KinoKultura: Issue 25 (2009)

(Re)presentation of The Metamorphosis: Valerii Fokin, Franz Kafka, René Magritte and the Issue of Cinematic Adaptation

By Irina Mel’nikova (Vilnius)

“I tried to work in cinema and I didn’t like it. I love the theatre, for in it, as if from nothing, out of thin air, appears a world, a life, characters, feelings, and all these disappear in an instant, they also go as if into nothingness. It is possible to repeat everything. However, in fact it is possible to repeat nothing; this is what makes theatre.  It will be something different, perhaps something better, deeper, more poignant. This risk, life on the verge, the unrepeatability of a minute and a possibility, a hope for a moment of perfection—all this constitutes theatre to me. Cinema immortalizes this moment but thereby kills it. Here it is, better or worse in the film. It is possible to admire it, it is possible to suffer because of its imperfection, but it is possible to make nothing with it: it is dead.” (Fokin 1996).  

As if trying either to confirm or to refute his statement, in 2002 Russian theatre director Valerii Fokin,[1] the general and artistic director of The Meyerhold Centre, made a feature-length film, The Metamorphosis (Prevrashchenie),[2] based on Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung, 1915). The film was created after the theatre performance of Fokin’s Metamorphosis on the small stage of Satirikon in 1995 was widely praised by critics and spectators. As soon as the film was completed, Fokin removed the play from the repertoire. The film was lauded at festivals in Tokyo, Moscow, Vyborg, and Karlovy Vary but, in contrast to the play, most “ordinary” spectators and reviewers did not appreciate the film. Thus, in his comparison of the two works, Oleg Zintsov notes that, while Fokin’s play could be considered an ideal synthesis of art and technology, an ideal example of contemporary theatre, the cinematic version seems to have no value, it is nothing but a summary of commonplaces connected with Kafka’s name (Zintsov 2002). Zintsov attributes this failure to Fokin’s attempts to transpose the principles and methods of theatre to the essentially different space of film. However, his reflections appear to have ignored the peculiarities of the cinematic narrative. It is impossible to agree with his evaluation of Fokin’s film, which is one of the best cinematic readings of Kafka. The film (re)presents codes which are characteristic of the form of a literary text, exemplifies the principles of the poetics of Kafka’s prose, and makes an implicit statement on the issue of cinematic adaptation.  

In support of my hypotheses, I explore the cinematic devices of Fokin’s narrative: the mode of textual framing, the relationship between visual and auditory techniques, the different variants of sound visualization, and, finally, the presentation of a visual sequence that creates a significant intertextual dialogue with the paintings of Magritte. Such a structural analysis of the cinematic text conveys the character of Fokin’s dialogue with Kafka. Moreover, it demonstrates how Fokin’s individual artistic attempt to articulate the same, famous story by means of an essentially different semiotic system expresses an opinion on the theoretical problem of cinematic adaptation.

This essay is not concerned with issues of faithfulness of adaptation, nor does it consider the problem of inscribing Fokin’s film into any of the existing classification schemes which distinguish different types of adaptation, such as borrowing, intersecting and transforming (Andrew’s tripartite division, see Andrew 1984: 98); transposition, commentary and analogue (Cartmell and Wellenhan 1999: 24; Sanders 2006: 20); psychic, ventriloquist, genetic, de(re)composing, incarnational and trumping concepts (Elliott 2006: 133-183). Rather, it supposes the adaptation to be “an extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work”, “a work that is second without being secondary”, a “palimpsestic thing” (Hutcheon 2006: 8-9). As Linda Hutcheon points out, “seen from the perspective of its process of reception, we experience adaptations (as adaptations) as palimpsests through our memory of other works that resonate through repetition with variation” (2006: 8). These repetitions and variations constitute the starting point of the present essay.

Structural Framing and Signification
The main peculiarity of the cinematic narrative of The Metamorphosis is its textual framing. Fokin sets the canonical literary text within several frames. The opening and closing credits create the first frame. Fokin’s authorial prologue (the fragment up to the first line of Kafka’s narrative) and epilogue (the final episode after the last line of Kafka’s narrative) constitute the second frame. Finally, the audible voice-over narration of the first and the last lines of the literary text form the third, Kafkaesque, frame of the text.

Cinematic tradition considers the first textual frame (the opening and closing credits) to be secondary to the narrative—a technical device used for “technical” purposes. However, in the case of adaptations, such as the transformation of Kafka’s canonical literary text, credits often play a key role in shaping the text’s meaningful strategies.  The mode of presentation of the first structural frame compels the credits to function not only as part of the aesthetic whole, but also as elements of the signification process.  Created by a montage editing technique, the opening credits disjoin the soundtrack from the visual track: the borders of “visual shots” do not coincide with the borders of “sound shots”. The first silent shot shows white letters of dedication on a black background. The following shots continue with captions in white on black, and present the sound in a way that is not matched temporally with the movements occurring in the images: the initial caption introduces the production companies and, a little later, there occurs the very faint sound of rain. This sound becomes louder in the following shots, which display the names of the three main actors (Evgenii Mironov, Igor Kvasha, Tat’iana Lavrova) and the title of the film. The title is followed by a shot with the image of a beetle, which remains in the last fragment of the opening credits. The latter, in turn, presents a title declaring a dialogic relationship with the literary text (“Based on the novella of the same title by F. Kafka”) and the final point of the opening credits—the repetition of the name of the main actor, Mironov. The last fragment similarly exposes the sound later than the image: first, it introduces the picture of a beetle and only after this allows the spectator to hear how the sound of the rain becomes a background to unarticulated mumbling in German.

Three observations are in order here: first, the opening credits disclose the three layers of cinematic discourse—word, non-verbal sound and visual image. Second, the credits reveal the essential modes of presentation of sound and image in cinematic discourse: visible word (captions) and audible word (mumbling in German), audible non-verbal sound (rain) and visible non-verbal sound (a moving drop of rain appears on the picture), visible image and audible image (the same moving drop of rain which visualizes the sound of rain). Finally, the credits foreground the peculiar role of sound in cinema: the sound of rain, which is introduced as an element of the non-diegetic stratum, transforms into the sound of diegetic space (when we see the first shot after the credits, we understand, that it is/was raining in the diegetic space)  and, thus, inscribes the credits into the diegesis.

The closing credits are created in the opposite manner. The white letters on a black background of the opening credits are replaced with black letters on a white background. Captions are presented in a single, continuous shot without any cutting, which moves from the bottom to the top and finishes with the old-fashioned caption “The End of the Film”. This way of presenting the credits allows for interpreting the contrast as a conflict of two modes of writing—cinema and literature. Writing in white on black (a negative) is changed to the traditional literary writing mode of black on white. The montage editing technique is replaced with a single shot fragment of the film which moves in such a way that our eyes repeat  the movement of eyes reading a book.

The initial part of the second frame, Fokin’s authorial prologue, is constructed from five separate scenes. The action of the first and last scenes takes place at a railway station. The last episode introduces Gregor’s dream about a train (its departure), and the first episode shows a train arriving at a station and moving towards the camera. The train appears as a black spot, growing until the train stops. After it stops, smoke forms a black shot, thus isolating the first scene from the next. The iconographical level of the first scene—in the context of the oppositional presentation of two writing modes (cinema / literature) in the opening and the closing credits—suggests an interpretation referencing The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat (1895) by Louis Lumière, one of the first cinematic opuses. The soundtrack of the last episode of the prologue (Gregor’s dream about the train) endorses a reference to the first films and the birth of cinema: it presents nonverbal sounds and does not include any pronounced words, as if creating the situation of a silent film, in which the moving image was accompanied by music and the sounds of the space outside the diegesis.

The visual level of Gregor’s dream reaffirms, on the one hand, the same relationship with the earliest films. On the other hand, it is obviously surrealistic. Gregor takes a train at a railway station and sees his father checking the tickets. Afterwards, he finds himself in a train carriage where he sees Grete playing the violin. She passes Gregor and disappears. The train begins to move. Gregor looks through the train window and sees a crowd of men wearing bowler hats. Later, when the chief clerk appears out of nowhere, Gregor tries to hide, opens the door of the compartment and sees his father playing the violin with a saw instead of a bow. He runs to another compartment in which he is buried under sand.

The surreal juxtaposition of the visual images from the dream reflects the surrealistic nature of Kafka’s world, since all the anomalies in his world, as well as those in surrealistic texts inspired by dreams, reveal their situational character. Kafka’s text allows one to clearly distinguish things existing in reality (insect, room, court, garret, etc.), yet it also reveals that the relationship between these things is unnatural. It is precisely this unaccustomed juxtaposition, the strange linking of ordinary objects, and the way they are combined, that evokes surreal mystery.

The inner (2-4) scenes of the prologue, showing Gregor making his way home, his interaction with his family, and, finally, his behaviour in his own room, visualize the sound and highlight the potential of cinematic representation in contrast to literary discourse. When looking through the window of a tavern at the musicians playing inside, Gregor “sees music” but does not hear it. When Gregor enters the flat, the sound creates a border between the flat and the street: the spectator, who “exists” in the space of the street, together with the camera’s eye and its voice, “sees the speech” of the characters but cannot hear it. Gregor, in turn, looks out from the window of his room and sees the rain falling outside but does not hear the sound of rain. However, when he draws the curtain, his visual movement changes the sound and transfers the spectator to Samsa’s flat. The manner of presentation of the sound not only visualizes the sound but also unmasks the barriers within the diegetic space. It splits the diegesis into parts (the tavern, the street, Samsa’s flat, Gregor’s room, the living room, etc.) separated from one another, thus allowing the spectator to hear the splitting process.

The final part of the second frame (the epilogue) brings us back to its initial part (the prologue), for both deal with “reality”. The first shots of the prologue name Kafka’s unnamed home town in two languages (Praha, Prag); the last shots show us the real Prague. Indicating the name at the beginning of the film gives an impression of concrete localization of action. However, the film’s place of action is clearly fictional; it possesses no traits of any real city. The last shots of the epilogue, in turn, connect the fictional world with actual views of Prague: the shots of Gregor’s father, mother and sister in the tram are followed by shots of bridges over the river Vltava in the real Prague. Thus, while the inner parts of the second frame create the borders within the diegesis, the outer parts of the frame erase the borders between fictional and non-fictional spaces, and expose the dissolution of the fictional world in reality and vice versa. The second structural frame formed by the prologue and epilogue continues the “discussion” of the problems and possibilities of cinematic representation. It also reveals the surrealistic nature of discourse, creates the intricate relationship between the fictional world and reality and, finally, forms barriers in space.[3] This feature of cinematic space repeats and reflects the peculiarity of Kafka’s space in which everything, any object, can become a barrier.[4]

The third frame creates a different tension between the soundtrack and the visual track, exposing the peculiar nature of the relationship between the narrator and the main character. The initial part of the frame introduces a visual metamorphosis of Gregor-Mironov, commented on by the first line of the literary narrative pronounced by a voice-over. However, the voice-over commentary is presented through the voice of Mironov, which we have already heard as that of Gregor Samsa in the authorial prologue. The final section of the frame, after Gregor’s death, shows Mironov dressed in modern clothes which are markedly different from those of the fictional characters. He stands right by the door and reads the last lines of the literary text. The reading process presents the voice separated from the body: the actor’s lips do not move but the voice we hear is Mironov’s. In both cases, the cinematic text exposes the transformation of the fictional character into the narrator and vice versa. The beginning emphasizes the acoustic aspect of metamorphosis, while the conclusion underscores the visual.

The discursive gesture of the third frame allows us to hear and see the relative identity of the heterodiegetic narrator and the main character—a phenomenon we perceive in most of Kafka’s texts. As is generally known, most of Kafka’s literary works unite several narrative personae—author, heterodiegetic narrator and the main character. The device which helps to connect them is the name of the main character, for it points to the author himself.  Well-known examples are the names of the main characters of The Trial (Joseph K.) and The Castle (K.). Kafka creates a special cryptographic system revealing his third-person narrative as speech about himself. In The Diaries (11 February 1913) he deciphers the name Georg Bendemann from The Judgement (Das Urteil): “Georg has the same number of letters as Franz. In Bendemann, ‘mann’ is a strengthening of ‘Bende’ to provide for all the yet unforeseen possibilities in the story. But Bende has exactly the same number of letters as Kafka, and the vowel e occurs in the same places as does the vowel a in Kafka” (Kafka, 279). The name of the main character of The Metamorphosis can be deciphered according to the same logic (Grego[r]—Franz, Samsa—Kafka). Hence, the third-person narrator of this novella, who exists outside the diegetic space (as do other Kafka narrators), tells the story of a character-author. Kafka, “the I without a self,” in the words of W.H. Auden (159), looks at himself with the Other’s eyes and objectifies this vision by the use of third person narrative. Thus, the third frame—the manner in which Kafka’s lines are cited—once more demonstrates the peculiarities of a literary source.

On the one hand, the triple frame of narrative creates a dialogic relation with Kafka’s text and reveals the peculiarities of the poetics of the literary text, (re)creating the codes that are responsible for its form. It (re)presents the surrealistic principle of textual construction, the relative identity of narrative instances, the peculiarities of the spatial organization (the barriers of the Kafka world), and does it in essentially different cinematic modes. On the other hand, this triple frame creates non-Kafka’s field of meaning: it opposes cinema and literature, underscores the tension between the different layers of the cinematic discourse, and emphasizes the as yet undiscussed problem of a picture set in motion.

Visual Sequence and Intertextual Dialogue
The problem of a picture set in motion is connected with the manner of presentation of a visual sequence within the structural frames, which can be described as follows: every fragment of visual track in the film begins with a static shot, which begins to move after the initial fixation. This “law” is broken only once, by the first shot of the opening credits presenting the dedication to Petr Lébl. This single mute and unmovable shot creates a dialogue with an intertext complicating the relation between fiction and reality. Fokin dedicates the film to the Czech theatre director who, on the one hand, had created his own Samsa and had embodied the metamorphosis of The Metamorphosis by transforming Kafka’s literary text into a theatre performance. On the other hand, the film is dedicated to the individual who had converted another kind of metamorphosis into fact—directed his own death on the stage and performed both the role of director and central character.[5]

melnikovaAs distinct from the real “deathly-still” person (Petr Lébl) presented by a written word in the first still, silent shot, the central character of Fokin’s film is introduced by a close-up representing a static, anonymous figure in a black suit and a bowler hat. Immediately after the device of the soundtrack (the sister’s voice-over) identifies the figure as Gregor (“Gregor! Gregor! Mommy, Daddy, Gregor has arrived!”), the picture starts moving. The image of the figure obviously refers to the pictorial intertext— three surrealist paintings by the Belgian painter René Magritte, all created in 1964: The Son of Man (Le Fils de l’Homme), Man with the Bowler Hat (L’Homme au Chapeau Melon) and Good Faith (La Bonne Foi). This reference is confirmed by the imagery of Gregor’s dream in the prologue, where we see several variants of bowler-hatted men. The first two paintings depict the static figure of a man in the same black suit and bowler hat. However, in both, the man’s face is obscured—in one by an apple and in the other, by a dove; in Good Faith  the face is a background to the pipe.

melnikovaAll three Magritte paintings demonstrate a complicated relationship between the word (title) and the visual image.[6] The unusual combination of a visual figure with the title exposes the double function of the word in the painter’s texts. According to Foucault, “Magritte names his paintings in order to focus attention upon the very act of naming. And yet in this split and drifting space, strange bonds are knit, there occur intrusions, brusque and destructive invasions, avalanches of images into the milieu of words, and verbal lightning-flashes that streak and shatter the drawings” (1983: 36). Magrittean words perform the function of a supporting abutment and at the same time the function of termites, which gnaw the abutment and force the whole construction to collapse (Foucault 1983: 37). The painter himself once mentioned that the titles do not explain the paintings, nor do the paintings illustrate the titles. The link between the title of the picture and the picture itself is poetic—a connection focusing on certain features of an object which are usually ignored by consciousness (Paquet 2002: 23).

melnikovaThe title of the first painting is The Son of Man. It illustrates a poetic domain and ensures that “the statement made by the picture appeals to the viewer’s imagination—and to his secret reactions—both through what was shown and through what was not shown, but hinted at” (Meuris 2004: 120). The phrase “The Son of Man” usually refers to the figure of Christ, to the transfiguration of Jesus. The Gospels of Luke, Mark and Matthew (Luke 9:28-36; Matthew 17:1-6; Mark 9:1-8) present transfiguration as the process of radical transformation of Jesus’ body. Transfiguration discloses that the material body and face of Jesus is not the truthful one, for it reveals the material substance to be the figure only, the veil covering another true substance—the Holy Light. The figure here functions as a reference to something else beyond its borders (Iampol’skii 2007: 444). Magritte’s title, which has “to open up horizons sufficiently alienating for the viewer to wonder about the ulterior message conveyed by the picture” (Meuris 2004: 120), apparently points to de-materializing spiritualization according to the model of transfiguration. Magritte chose a title which names the procedure of “disguising” the visually shown material figure of a man in a bowler hat. The face of the man is hidden under the apple, which once more shows the material object to be “the figure only,” since it refers to Magritte’s apple “that is not an apple,” i.e., to Magritte’s painting This is not an Apple (Ceci n’est pas une pomme), also created in 1964.

Magritte’s painting itself is not connected to Kafka’s text. However, Fokin’s dialogue with Kafka does imply a reference to Magritte: the prologue presents the figure of a man with a bowler hat, marked by the static close-up, while the inner (Kafkaesque) part of the film presents the apple episode, marked by an especially loud sound. When this reference to the Magritte text appears in the cinematic version of Kafka’s narrative, it becomes an intertext and gains a particular meaning.[7]  Magritte’s apple indicates the physical reason for Gregor’s death, i.e., the apple thrown by Gregor’s father in the literary text, but the intertextual dialogue between Magritte, Fokin and Kafka de-materializes the physical reason for Gregor’s death and “transforms” the painting (The Son of Man) into a visual metaphor of Kafka’s text.

The title of the second painting, Man in the Bowler Hat, names the visual leitmotif of Magritte’s works—the unusual and, at the same time, the painter’s favourite headdress, the bowler hat.[8] The visage of the man in the bowler hat is hidden behind a dove, which is a Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit. The dove often appears in representations of the Annunciation, traditionally interpreted as the “Word made flesh,”[9] a phenomenon opposite to that of transfiguration, for it is the spirit which diminishes itself to a material body, not the body which elevates itself to the spirit, as in the process of transfiguration (Iampol’skii 2007: 431). Consequently, instead of “de-materializing” the visual image by a “spiritual” title, the title of the second painting (Man in a Bowler Hat) produces the opposite effect, that of embodying the “spiritual” visual image in the material world.

melnikovaFokin’s narrative quotes Magritte’s painting and simultaneously (just as in The Son of Man) deconstructs its visual layer: the two basic components, the man in a bowler hat and the dove, are depicted separately. The first is introduced in the frame preceding Gregor’s metamorphosis and after it (Gregor, men at a railway station, Samsa’s father in the epilogue), while the second (the dove) is shown in the inner text (Gregor’s love vision). In other words, the component connected to the material substance is placed before and after Kafka’s lines, while the component associated with the spirit is presented in “Kafka’s part of the text”. And it is precisely this inner episode with doves that is underlined by means of a radically different colour solution in comparison to other fragments of the film. Consequently, the film transforms the Magrittean tension of word versus image into the structural tension between Fokin’s “material authorial word” and Kafka’s “spiritual word,” between cinema and literature, between the cinematic “word,” which reveals itself as performing presentational movement, and the literary word, which appears to be born from this presentational gesture.

The third painting, Good Faith, not only partially obscures the man’s face, but also depicts an object in front of it. The object is none other than the pipe, evoking two well-known Magritte paintings: The Treason of Images. This Is Not a Pipe (La Trahison des images. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, 1928-29) and The Two Mysteries (Les deux mystères, 1966). In fact, Good Faith repeats the discursive movement of The Son of Man, for just as the latter refers to the “apple, that is not an apple,” the former hints at “the pipe, that is not a pipe”. 

Unlike the apple and the dove represented in the inner part of the film, the pipe is not depicted visually.  Nevertheless, I would argue that the movie quotes not only the first two Magritte’s paintings but Good Faith as well, since it creates an intricate audio-visual game that reveals the figure of Gregor himself as analogue to Magritte’s pipe. The beginning of the film introduces an anonymous figure later identified as Gregor. The identification is accomplished by his sister’s voice-over. However, in the inner text the same sister’s voice bawls out: “How can that be Gregor? How can that be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings cannot live with such a monster and would have gone away on his own accord. It can clear off!”[10] Thus, the visual image is named as Gregor and then this verbal description is denied: “This is not Gregor”. The film creates a compensatory mechanism i.e., it transforms the verbal inscription of the painted text (This is Not a Pipe) into the verbal figure of the cinematic soundtrack.

melnikovaMoreover, the cinematic narrative compels us to notice the disclaiming of the image because the structural “syllable” of the inner text—Gregor’s vision of his grave with the inscription “Gregor Samsa 1883 – redoubles the denying gesture. The inscription fixes Kafka’s, but not Gregor’s, date of birth. It repeats once more: “This is not Gregor Samsa”. Those who were not able to hear, are now forced to see.[11] In this way the narrative, in the first case by means of a pronounced word (the verbal figure of the soundtrack), in the second, by means of a written “word” (the date on the gravestone as a figure of the visual track), denies that the central figure is Gregor Samsa. Just as Magritte’s “apple is not an apple” and “pipe is not a pipe,” Fokin’s “Samsa is not Samsa”.

Re-presentation and “Authentic Imitation”
The Magritte-like imagery and discursive devices of Fokin’s narrative represent a self-denial of image which is alien to the tradition of European painting but typical of the icon painting tradition. The process of representation in European painting presupposes reduplication. The word “representation” as such assumes the operation of repetition, which shows a non-existing object and changes absence into the illusion of presence. Icon-painting, on the contrary, denies narcissistic reduplication, forces the image to deny itself, and thus completely overthrows the relationship between the original and the copy, radically transforming the problem of re-presentation.  Instead of the process of re-presentation, the icon reveals the process of incarnation, which is closely associated either with miraculous creation without a creator or with the material of creation (Iampol’skii 2007: 499-508).

In the first case we have an acheiropoieta (gr. αχειροποίητα), the Holy Image not made by the hand of man. Such examples as the Holy Mandylion (Image of Edessa) or Holy Face (The portrait of Our Saviour that miraculously emerged in his lifetime) and Veronica’s Veil  or Sudarium (the imprint of Jesus’ face) are considered to be relics presenting the materialization (incarnation) of the true image (vera icon). Neither God nor human being in this case can perform the function of a model or original. The holy relic is not an imitation of any model; it is the imitation of the process of incarnation carried out in the material substance (the pictorial material) of creation. This phenomenon is evident in Italian Renaissance paintings that depict Veronica’s Veil and show the face of Jesus as if existing separately from the material identified with the body of Jesus. Such a dissevered form of existence emphasizes the role of material in the process of iconic incarnation, and reveals the appearance of the original from the copy, or the overturning of the logical principle of resemblance (Iampol’skii 2007 453; 458).

In the second case, the phenomenon of incarnation is based on the strictly regulated technology of icon making. First, the surface of a wooden board must be adzed, then covered with a layer of canvas and a layer of gesso in order to create an ideally white and flat surface. This initial whiteness is considered to be equivalent to the lifeless and still invisible corpus. Later on, after an outline of an image is drawn on the board, the icon-maker applies the coats of pigment and covers the image with a layer of flaxseed or olive oil to make the object shine. The coats of pigment “incarnate the dead body.” As Iampol’skii points out, the icon-making process creates another type of mimesis, essentially different from that of traditional artistic (re-presentational) mimesis (2007: 506-507). Herein we can see “authentic imitation” paying special attention to the manipulation of material: all the transformations of material (all the “torments/passions” it has to experience/suffer) become the imitation of the Passion of Jesus. The invisible substance (transcendental content), in turn, reveals itself as soon as the visible image disclaims itself. In contrast to European painting, which does not tolerate the approach of a spectator to the texture of an image because it considers that this approach “kills” the image, the icon abolishes the distance between the eye and the image. Instead of the principle of resemblance prevailing in European painting, icon painting affirms the principle of differentiation of layers revealing the truth of un-likeness. Instead of the traditional re-presentational space of painting (which shows a non-existing object and changes absence into the illusion of presence), an icon creates a space which transforms an illusion of absence into presence and truth. By virtue of the process of “authentic imitation” of the Passion of Jesus, it brings the original into the world (Iampol’skii 2007: 503, 508).

“Authentic Imitation” and Adaptation
The narrative structure of The Metamorphosis, in its logic and the way it quotes Magritte’s paintings, embodies the icon-making solution to the problem of (re)presentation. Because the proposed argument may appear controversial in regard to both Fokin and Magritte, it is worth noting that it does not imply any sacral connotations. I am speaking about the icon-making principle, a structural principal without sacred content.

melnikovaAs mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the frames of the film oppose cinematic and literary writing modes. The order of presentation of credits shows the movement from cinema (the opening credits) to literature (the closing credits). Because the cinematic narration begins with Fokin’s authorial episodes (the authorial frames) and presents Kafkaesque lines in the second stage of narration, it structurally determines the same direction of movement,  the transition from cinema to literature.  Furthermore, the authorial filmic episodes point to two different partners of a dialogue and, consequently, to the two sources of imitation—literature and painting.  However, the dialogic relationship with a literary source is indicated by a written word (a caption near the picture of the beetle) in the part of the first frame which does not present any moving image, apart from the moving drop of rain. Still, the dialogue with Magritte’s paintings is indicated by a purely cinematic device—a static close-up forced to move by a pronounced word (the sister’s voice-over cue) in the part which begins to show the moving image. In other words, it is the pictorial discourse that the narrative defines as a source of “moving imitation.” Yet, just as the narrative deconstructs the cinematic discourse by the attempts to differentiate its layers and to reveal all the manipulations with the material of creation, it deconstructs the source of “moving imitation.” The pictorial image has to “suffer the torments/passions”: the imagery of a man wearing a bowler hat remains in Fokin’s authorial frame, while another part of the images (apple, dove, transformed pipe), marked out by special cinematic devices, moves to the inner, Kafkaesque, section of the text.

Like Magritte, Fokin “allows the old space of representation to rule but only at the surface” (Foucault 1983: 41). He creates a narrative that reveals its attitude towards the literary text it tries to embody, as well as towards the problem of adaptation as such. All the devices used in the creation of narrative overturn the traditional relation between a literary model and its cinematic copy. Just as the icon-making process turns out to be an imitation of the process of incarnation, the creation of this adaptation appears to be nothing but the imitation of an incarnation of Kafka’s literary text. In the same manner, all the manipulations with cinematic material (all the “passions of image”) prove to be the imitation of the “passions” of the literary text. Instead of the birth of cinematic adaptation from literary text, the narrative shows the incarnation of Kafka’s story. The narrative structure of The Metamorphosis explicates the process of cinematic adaptation not as the process of re-presentation but as a process which implies the presentational movement of incarnation.

Theatre director Valerii Fokin’s attempt to perform a cinematic metamorphosis of a literary text thus raises the theoretical question of cinematic adaptation. The solution he proposes is embodied in the principles of the narrative he has created. He does not try to imitate a literary source. On the contrary, he denies this model of imitation  (“This is not Gregor Samsa”) and declares another origin and another source—pictorial art. However, this essentially different source, together with essentially different devices, makes it possible to (re)create the codes that are responsible for the form and strategies of meaning of the literary text.

Irina Mel’nikova
Greimas Centre of Semiotics and Literary Theory, Vilnius University


This article is based on a paper delivered at the 17th International Screen Studies Conference "Sound and Music in Film, TV and Video", 4-6 July 2008, Glasgow University.

1] On Valerii Fokin, see the official website of The Meyerhold Centre.

2] Cinematic adaptations of Kafka’s novella include: Die Verwandlung (Jan Nemec, 1975); Förvandlingen (Iv Dvorák, 1976; Metamorphosis (Jim Goddard, 1987); La Metamorfosis de Franz Kafka (Carlos Atanes, 1993). To the best of my knowledge, Fokin’s cinematic version has only been discussed in the non-academic mass media.

3] While the second frame reveals the borders (barriers) within the fictional space with the help of the soundtrack, the text within the frames shows the borders visually: e.g., the father paints over the window above the door of Gregor’s room; the sister tries to sew up the curtain in Gregor’s room several times, etc.

4] The problem of barriers in Kafka’s fictional space has been discussed in Podoroga 1995, 391-399. The same peculiarity of Kafka space underlies Vladimir Nabokov’s interpretation (“Another thematic line is the theme of the doors, of the opening and closing of doors that runs through the whole story” (Nabokov 1980, 283).

5] The 35-year-old director committed suicide by hanging himself from the rigging of his theatre, Divadlo Na Zábradli (Theatre on the Balustrade). See, e.g., Allain, Paul. “Review on Jarka M.Burian, Modern Czech Theatre: Reflector and Conscience of Nation" in Theatre Quarterly 67.17.3 (2001), 294.

6] For various aspects of this issue, see: Meuris 2004; Levy 1997; Paquet 2000; Foucault 1983; Morstein 1983; Newall 2003.

7] In brief, the process of intertextual analysis may be outlined as follows: an element (fragment) of the text we read (intertextual quotation) points out the intertext (the cited text, the pre-text) and creates one of the possible dialogic strategies. The investigation of the strategy, in turn, permits one to outline the mutual parts of a dialogic field and supplies a certain direction to the signification process, which is “corrected” by the subsequent reading process and the entire discursive structure of the text.

8] For example Golconde, 1953; Le maître d’école (The Schoolmaster), 1954; Le bouquet tout fait (The Ready-Made Bouquet), 1956; Le Mois des vendanges (The Time of Harvest), 1959; L’esprit d’aventure (The Spirit of Adventure), 1962; Le Chef-d’Œuvre ou Les Mystères de l'horizon (The Masterpiece or the Mysteries of the Horizon), 1963; La reconnaissance infinie (Reconnaissance without End), 1963; Décalcomanie (Decalcomania), 1966, etc.

9] The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example in The Annunciation by Andrea del Sarto (1512-1513), Fra Angelico (1433-1434; 1430-1432), Antoniazzo Romano (1485), Federico Fiori Barocci (1592-1596) and others.

10] Compare the fragment of Kafka’s text in German: "Aber wie kann es denn Gregor sein? Wenn es Gregor wäre, er hätte längst eingesehen, daß ein Zusammenleben von Menschen mit einem solchen Tier nicht möglich ist, und wäre freiwillig fortgegangen“ (Kafka 1979, 123).

11] At the same time, the episode with a gravestone, as well as the episode with doves, could be interpreted as a hint to other Kafka texts: the first, as a reference to Kafka’s novella A Dream (Ein Traum, 1914), which presents the dream of the main character Joseph K., who sees his own name on a gravestone; the second, as a reference to the novella Gracchus the Huntsman (Der Jäger Gracchus, 1917).

Works Cited

Andrew, Dudley. Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Auden, Wystan Hugh. “Without a Self”, in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, 159-171. New York: Random House, 1962.

Cartmell, Deborah and Whelehan, Imelda (eds). Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text. London: Routledge, 1999.

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Meerson, Yana, “Vse mozhno povtorit’. No na samom dele povtorit’ nichego nel’zia” Interview with Valerii Fokin, Seans 13 (1996).

Foucault, Michel. This is not a Pipe, Berkley: University of California Press, 1983.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Iampolski, Michail. “Portret i ikona”, in Tkach i vizioner. Ocherki istorii reprezentatsii ili o material’nom i ideal’nom v kul’ture. Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2007.

Franz, Kafka. “Die Verwandlung”, in Erzählungen. Leipzig: Verlag Philipp Reclam, 1979.

Kafka, Franz. The Diaries of Franz Kafka:1910-1913, New York: Schocken Books, 1949.

Levy,Silvano (ed.). Surrealism: Surrealist Visuality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997.

Meuris, Jacques. Magritte 1898-1967, Leverkusen. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2004.

Morstein, Petra von. “Magritte: Artistic and Conceptual Representation”, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 41.4 (1983): 369-374.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis”, in Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Literature. New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

Newall, Michael. “A Restriction for Pictures and Some Consequences to a Theory of Depiction”, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 61.4 (2003): 381-394.

Paquet, Marcel. René Magritte, 1898-1967: Thought Rendered Visible, trans. Michael Claridge. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2000.

Podoroga, Valery. “Franz Kafka. Konstruktsia snovideniia”, in Vyrazhenie i smysl. Moskva: 1995, p. 391-399.  

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 2006.

Zintsov, Oleg.  “Novye popolznoveniia Gregora 3”, Vedomosti, 19 March 2002.

Irina Mel’nikova © 2009

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Updated: 11 Jul 09