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David Cronenberg on The Metamorphosis

Film's Fly guy on his enduring love of Kafka's novella, the ultimate body-horror classic

Cinema’s king of body-horror has a long history of projecting our darkest nightmares onto the screen, be it rabid viruses, malignant televisions or unspeakable domestic tragedy. So it makes sense that David Cronenberg harbours enormous affection for Franz Kafka’s macabre 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, the tale of a travelling salesman who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a beetle. Indeed, the story was more than a little influential on the director’s grisly 1986 classic The Fly. Below, Cronenberg compares his fly to Kafka’s beetle as a new translation of The Metamorphosis hits the shelves. 

“I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a 70-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle, and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were.

In the movie I co-wrote and directed of George Langelaan’s short story "The Fly", I have our hero, Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, say while deep in the throes of transformation into a hideous fly/human hybrid, “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.” He is warning his former lover that he is now a danger to her, a creature with no compassion and no empathy. He has shed his humanity like the shell of a cicade nymph, and what has emerged is no longer human. He is also suggesting that to be a human, a self-aware consciousness, is a dream that cannot last, an illusion. Gregor also has trouble clinging to what is left of his humanity, and as his family begins to feel that this thing in Gregor’s room is no longer Gregor, he begins to feel the same way. But unlike Brundle’s fly self, Gregor’s beetle is no threat to anyone but himself, and starves and fades away like an afterthought as his family revels in their freedom from the shameful, embarrassing burden that he has become.

When The Fly was released in 1986, there was much conjecture that the disease that Brundle had brought on himself was a metaphor for Aids. Certainly I understood this – Aids was on everybody’s mind as the vast scope of the disease was gradually being revealed. But for me, Brundle’s disease was more fundamental: in an artificially accelerated manner, he was aging. He was a consciousness that was aware that is was a body that was mortal, and with acute awareness and humour participated in that inevitable transformation that all of us face, if only we live long enough.”

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is out now, published by Norton & Company. This is an edited extract from David Cronenberg’s introduction to the book