The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa: A Wonderful Sand Animation of the Classic Kafka Story (1977)

At home I often watch EBS, essen­tial­ly Kore­a’s equiv­a­lent of PBS, which often airs short inter­sti­tial seg­ments drawn in sand to fill the time between pro­grams. Only recent­ly have I learned that sand actu­al­ly has a gen­uine his­to­ry as a medi­um for ani­ma­tion, one that has pro­duced a work as strik­ing as Car­o­line Leaf’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis of Mr. Sam­sa back in 1977. Astute (or even not-very-astute) Kaf­ka fans will rec­og­nize this as an adap­ta­tion of The Meta­mor­pho­sis, far and away the writer’s best-known sto­ry, in which the young sales­man Gre­gor Sam­sa wakes up trans­formed into a giant bug. Find it in our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks col­lec­tions.

We see this bug writhing his way out of bed before we see any oth­er action in Leaf’s ten-minute sand short, whose (yes) ever-shift­ing visu­al tex­ture lends itself well to the theme of the tale. Not that this con­ver­gence of form and sub­stance came eas­i­ly: “What makes [Leaf’s] work stand out is the con­trol of the mate­r­i­al,” writes John­ny Chew, About Tech’s ani­ma­tion expert. “The Meta­mor­pho­sis of Mr. Sam­sa is an awe­some short film on its own, and a great adap­ta­tion of the Kaf­ka work, but when you con­sid­er the style in which it was made and the con­trol that would have to go into each frame, it’s unbe­liev­able.”

“The medi­um of ani­ma­tion, and specif­i­cal­ly cer­tain ani­mat­ed tech­niques, offer an abil­i­ty to faith­ful­ly repro­duce in part both the con­tent and the per­cep­tu­al expe­ri­ence of a lit­er­ary work,” writes Geof­frey Beat­ty in his paper “The Prob­lem of Adap­ta­tion Solved!.” In it, he quotes the ani­ma­tor on why she chose this par­tic­u­lar sto­ry: “ ‘Kafka’s sto­ries give this kind of room to invent,’ she says. This was an impor­tant val­ue for Leaf as she was estab­lish­ing a body of work based on a unique visu­al approach. The Meta­mor­pho­sis, sug­gest­ed to her by a friend and men­tor, was a good fit, as her own ‘black and white sand images had the poten­tial to have a Kaf­ka-esque feel – dark and mys­te­ri­ous.’ ”

The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa

Any worth­while artis­tic medi­um impos­es lim­i­ta­tions — and sand, as you’d imag­ine, impos­es some pret­ty seri­ous ones. Work­ing with it, Leaf “would not be able to cre­ate high­ly detailed images [such as] the fes­ter­ing wound on Gregor’s back or his over­all dete­ri­o­ra­tion and decay. How­ev­er, this lim­i­ta­tion was not nec­es­sar­i­ly a prob­lem. ‘I think that the lim­i­ta­tions of draw­ing in sand, the sim­pli­fi­ca­tions that it requires, made me inven­tive in the sto­ry­telling in the ways I men­tioned above. Sand forced me to adapt the sto­ry to sand, which is inter­est­ing.’ ”

Those read­ers who apply the word “Kafkan” to any point­less­ly dif­fi­cult task (like, say, get­ting out the door to work when you’ve become a giant bug) might also use it to describe Leaf’s labor-inten­sive sand ani­ma­tion process. But unlike a tru­ly Kafkan labor, Leaf’s gen­er­at­ed a result — and a delight­ful one at that. Now if only the next gen­er­a­tion of sand ani­ma­tors would step foward to adapt the rest of Kafka’s oeu­vre. Maybe we could inter­est PBS in air­ing it?

Find more lit­er­ary ani­ma­tions in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

20 Ani­ma­tions of Clas­sic Lit­er­ary Works: From Pla­to and Dos­to­evsky, to Kaf­ka, Hem­ing­way & Brad­bury

Watch Franz Kaf­ka, the Won­der­ful Ani­mat­ed Film by Piotr Dumala

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Won­der­ful Life: The Oscar-Win­ning Film About Kaf­ka Writ­ing The Meta­mor­pho­sis

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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