide. You've likely already seen the list of ten films that influenced Peele's latest horror outing, starring Lupita Nyong'o as a woman terrorized by a group of people who look exactly like her and her family (if you haven't, here's the full list here). Among the pictures cited by Peele, three have literary counterparts; and within those three texts, there is further narrative, character, and thematic aspects not seen in the film adaptations that re-contextualize elements of Us.
Moreover, beyond the film adaptations specifically mentioned by Peele, there are several literary sources that have a clear and significant bearing on the making of his film. Let's dive in and discuss all these literary influences in full, so that we might have an even fuller understanding of this textually-rich film.
""William Wilson"" by Edgar Allan Poe
Hollywood Reporter writer Richard Newby noted the connection between Peele's film and Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story, writing:
The first doppelgänger story that comes to mind after viewing the Us trailer several times isn’t a movie, but Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” in which a man’s antagonistic relationship with his double that began during his childhood results in madness and eventual death by suicide. It’s worth noting that the surname of the family at the center of Us is Wilson, which is undoubtedly a reference to Poe.
The connections do not end there, however. Wilson's double speaks in a whisper, while Adelaide's double, Red, speaks with a hoarse, halting voice (reportedly inspired by Robert F. Kennedy and his condition spasmodic dysphonia, which causes involuntary spasms of the larynx, and may derive from intense stress.) Also, Wilson's double is meant to represent the character's conscious, who attempts, in vain, to thwart Wilson's evil deeds. This plays into Us's representation of the Jungian "shadow self" via the duality of Adelaide and Red, the "good" side we allow society to see, and the "bad" side we keep hidden.
"The Shining" by Stephen King
Peele makes a direct homage to Kubrick's film adaptation of Stephen King's novel by showing an aerial shot of the family in their car, traveling to their summer vacation spot. This gives viewers a visual cue to consider the thematics of both Us and The Shining, the concept of a family disintegrating due to the mental breakdown of its matriarch and patriarch, respectively.
And yet, King's book, more so than Kubrick's movie, informs Peele's story, because this aforementioned breakdown emerges not so much from isolation from society, but rather from the protagonist's past and their psychological hangups. In The Shining, Jack Torrance goes mad because he never really confronts his emotions and tackles the why? of his drinking problem; instead, he bottles up his emotions and keeps his interior world secret from his wife and son, which makes him easy prey to the sinister forces at the Overlook Hotel.
Similarly, Adelaide has a deep, dark secret she keeps from her family, information about her that fundamentally changes the way her family and friends alike see and understand her. However conscious she is of her own identity is up for debate, but her bloody battle to preserve her stature and protect her family ultimately serves to maintain this secret.
""The Birds"" by Daphne du Maurier
The influence of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds is obvious, especially considering our first glimpse of the doppelgänger family, standing silently outside the Wilson's summer home — a mirror for the titular, antagonistic avians lying in wait outside the Brenner's home; not to mention both plots concern underprivileged denizens of the planet rising up to take what they believe to be rightfully theirs, as well as the beachside settings seen in each film (Bodega Bay and Santa Cruz, California, respectively).
But while Hitchcock's adaptation includes a love story element, possibly as a means of subconsciously venting his own sexual tensions and obsessions with blonde women, Daphne Du Maurier's original 1952 short story of the same name, upon which Hitchcock's film is based, focuses instead an individual, Nat Hocken, and the personal effects the bird invasion has on him and his family, with an ending far more bleak than anything Hitchcock painted on the screen. Du Maurier's short story, then, with its themes of humanity's irredeemability, seem a more fitting correlative to Peele's Us than Hitchcock's film.
"Let The Right One In" by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Tomas Alfredson's 2008 film deconstructs the very nature of good and evil, arguing that wrongful actions can, in fact, be good deeds under the right context. We see the vampire Eli as a sympathetic character, despite her apparent monstrousness as a creature of the night; conversely, many of the humans in the narrative display behavior we typically expect from monsters. This concept ties directly with Us and Peele's blurring of good guys and bad guys, suggesting there isn't much difference between the "original" human and their "evil" doppelgängers, that they are merely two sides of the same coin.
And yet, as close an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel the film is (the author wrote the screenplay), there are several aspects left by the wayside, one of which relates to Us's themes of identity. While only suggested on the surface in Alfredson's film, in the book, Eli was born a boy, but was castrated by a sadistic vampire several decades prior, and now lives as a girl. In essence, Eli's identity was thrust upon her, in the same way that Red was forced to live below the surface by Adelaide. In this way, it is not so much what these characters are—a vampire or one of the Tethered, respectively—but rather their experiences at the brutal hands of others that cause their monstrous acts.
Early in the film, we see a man holding a cardboard sign with a simple inscription written in black marker—Jeremiah 11:11. This is of course a passage from the book of Jeremiah in The Bible. The passage reads:
Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.
As Esquire writer Matt Miller notes, Peele insists every element of Us has a double meaning, given that the film is all about duality, and this Bible quote is no exception. On the one hand, the passage refers to the Tethered rising up and reigning terror on their doubles on the surface; on the other, it represents the very subjugation of the Tethered, the terror that has been reigned upon them their entire existence. Moreover, as Miller writes,
Jeremiah often prophesied certain doom for the worship of false idols. This sounds quite a bit like how Adelaide's doppelgänger, Red, believes she's being tested by God to lead the Tethered from doom. Jeremiah's narrative in the Bible also coincides with the exile of the Jews in Babylon—which sounds similar to the exile of the Tethered below ground.
Did you catch any other book references in Us? Specifically, did you see what book Adelaide is reading on the couch near the beginning of the film? Or any of the books on the shelf at the Wilson's summer home? (I've seen the movie twice, and couldn't discern either). Broadly speaking, what do you think about the literary influences discussed above? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
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