Transforming the Metamorphosis

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is undoubtedly one of the most inventive and unusual stories ever published. This isn’t just because the story is about a guy who wakes up as a big bug and is ultimately rejected by his family, but because the story is a timeless piece of literature that encapsulates the ongoing human struggle with rejection and self worth. Ultimately, The Metamorphosis examines the cruelty of humans treating other humans, even family members, as vermin because they’re deemed different or somehow less than desirable.

It’s no surprise then, that Kafka’s story still lives large in the world’s imagination, inspiring a score of adaptations. Several have been made for the stage, the most recent which will be opening in Bangkok at the end of August, titled Kafka and I. There have also been operatic productions and even further literary endeavors, which include the 2002 novel, Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa and Anxious Pleasures by Lance Olsen, which imagines Kafka’s story from the points of view of his family members.

Music is in the mix, as well. Philip Glass arranged compositions for two different theater productions, which ended up becoming a gorgeous five-part piano piece titled Metamorphosis.

Surprisingly movies based on Kafka’s famous work about Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect are scarce. While films have been punctuated with references to the story, and even a feature-length and hard-to-find 1976 Swedish film Förvandlingen was released, The Metamorphosis hasn’t been made into a contemporary full length feature film. This, of course, could be seen by literary purists as a good thing; however, while searching for cinematic adaptations of the story, I came across two relatively recent short films that stand out.

The first is called The Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka, made by underground Spanish film maker and Kafka fan, Carlos Atanes. This approximately 28 minute, English-subtitled and delightfully weird film sticks mostly to Kafka’s story, but differs slightly in a few places. Kafka was a Jew living in the Czech Republic in a period of anti-Semitism. Kafka’s story is thought of by many as a metaphor for genocide. After Kafka’s death, several of his family members died in the Holocaust, thus it’s controversial that the time period of Atanes’s film is set in World War II. Two Nazis even show up at one point in the Samsa’s house, eyeing them menacingly.

Another alteration Antanes made to the story, and a clever one at that, is that instead of the bedroom where Gregor hides, Antanes’s Gregor played by Antonion Vladimir conceals himself in an enormous dim lit library. How apropos.

The cinematography is impressive and the golden lighting in the old, stately house gives the film a gothic, romantic, and somewhat old world look. A dramatic and often-swelling score heightens the mysterious mood.

What makes the film such an oddball gem is the juxtaposition of the rich cinematography and the less-than-fantastic and over-the-top acting and the bad special effects. If nothing else, the facial expressions made by Anne Sofie Nilsson, who plays Mrs. Samsa, are worth watching the film.

Through much of the film, Vladimir hunches and knocks his way through the dusty library dressed in a bizarre, cheap-looking insect outfit. The clever use of light and shadow, coupled with his frightened and gloomy expressions, make him appear nightmarish in some scenes and downright cheesy in others. At the end of the film, he spends most of his screen time draped in a curtain.

There are a few shots that are memorable for being downright bad. Case in point: the scene when Gregor makes the transformation into the insect. Vladimir looks almost like a cartoon against a bad green screen while making bizarre facial tics. Another example of this low-budget production happens when Gregor’s father throws apples at him, having reached the end of his rope because he has a giant bug as a son. One of the apples flies through the air like it’s been separately drawn and stuck on a hand-made background.

The best scene of the film is the last one when the Samsa family goes to the beach. Unlike the book where they picnic, relieved to be free of Gregor, Atane’s Samsas wander around staring ominously at the ocean, dressed in majestic black clothing. Mrs. Samsa who in her dramatic make up and oversized pillbox hat appears like she walked off the set of David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video.

Another worthy mention of a film based on Kafka’s classic is Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, made by Peter Capaldi in 1995. Capaldi was inspired to write the film when his wife confused the names Frank Capra and Franz Kafka. Capaldi’s vision is just as it sounds: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis combined with elements of the Capra classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

The short film (clocking in at 23 minutes) depicts Kafka’s struggle with writer’s block. At the beginning, we find him, played by Richard E. Grant, trying to write The Metamorphosis on Christmas Eve. He sits at a desk in his dark apartment, pen poised above paper, saying to himself: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning, he found himself transformed into a gigantic… what?”

Capaldi then reveals the possibilities unfolding in Kafka’s mind. What would Gregor awake as? The potential scenarios he imagines are whimsical, and when he does realize he wants Samsa to awake as an insect, the image Capaldi comes up with is unexpectedly creepy and almost cute.

While trying to write, Kafka is constantly interrupted. by people at his door wishing him a happy holiday. These characters include a traveling knife salesman, played by Ken Stott, hanging out in the shadows of the apartment building looking for his friend, “Jiminy the Cockroach” and threateningly flashing his sharp wares at Kafka.

In addition, there is a woman who insists Kafka ordered a giant bug costume. And there’s his neighbor, Miss Cicely, having a noisy holiday celebration filled with music and tittering girls. Before Kafka confronts his neighbor, he imagines going to her door to complain about the noise. She politely apologizes then asks with a smile, “Is this a real conversation or an imaginary one?” Kafka answers, “Imaginary, of course.” Here is what must be Capaldi making an inside joke about his own film.

When Kafka really does go to the door, Miss Cicely joyfully invites him in where he finds several girls dressed in white party dresses gleefully dancing around in front of a Christmas tree. This is where the Capra element is introduced, but it takes a left-hand turn quickly when the girls start hopping like kangaroos.

Grant is magnificent in the role. His frustrated and exaggerate facial expressions make his face look as if it is made of elastic One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Miss Cicely, who much like the guardian angel Clarence Odbody of Capra’s film, comforts Kafka after he kills a cockroach. Grant bemoans theatrically, “he gave me inspiration and I gave him death.” His over-the-top misery juxtaposed with her cheery good nature as she insists, “he’s in a better place now running free and wild with the other little cockroaches” encapsulates the clashing of genres and what makes the film so successful.

The production is surreal and distorted, which makes the film spooky in a Tim Burton kind of way. Additionally, the musical score sounds like it belongs in an old horror movie, lending the film an even more eerie atmosphere.

The film culminates with all the characters in a warm, fuzzy Capra-esque ending, leaving the viewer wondering what was real, if anything. Naturally, this is the appropriate ending for such a hilariously weird film. It’s no surprise it won a BAFTA in 1994 for best short film and the Oscar for best short film in 1995.

While Atanes’s film comes across as somber and unintentionally funny, and the Capaldi film is bizarre and outright amusing, both films do a brilliant job of capturing the surreal, dark mood that The Metamorphosis is cocooned in.

See Carlos Antanes’s film here: Carlos