One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked. (trans. David Wyllie)
Thus begins the 1915 novella by Austria-Hungarian writer Franz Kafka, Die Verwandlung, otherwise known as The Metamorphosis. It is one of the key texts of the early 20th Century existentialist movement, providing a grim view of humanity’s fate in an indifferent, and often capricious, universe. The use of fanciful and unexplained surrealist elements injected into naturalistic settings to create metaphors for aspects of his existential world-view was further developed by Kafka in such works as The Trial, in which a senior bank clerk, Josef K., living in a bureaucratic society, is arrested and put on trial by a faceless and inaccessible authority for crimes that remain unstated and unknown to both Josef K. and the reader.
Above: Grete clutches Mother as she insists that they can no longer tolerate Gregor’s monstrous presence
In The Metamorphosis, traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa wakes up as a monstrous insect and his family must deal with the consequences. The novella is infused with a surreal poignancy and sense of tragedy that has fascinated readers for decades.
The Metamorphosis has been filmed many times, mostly in short form and often animated, with some longer films that were made for TV — though the 1975 Swedish film, Förvandlingen (directed by Ivo Dvorák), which is often lumped into this category, is defined (by allmovie.com at least) under “Feature”, a designation that IMDb confirms by default. Currently in production, however, is a new live-action feature film, which can at least claim to be the first full-length English-language feature film based on The Metamorphosis.
Above: The family watch Gregor crawl away
Metamorphosis (UK-2011; dir. Chris Swanton)
Metamorphosis is the story of a traveling salesman, who wakes up one morning after disturbing dreams to find himself transformed into a giant insect-like creature. The narrative then traces the interaction of Gregor and his family as he slowly starves to death for want of the right kind of sustenance. But what effect does his life and death have on his family?
Check out this early teaser trailer, which is edited from the live-action filming that took place at Halliford Studios, Shepperton from 11th January to 12th February 2010, and at the moment lacks the CGI elements and other post-production enhancements that are currently in train. I think you’ll agree, however, that from initial indications this project displays plenty of potential.
The film cast includes some excellent and experienced actors, who are pictured below.
In particular, Maureen Lipman as the Mother has had an extensive career in British film and television, since her career began in the 1960s. She has appeared in comedies such as Carry on Columbus (1992) and Educating Rita (1983), dramas such as The Pianist (2002), as well as TV series from Couples (1975-76), to the spy thriller Smiley’s People (1982), the unending Coronation Street (2002), Jonathan Creek (2003) and even Doctor Who (2006).
Likewise, Robert Pugh‘s CV is extensive and includes Britannia Hospital (1982), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Robin Hood (2010) and Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (2003), as well as TV series from The Lakes (1997-1999) to the scifi TV series Survivors (1977), French and Saunders (1999), Waking the Dead (2003), Poirot (2005), The Time of Your Life (2007), Torchwood (2008) and Doctor Who (2010).
Is Metamorphosis a Suitable Subject for Cinema?
Phil Hardy (in his Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, page 302) describes the Swedish version of the story, Förvandlingen, as “overly academic but visually impressive”, while commenting on its failure to overcome “the fundamentally static nature” of Kafka’s “profoundly uncinematic story”. Whether the story is “profoundly uncinematic” or simply requires an imaginative treatment, Hardy’s assessment is, in many ways, a reasonable comment on the essentially language-based nature of Kafka’s original novella, which mostly comprises the thoughts of the central character. However, director Swanton believes that the story’s drama, and the intensity of the tragi-comedy inherent in it, can indeed be effectively translated to film, albeit with difficulty. One of the key problems is what Kafka describes himself as the “Ungeziefer“, a word variously translated as “insect”, “bug” and (in the David Wyllie translation) “vermin”.
In a letter to his publisher of 25 October 1915, Kafka made a bit of a deal about the fact that the “Insekt” should not be illustrated on the cover of the book — and indeed his own descriptions in the novella are rather vague. It is clear that he wanted readers to bring their own interpretation to the table. But film is a visual medium. Förvandlingen circumvented the problem by lensing the whole thing from the point-of-view of Gregor, allowing the reactions of the rest of the cast to convey a sense of the creature. Other films took variably successful stabs at visualising the “Insekt”. One of the most successful dramatic realisations of the novella was Steven Berkoff’s theatrical rendition, performed at The Mermaid Theatre in 1969. This version was filmed and broadcast by the BBC in 1987 to great critical success. In this version, the “Insekt” was performed by actor Tim Roth, without special costuming but utilising insect-like physical actions to convey his alien nature. (Source)
Above: Alistair Petrie as the Supervisor on the location stairway at Marble Hill House
Swanton feels that in the visual medium that is cinema, it is important for the audience to see the insect, even if, to some extent, this limits the freedom of imagination that Kafka apparently preferred. Swanton believes that the intensity of the drama would suffer otherwise, as would the comedic aspects that arise from the reaction of the other characters to Gregor and the sadness of his ultimate tragedy. Also “the symbolism of Gregor’s armour-like insect shell as an expression of protective schizophrenia would be lost if the audience didn’t see it” (Source).
Therefore Swanton’s new version of the story will utilise CGI to create the creature. Peter Moulton of The Sculpture Machine created the original design, with the CGI work by Will Rockall of Jellyfish Pictures.
When asked about the extent of this “visualisation” of the “Insekt”, Swanton replied:
The insect is seen in the film a great deal. In fact, that’s what’s slowing the progress of the movie down at the moment. There have been months of discussions with the CGI company about the exact appearance of Gregor’s transformed state. We have nearly resolved that now, and then the process of the animation can begin, but so far we have nothing of the bug to put in the trailer. I anticipate that the CGI will not be completed until March/April time.
He has also expressed an awareness of the tricky nature of CGI, which can be overused and become both expensive and ultimately a distraction from the essential power of the story. “In many ways, less is more,” he is quoted as saying. “As in Ridley Scott’s Alien, the lurking monster is all the more terrifying for being seen so little. Not that we are attempting any kind of horror film, but the principle is the same.”
Above: Filming Laura Rees (Grete) with blue screen at Marble Hill House, stately home in West London, for dream sequence
Further to the question as to the relationship of this new Metamorphosis to the horror genre, Swanton explained emphatically:
Our version of Metamorphosis, which tries to remain as faithful as possible to the original text, is not a horror film. It is a parable about human suffering, about minority groups, and tries to put across a plea for tolerance and understanding of those who suffer incapacitating illness, either mental or physical or both. If audiences want blood and gore or a screamy scare, this is not the film for them.
Above: Grete sees Gregor’s body after she has treated him so harshly
Above: The apple-throwing scene. Gregor will be painted in against the door in the shadow of his family.
For many more stills from Metamorphosis, see the Gallery at the end of this article.
Notes on the Appearance of the “Insekt”
Though unwilling to release existing concept art at this time, before final decisions have been made, Swanton has kindly provided notes on the subject, culled from his reading of the novella. I was simply going to summarise these, but they are so interesting and detailed that I have decided to include them in their entirety. This will make the article rather long, but, well, you can skip this bit if you’re not interested — and anyway, what’s a few kilobytes between friends.
The narrator’s description of Gregor’s appearance after his metamorphosis and Gregor’s own comments on his new incarnation provide a picture of what the insect creature might look like. Essentially it is a mixture of insect and human features.
THE INSECT FEATURES: when Gregor wakes up to find himself transformed, he is lying on his armour-like back, which is a hard, curved shell on which he rocks from side to side, unable to turn over, like an upturned stage beetle. He raises his head to look down at his new body and sees he has a domed, segmented brown belly, which arches up in front of him. He has a row of flimsy little legs on either side, which wriggle uncontrollably. These legs will later be found to be equipped with sticky pads on the ends. When he discovers that he can climb up the walls and along the ceiling using these pads, they leave a slime trail. His shell should look protective and impenetrable. The overall colour of the creature is brown. (In the section where Gregor’s sister and mother are moving his furniture out, he is described as a “big brown blob on the flowery wallpaper”).
Gregor has jaws but no proper teeth. When he tries to open the door using these jaws, he injures his mouth and a brown fluid oozes out and drips onto the floor. He might have a proboscis-like floppy mouth that slurps at the rotten food his family put out for him. This mouth should be revolting, often regurgitating some sort of liquid mess after he has tried to eat. The segmented stomach expands with the intake of food, raising the shell higher off the ground. As he slowly starves to death his stomach contracts and the shell sinks lower onto the ground. He can also contract his stomach himself to squeeze under his settee.
He is at least five feet tall when he stands upright, and about three feet across at his widest point because, when he lowers himself into an insect position, moving along on his legs, he cannot get through the open wing of the double doors to his room without tilting up on his side.
There are numerous specific descriptions of Gregor’s antennae, which move about and provide him with sensory means in the dark.
Gregor is startled by his insect voice, which he describes as high-pitched and squeaky. His supervisor describes it as an “animal’s voice”.
THE HUMAN FEATURES: Gregor’s face should be repulsive but also betray some element of his human form. A crucial element will be the eyes, which are probably large and at the side of the head, like a fly’s, but they are not compound eyes. Gregor’s insect eyes see the world as his human eyes would do. The narrator describes how Gregor’s vision grows weaker and that he has increasing difficulty focusing as the story progresses. The narrator also talks of Gregor’s last breath coming out of his nostrils, so the insect is obviously not entomologically accurate, even though the charlady refers to him as a dung beetle.
The essential aspects of the insect-like creature, besides its repulsiveness, are its helplessness, vulnerability and sadness.
- Sources: Director/writer Chris Swanton; official website; Facebook page; Chris New website; ABC Article Directory; Redroom; IMDb.
- Written by Robert Hood | Newshound activity by Avery Guerra
Note: the music in the trailer is “Méditation from the opera Thaïs”, composed by Jules Massenet.
Addendum (March 2014):
In January 2014 the producers released the DVD of the “Academic Edition” of their film version of Metamorphosis together with the bonus feature “Behind the Scenes” and the companion “Teacher’s Handbook” and “Student’s Textbook”. According to director Chris Swanton, the special edit of the film and the accompanying books are designed to be used in an educational environment to promote analysis and understanding of Franz Kafka’s iconic novella. “They are an essential tool for anyone teaching or studying The Metamorphosis”, he commented. The items can be purchased separately and are available through the producers’ website: www.metamorphosisonfilm.com, as well as via Amazon UK www.amazon.co.uk. He suggests that if you are buying on Amazon, to use the search terms “Kafka Metamorphosis academic edition”.