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The Dreaded Doppelgangers (or "Why I Reject Scripts About Twins Twice As Fast")

By Christina Hamlett

When I was in high school, there were three sets of twins – two fraternal and one identical. The latter - a pair of sisters a year ahead of me – were a particular object of fascination. What would it be like, I mused, to have a lookalike sib who excelled in the very subjects that weren’t my strong suit? Would our parents be so attuned to our personalities that we couldn’t occasionally trade places? Would we ever ignore a chance to play tricks on friends or make shopkeepers think they were experiencing déjà vu? I remember peppering these girls with questions about telepathic communication or if one of them stubbed a toe in gym class would the other feel it. Though neither one ever expressed it, my insatiable curiosity must have been pretty annoying.

As it turned out, Fate provided a payback a few decades later when I became a professional script consultant. In any given month, I can count on at least a dozen screenplays that use zygosity as a plot device, the authors seemingly aware that almost every formula involving twins has appeared – and reappeared – in movies, plays, books and pop culture since the days of Romulus and Remus. It’s further amazing how many writers specify that sibling characters are twins despite the fact this never enters into the storyline. (As one client explained, “I just thought it would look cool.”) Add to this the cliché that at least a third of all pregnant females in sitcoms and soaps see double in their ultrasounds. Apparently if one baby is cute, twin babies are guaranteed to fly off the adorability charts.

If you’re contemplating a film plot using doubles as a device to deceive audiences, be forewarned of rejection: at the end of the day, the volume of twin tales that have already been told translates to very few fresh spins left.

TWIN TRIVIA, HISTORY & DISTINGUISHING TRAITS

Most of the authors that pen scripts about twins are neither twins themselves nor do twins run in their families. While that can also be said for those who write about drug lords, fashionistas and secret agents, a certain amount of research needs to be invested in themes that are out of one’s sphere of knowledge. 

Did you know, for example:

  • Identical twins have the same DNA but don’t have identical fingerprints.
  • Since 1980, twin births have steadily increased. Fertility drugs are a contributing factor.
  • Identical twins typically outlive fraternal twins.
  • Cirque Du Soleil is the largest employer of twins. 
  • Twins are frequently preemies.
  • West Africa produces 4 times more twins than anywhere else in the world. No one knows why.

Twins have been with us throughout the ages – some as rivals, some as like-minded peers.

  • Melanesian myths attribute stupid acts of nature to To Karvuvu and all the smart stuff to his brother To Kabinana.
  • Cleopatra and Marc Anthony had twin offspring.
  • Castor and Pollux – the Gemini boys – merited their own zodiac sign.
  • Rome might have been called Reme if the latter hadn’t been killed by his greedy twin. Such are the risks of being raised by wolves.
  • Biblical lore yields the story of Esau and Jacob.
  • St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica found their mutual calling in the church.
  • Conjoined Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker fathered 22 children during the 19th century. Because their spouses constantly fought, the brothers split their time between two separate houses.
  • Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren became synonymous with advice to the lovelorn.
  • To accommodate California’s child labor laws, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen both played Michelle in Full House.

So how do you tell twins apart? Whether it’s classroom capers, hospital mix-ups or mistaken identities, film and TV writers commonly resort to these gender-specific clues:

  • Evil male twins usually have facial hair in the form of a moustache, goatee or beard. In contemporary settings, evil twins dress like thugs or bankers. Good male twins often wear glasses and aren’t fashion-conscious. 
  • Evil female twins wear shorter skirts, higher heels, more makeup (often including a beauty mark), and speak in lower, sultry registers. Good female twins are the drab ducklings that have yet to embrace their inner swan.

DESIGNER GENES & SPLIT-SCREEN MAGIC

One of the most commonly spun myths about the personalities of twins is that they’re polar opposites. Sometime during the embryonic stage, it seems, the traits that will define them as human beings are divvied up like playing cards. Rather than an equitable distribution of virtue and sin, however, one twin always gets the goodness while his/her sib inherits all the trappings of wickedness. This not only colors their personal relationships but influences their career choices; good twins abide by the rules, bad twins derive pleasure from breaking them.

Having them operate in separate orbits, however, defeats the whole mystique of them being twins to begin with. Sooner or later, audiences will want to see the paths of these lookalikes collide on the same screen. For TV viewers, technology made this possible in 1963 with the debut of The Patty Duke Show in which Duke played the dual roles of Patty Lane and her identical cousin, Cathy. (Their resemblance was explained as being the respective offspring of twin brothers.) By putting a doorway or window in the middle of a frame to align the shot, the young actress could occupy both sides of the set simultaneously. The concept of being able to carry on conversations with an alter ego – usually a mischievous one – was a recurring storyline in other sitcoms of that decade such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, often putting the male leads to the test of trying to tell their sweethearts apart from the vixenesque kin. Thirty years later, Sabrina the Teenage Witch grappled with exactly the same double-trouble.

The Plus: Taking a page from Dr. Jekyll’s theories about separating man’s evil nature from that which is pure, it’s easier to keep track of which side of the brain is doing what when they’re not occupying the same body.

The Minus: Predictability runs rampant when the twins’ respective hearts are ruled by the blackest black and the whitest white. No matter what scenario they’re placed in, it’s too easy to guess how they’re going to perform. 

A Twin Twist: Do bad twins have more fun? What if a Goody Two Shoes decides to find out by shedding her niceness and participating in wicked shenanigans? The role reversal challenge is then on the evil sib to rein her back in before things get ugly.

SEPARATED AT BIRTH

In The Parent Trap (1961), Hayley Mills played Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, a pair of plucky blonde twins who get packed off to the same summer camp and – upon discovering they’re sisters - join forces to get their estranged parents back together. The 1998 remake starring Lindsay Lohan used the contrivance of a mum in London sending her daughter to the same camp in Maine as the one chosen by her divorced husband in California.

A similar theme of giving Cupid a nudge was explored in the 1994-1999 television sitcom, Sister, Sister in which twins Tia and Tamera Mowry run into each other at a shopping mall and become inseparable buds. Although their adoptive single parents – Tamera’s dad and Tia’s mom – don’t get along, the long-lost sisters convince them they should all share the same roof. Can romance be far behind?

The Plus: While kidlets playing matchmaker for clueless adults usually make the latter groan, plots about empowerment are always popular with children and teenagers, especially if good use is made of the twins’ ability to bamboozle characters that are just icky. 

The Minus: What are the odds of divorced parents on opposite sides of the Atlantic sending their daughters thousands of miles away instead of scoping out camps closer to home? A premise relying on implausible coincidence has too many holes to keep it afloat.

A Twin Twist: Why is it that estranged twins always endeavor to reunite the family? Just once I’d love to get a script where one or both decide that being an only kid has more perks and expend their energy trying to keep the status quo.

TRADING PLACES

One of the most enduring switcharoos in literary history is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Set against the backdrop of 16th century England, a peasant lad and the son of Henry VIII discover that their looks are similar enough for them to pass as twins. On a lark, they trade outfits to see how the other half lives. The charade backfires when the king dies, thrusting the bewildered peasant onto the throne and subjecting the true heir to panic and ridicule when he’s unable to prove he’s a victim of identity theft.

Lookalikes figure prominently in films about monarchs, dictators and presidents. While the two in Alexander Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask were actually twin brothers, other stories embrace the notion that everyone has a double somewhere whose appearance could prove useful to the unscrupulous. In The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin portrays a clueless Jewish barber with an uncanny resemblance to the despotic Adenoid Hynkel. The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) calls upon the identical cousin of a soon-to-be king to step in when the latter gets kidnapped prior to coronation. Moon Over Parador (1988) invites an unemployed actor to assume the role of a dictator in a South American regime. In Dave (1993), this same set-up moves to Washington DC where the owner of a temp agency is recruited to impersonate the comatose prez.

The leaps of faith we accept that a person could so perfectly imitate someone he has never spent time with conjure a problem that’s a predictable staple of this variation of the twins theme: there’s always a dark little secret. When the dowdy Edith kills her rich sister Maggie in Dead Ringer (1964) and assumes her identity, we have the makings of a perfect crime. Perfect, that is, until Maggie’s sleazy lover appears.

The Plus: Who among us hasn’t wished for a double that’s leading a more glamorous life? Whether comedy or drama, it speaks to the timeless warning, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The Minus: There’s always someone in the inner circle that can spot the phony. This is usually the real McCoy’s spouse, lover, loyal servant or beloved pet that ends up playing along with the charade because, frankly, the fake is more likable.

A Twin Twist: When two people from diverse circumstances trade places, it’s always posed as a temporary arrangement to alleviate the boredom of the one who has the “better” life. Under what circumstances could a proposal come from the “lesser” side that a double would find too juicy to refuse?

IMITATION OF LIFE

In 1991, Ira Levin published The Boys From Brazil, a thriller suggesting that the notorious Dr. Mengele saved some of Hitler’s DNA in order to reproduce legions of future Führers. Five years later, the possibilities of replicating life in a Petri dish took on alarming controversy with the “birth” of Dolly the sheep, the first clone produced with a cell taken from an adult mammal. Such developments fueled an already existing tableau of science fiction and psychological horror plots in TV series such as The Outer Limits and inspired films such as Godsend (2004) in which a shady physician proposes to assuage the grief of a young couple by using some of their dead child’s genes to create a replacement. Human xeroxing has also made appearance in lighter fare such as Multiplicity (1996) in which a stressed-out Michael Keaton decides there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Complications ensue when his duplicate self can’t get anything done, either.

What each of these scenarios has in common is the premise that a copycat entity has either exactly the same memories as the original or, in the case of The Boys From Brazil, needs to have specific events from the original’s formative years recreated for such memories to evolve.

The Plus: Genetic tweaks are no longer the stuff of fiction. Not a day goes by that the media isn’t delivering stories about stem cell research, cloned pets and miraculous transplants (including faces). 

The Minus: Cinematic tinkering with twinship through genetic cloning is never in the hands of honest people working toward the good of mankind. With comedies, the person being multiplied is often someone we wouldn’t want more than one of.

A Twin Twist: Imagine a future where cloning guarantees every birth is a multiple. Into this quirky realm is suddenly born a protagonist who has no double and is, therefore, doomed to be a freaky oddball.

PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK

If you’re still intent on writing twins into a cast list, there’s no shortage of resource material including websites such as www.twinstuff.com, www.twinsmagazine.com, www.twinsworld.com and www.twinslist.org. You can even scroll the plots menu at Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) and research how many variations on twin themes have been produced.

Ultimately, though, it gets down to the reality that matching looks alone can’t fill the void of a weak plot. The test of this resides in the following question:

Would there be enough substance to carry the action if your twins were replaced by (1) siblings who weren’t identical or (2) a pair of friends who can fool people simply by swapping clothes?

Given the combination of familiarity and expectation we’ve come to ascribe to twin-sets, you may find yourself working twice as hard to pen a storyline that’s still singularly flat.

Meet the Author: Christina Hamlett

Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning writer, instructor and script consultant whose credits to date include 26 books, 133 plays, 5 optioned feature films, and hundreds of articles that appear in trade publications throughout the world. She is also a ghostwriter for The Penn Group in Manhattan.