District 9 and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

I’m writing this a day early, since I’m going to be away for a while from tomorrow and the demands of suitcases waiting to be filled mean this piece will be something of a ramble. Yet I want to briefly touch on something from an earlier post, as I saw something last night that gave me some small thoughts about what I wrote back then.

When Litro was focusing on film, I wrote about the difficulty of adapting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for the screen. In that instance I didn’t feel that the filmmakers had successfully transferred the story to the cinema. Well, last night I went to see District 9, and enjoyed it immensely. There were parts of it that were utterly, cover-your-eyes horrifying, so perhaps ‘enjoyed’ is an odd word to use, but nevertheless, I thought it was quite brilliant, and I’m mentioning it here because it reminded me of one of the greatest short fiction writers you could ever hope to encounter, Franz Kafka.

District 9

For me District 9 is a textbook example of how ideas from the page can be transferred to film, and it’s not even an adaptation.  All the same there are striking similarities: an unremarkable, mid-level bureaucrat endures a sudden and terrifying physical transformation and consequent rejection from society. It’s Kafka all over, and I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t a direct influence on the filmmakers. The obvious comparison is “The Metamorphosis”, because the aliens in District 9 are insect-like and the central character in that short story turns into a bug, but there are also shades of The Trial in there. The main similarity though, is in the narrative’s psychological proximity to the character experiencing the ordeal. Kafka is chiefly interested not in the bizarre process of a person becoming a kind of insect, but the goings-on inside that person’s head as the transformation takes place. Likewise in District 9, since huge portions of the film consist of close-up shots of the lead character’s face as he endures horror after horror at the hands of, principally—not aliens but—human beings.

In my post about Benjamin Button I implied rather pessimistically that I didn’t think there were ways to transfer certain kinds of stories to the screen, and I’d always thought that was certainly true about “The Metamorphosis”, but District 9 proved me wrong. Again, I know it’s not a true adaptation, but it is at least in the tradition of that specific line of horror we now call the Kafkaesque. I’d recommend it heartily, followed by a sit down with a strong drink and something light-hearted or whimsical.

Ali Shaw

About Ali Shaw

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.

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