In the Ray Nelson story Eight O’Clock in the Morning (which was the basis for John Carpenter’s They Live), George Nada is suddenly awakened by a hypnotist to see the world as it really is. This is, oddly enough, also the plot of Mike Judge’s Office Space, but I’m not sure that was an intentional parallel.
George Nada awoke to discover the world had been conquered (or perhaps always ruled) by bizarre alien reptile people who controlled our minds with subliminal messages that pervaded the media.
This is something that people in the real world believe in some circles as well. Jon Ronson covers this in part of his book Them, in which he looks at life through the eyes of extremists. A lot of people believe the Annunaki rule the Earth through secret societies like the Bilderberg Group.
In Eight O’Clock in the Morning George Nada woke to a world where man had no free will. This was true even down to the moment of his death, a fact Nada discovered when he received a phone call from one of his alien masters instructing him to have a fatal heart attack at 8:00 the following morning.
In Office Space, Peter Gibbons was placed in a care-free state by a hypnotist who himself died of a heart attack before he could snap Peter out of it. As a consequence Peter was awakened to a world where free will dominated, where all the limitations that had been placed upon him were discovered to be illusions self-imposed by his fear and insecurity. Eventually he had to reconcile this care-free attitude with a need to identify those things in his life he really cared about, and this is what developed into his cathartic arc in the film. Peter Gibbons was shown a world where we are our own masters and was forced to act on that information.
The world George Nada was shown would seem to be the opposite of Peter Gibbons’. Man has no free will and he is controlled by hostile forces. But is that what he learns? Or, like Peter Gibbons, is he robbed of his free will until the awakening makes him aware that this is the case? As soon as he’s made aware of this he fights back, challenges the assertion that his will is not his own.
The story is only six pages long but it basically covers the same story as the film. It lacks Roddy Piper, of course, and the epic street fight between Piper and Keith David that serves as the centerpiece of the film even though it’s completely unnecessary to the story.
Another device the film introduces are the magical sunglasses that allow Nada to “see” (the hypnotist angle is not used in the movie). They’re called Hoffmann lenses, leading me to idly wonder if this might be a reference to ETA Hoffmann’s skewed vision of the world. Freud seemed to think he was a master explorer of the Uncanny, after all.
This may actually be a reference to the Hoffmann story The Sandman, where the main character Nathaniel is given a spyglass that doesn’t necessarily reveal the world as it is, but it certainly has a profound effect on him. It is through this scope that Nathaniel first sees the eyes of his professor’s daughter
and falls in love with her.
In the story, we learn that
is nothing more than a clockwork automaton whose eyes have been fashioned after
his own. His love for her is based mostly on her tendency to repeat to him only
those things he has said to her, affirming his hopes and wishes. In learning
this he learns that what he has discovered in her is, just like the sinister
Sandman he has feared since childhood, an aspect of himself.
Apparently freed from this madness, Nathaniel tries to reunite with his estranged love Clara, but seeing her through the mysterious glass seems to revive his madness. The glass does not, as the Hoffmann lenses in They Live, reveal a truer world, except in the sense that they seem to make plain to Nathaniel that he is also no more than a puppet. In this way the glass has the same purpose as the Hoffman lenses.
And there could be validity to this comparison. Even though the glass failed to free Nathaniel’s mind, the incident that exposes
Olympia to be an automaton prompts young men
to require a greater show of independence and imperfection from the women they
admire. Instead of seeking a mirror whose purpose is to assure them against
insecurity, they require partners who challenge them and ultimately push them
to become better men. In this way Nathaniel’s story is similar to Nada’s. While
he fails to free himself, his efforts have a more liberating impact on those
who bear witness to it.
The use of the Sandman myth may also be telling. The Sandman’s role is to make them sleep, lulling Nathaniel into a hypnotic state of denial and subsequently, in Freud’s opinion, repression of memories. Nelson’s story doesn’t include these references, but the film title They Live is derived from the mantra of those who know the truth, which warns: “We Sleep. They Live.” So sleep as a metaphor for oppression (or in Freud’s opinion, repression), is embodied in the character of the Sandman, while the spyglass and the Hoffman lenses become metaphors for awakening.
Freud’s insistence that the feeling of the uncanny is a result of repressed traumatic experience is vindicated in Hoffmann’s story if we assume that the spyglass provokes a renewal of Nathaniel’s madness by reviving the memory of his childhood fear of the Sandman. Nathaniel’s assault by Coppelius (the character who embodies the titular figure of the story) is the catalyst for his adulthood madness, because each time the madness returns Nathaniel returns to that experience. The Sandman is a perfect representative of the repressed trauma, because as the lawyer Coppelius he means to rob Nathaniel of his eyes (trying to burn them with hot coals), but as the optician Coppola, he returns Nathaniel’s sight by giving him the spyglass, returning with it the madness associated with that childhood experience. This is the Freudian interpretation of the story, outlined in detail in Freud’s essay The Uncanny.
Whether Ray Nelson or especially John Carpenter were directly influenced by Hoffmann is unclear, but in both their versions of the story Nada’s immediate reaction to being awakened is to go on a murderous rampage. This too seems to support Freud’s assertion that the Uncanny is inspired by repressed trauma. If this parallel is intentional, then the hypnotist of the story and the Hofmann lenses of the film are not simply liberators, but memory triggers. Their violent reaction does not come off as a measured response to the revelation that the world is not as they thought, but could arguably be acting out as retribution for a deeply buried trauma brought suddenly to the surface.
But this interpretation, while interesting, does not properly explore the suggestion in the story that Nathaniel is in some way a creation of the Sandman. In a figurative sense he creates the demon in Nathaniel’s mind that causes his madness, but more than once the language of the story suggests that Nathaniel is every bit the automaton that
is. Coppelius’ effort to blind him is an attempt to “take his eyes”, which are
later given to Olympia,
according to Copolla. While this is not literally true in a physical sense, it
supports the idea that Nathaniel is a construct. This leads to the implication
that to some degree we all are. While not everyone is as taken with Olympia as Nathaniel
(presumably because she is not as perfectly tailored to their tastes), they are
all affected by the revelation that she is not human, and this revelation has
for some a liberating effect and for others a damaging effect. This again is a
striking parallel to the themes represented in Eight O’Clock in the Morning and They Live.
It is no less parallel to Office Space in its message that it is up to us to overcome the darker angels of our nature in order to overcome adversity. Hoffmann refers to this darker nature as the böser Stern in his story Mademoiselle de Scudéry. Our demons are at first nurtured by us and, while they cannot exist without us, we can exist without them. As Nathaniel’s fiancée Clara advises him, a cheerful attitude is the best way to face our demons and dismiss them.
But that’s just supposition. Hofmann lens is spelled with a single “f” in some places (like the Wikipedia) and two in others, so I’m not even sure of the spelling of the name is the same as ETA Hoffmann. But what we can talk ourselves into believing is more real than what is actually true, so either way it’s food for thought.
There are two major points that Ray Nelson brings up in Eight O’Clock in the Morning that are not addressed by the film adaptation or in Mike Judge’s accidental analog:
First (which is actually the last, but I’ll say it first), George Nada ultimately fails to fully reclaim his free will, succumbing to the fatal heart attack prescribed to him by his overseer.
Second, and most importantly (which is why I put it last even though it comes up earlier in Nelson’s story), is Nada’s discovery that his ability to see fills his overseers with fear even though he’s only one man.
And why is that? Because their control is based on their certainty of control. When one person sees past the illusion it casts doubt on their ability to create it. And that doubt weakens them, allowing others to awaken and so on. This is the actual point of the story, that lack of free will is a false state. Even though Nada still fails to resist that final command, that doesn’t negate the fact that he is able to resist their power and help others to do so. It just means that simply knowing what must be done is not the same as doing it. Understanding the struggle is not the same as overcoming it.
And I think that’s the lesson of Office Space too: Overcoming anxiety isn’t the end of your problems, it just empowers you to confront them.
 Hollingdale translates this as “evil star” in Tales of Hoffmann, but it can also translate into “meaner star”. The English word “evil” doesn’t have a comparative value (like eviler), so “meaner” is the closest approximation. In a poetic sense the comparative modifier would make it more dramatic (like when you refer to “the darker angels of our nature”), but in English “meaner” doesn’t have as much impact as “evil”, so “evil star” is the best translation. This is another example of how English lacks the portentous pragmatism of German.
 Sorry for the spoiler, but the story’s 50 years old and 6 pages long.