The futility of filming Kafka

Why, oh why, do filmmakers keep trying to adapt the work of Kafka? Do they see the pitiful results and want to strike back in the writer’s honor, to make a film worthy of one of literature’s great masters? I don’t think so.

So why spend the time and money in such a futile pursuit? Because when they read Kafka they appreciate his genius but misunderstand its nature so extremely that they assume that transferring the “story” he tells to another medium will transfer at least some of that genius as well. Publishers might need to start putting “No Transfer” stickers on Kafka books.

What sounds like a case in point: The Metamorphosis by British director Chris Swanton is the first feature based on Kafka’s novella and was recently shown at Montréal World Film Festival. From the evidence of the trailer the Masterpiece Theater-style production seems to drain all the Kafka from the story, turning it into a melodrama that just happens to be about a man who turned into a bug (which the trailer doesn’t show but the film does). Plans for a bug puppet were scratched when their puppet broke and so they went fully computerized.

In our visual age it is a reminder of how effective not seeing things can occasionally be.

And if Welles’ The Trial might be considered an exception in the terrible track record of Kafka films it’s because it is so much more Welles than Kafka, without any pretension on the director’s part that it needed to be anything else.

Photo – film poster for The Metamorphosis by Chris Swanton

Tags: , , , ,

Categories: Books on Film


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

11 Comments on “The futility of filming Kafka”

  1. juliasherwood
    06/09/2012 at 3:22 pm #

    There are some exceptions though, like this stunning athletic Icelandic production I saw in London a few years ago: and

  2. 06/09/2012 at 3:36 pm #

    Thanks, just watched the video trailer and it does look great. I think the theater offers more possibilities than film though I’ve seen a staged Metamorphosis (at least the first 10 minutes) that was bad beyond words.

  3. HS
    06/09/2012 at 3:55 pm #

    And Michael Haneke’s The Castle isn’t bad at all, especially if you’re interested in his work in general (though it’s not among his best).

  4. 06/09/2012 at 3:59 pm #

    I have seen Kafka filmed in the right spirit once, in a short titled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The last line is something like “This is going to be the best Christmas ever!” It’s a travesty (in the good meaning of the word), and I think Kafka would have loved it.

  5. 06/09/2012 at 4:02 pm #

    I saw it decades ago and was bored to death. Maybe I’ll give it another try if I can track down a copy here/online.

  6. HS
    06/09/2012 at 8:15 pm #

    It’s from 1998, so if you saw it right when it came out, that’s only 14 years ago. I think it originally was produced for Austrian TV. There is an older film of The Castle from the 1960s, with Maximilian Schell and Janzurova in it, and that is indeed boring.

  7. 06/09/2012 at 10:08 pm #

    You’re right. I had them mixed up.

  8. 07/09/2012 at 12:39 am #

    Yes, it was funny but I wouldn’t say it did his writing justice in any way

  9. juliasherwood
    07/09/2012 at 1:23 am #

    Yes, theatre might be a more friendly medium although it varies, I saw an adaptation of The Castle in Berlin last year, it had its moments but they seemed to try too hard. (

  10. 07/09/2012 at 1:28 am #

    I do think the succesful ones tend to break away from the text in a way. The idea of fidelity is hopeless – and boring – and misses the point of what each of the different mediums does. It would be like trying to write a faithful novelization of a great play – Hamlet, Chekhov etc. It would be silly


  1. Literary roundup: Misunderstanding Kafka and a Czech émigré novel | literalab - 07/09/2012

    […] roundup: Misunderstanding Kafka and a Czech émigré novel Apparently it isn’t only filmmakers who misunderstand Kafka. In the Times Literary Supplement Gabriel Josipovici writes an article covering a number of quite […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: