Franz Kafka was a Czech literary legend when his works were first published shortly after his death. One might expect his influence to have waned since the discovery of his talent, but as the academic world prepares to mark the centenary of his death, it is easy to see why Kafka still remains at the centre of European Modernism, as new media have allowed us to retell his haunting, abstract tales of humanity. Thus it is not surprising that in 2002 Russian film director Vareli Fokin embarked on the ambitious yet noble project to bring Kafka’s Metamorphosis to a new generation of consumers through film. This article will explore the inherent adaptability of Kafka’s original text in relation to Fokin’s loyalty in reimagining the devastating life of Gregor Samsa.
The film begins with a clear intention to depress its audience; clouds are grey and rain is heavy; what’s more, there is a constant non-diegetic sound of dripping water. Water, the perfect metaphor for life itself, seems the perfect direct juxtaposing image to foretell the devastation which is to haunt and test the Samsa family to its limits. The idea of water is taken directly from the text: when Kafka’s victim first wakes, he notices “drops of rain […] hitting the pane”, which “made him feel quite sad”. It is quite likely that Fokin has here taken the theme of water and manipulated Kafka’s depiction of isolation from the exterior of the house to the more visually demonstrative character-building of Gregor Samsa.
Here we conveniently approach any film director’s greatest challenge when attempting to retell the tale of the Metamorphosis – how to build a relationship between audience and protagonist when the original medium of the story engages the reader largely through the internal, stream-of-consciousness monologue of Samsa. Professor Jan Jirak of Charles University highlights this issue in Kafka’s work – “Kafka’s imagination and type of narrative complicates the adaption of his tests [sic] to media like drama or film. Kafka express [sic] feeling and life situation in his texts, action is just a carrier of this [sic] expressions”. The Modernist style described by Professor Jirak, seen not only in Kafka but also the likes of pioneers Woolf and Joyce, makes adaptation a great feat, as the “action” does not play a characteristic role in Metamorphosis.
Thus Fokin is directed towards visual images which the audience is forced to uncover: for example, the anticipatory foreshadowing of isolation. In opening scenes, Gregor Samsa’s apparent return to his family home is filmed from the exterior of the house. Eerie dripping water is the only sound, and thus the audience hears no diegetic dialogue until the ninth minute of the film, after the reunion dinner. Another device used by Fokin is the narrator, who tells us that “waking up one morning after a bad dream, Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself transformed into a terrifying insect” – this narrative, taken directly from Kafka’s text, is particularly necessary as the unfortunate protagonist, played by Evgeniy Mironov, undergoes no obvious physical transition from man to beast: we must suspend our disbelief, supported not only by narrator, but by other characters’ behaviour, such as Samsa’s father’s “shoo”ing of his son with a broom. Additionally, Fokin expertly and loyally captures Kafka’s social message through dialogue. The Chief Clerk is used to deliver the line, “businesspeople often have to overcome illnesses”. This merciless, cruel message is taken from the text and is clearly demonstrating Fokin’s desire to depict Kafka’s evidently Socialist ideals by creating an unambiguous antagonist in the Chief Clerk. These devices are supported by more subtle cinematic techniques, such as the frustrating juxtaposition between temporal and spatial progress (Samsa’s journey home from work as a travelling salesman, his dream in which he is in a moving train) and stagnating incarceration (Samsa’s life as an insect, confined to his bedroom).
Watching Fokin’s Metamorphosis will leave any audience member in no doubt in regards to the director’s unashamed admiration for Kafka’s literary excellence, and the successful, focused, and faithful adaptation into the medium of film brings alarming Kafkaesque horror into the twenty-first century, where we arguably need to be more acutely aware of its dangers than ever before.