The Metamorphosis

One of my very first English professors, a kindly old lady at Chaffey College, once told us not to bother reading boring books. "There are too many good books out there," she said, "to waste your time reading something you're not enjoying."

It was great advice, which I still adhere to almost 17 years later. Of course, I also understood that she was talking about our personal reading preferences, as opposed to what we were assigned to read as students. In the course of my education, I had to read a lot of stories that I would otherwise not have entertained had my grade not been on the line. I came to equate—as so many students do—school reading with boring reading.

That was all before I read Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

"As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard armorlike back and when he raised his head a little he saw his vaulted brown belly divided into sections by stiff arches from whose height the coverlet had already slipped and was about to slide off completely."

-Franz Kafka, 'The Metamorphosis' (translated by Donna Freed

There I was, in my bedroom, reading about this man, Gregor Samsa, who woke up one morning and found himself transformed into a giant cockroach! (Note to reader: The Metamorphosis has been translated several times and in the first version I read Gregor Samsa was transformed into a "cockroach," as opposed to an "insect" or "vermin.") Of course, my immediate thought was that Kafka was speaking metaphorically and Gregor simply felt like a cockroach. But, as I read on, I discovered that Gregor actually had transformed. And, while there are plenty of metaphorical implications in the subtext, it was, on its surface, a story about a man who turned into an cockroach. And I was reading it for school!

When I first encountered The Metamorphosis about 11 years ago as an English major at Cal State San Bernardino, I felt like I'd discovered some wonderful secret, some hidden gem buried in my otherwise boring textbook. Perhaps because I was so excited about The Metamorphosis, I sort of dominated the discussion we had about it in class. Soon thereafter, I ended up writing my first English paper as a university student about it, analyzing Gregor Samsa's relationship with his sister (which I argued could be viewed as an incestuous longing on his part). And a few weeks after that, I gave an oral presentation on The Metamorphosis for extra credit. I didn't really need the extra points, I just didn't want to stop talking about it.

"He would have needed arms and hands to prop himself up, instead of which he had only the many little legs that continually waved every which way and which he could not control at all. If he wanted to bend one, it was the first to stretch itself out, and if he finally succeeded in getting this leg to do what he wanted, the others in the meantime, as if set free, waved all the more wildly in painful and frenzied agitation."

-Franz Kafka, 'The Metamorphosis' (translated by Donna Freed)

A few years after reading The MetamorphosisI started writing articles for a movie blog called Criticide. One particular week, having not watched any of the movies that were out in theaters, I decided to pay homage to Franz Kafka by writing a fake movie review for a fake film adaptation of The Metamorphosis. The fake review was titled "Being Franz Kafka."

Around the same time that I was writing for Criticide, I started working on my debut novel, Inside the Outside. Had I not been introduced to The Metamorphosis, there's no telling what story I might've written. But, because of Kafka, I felt emboldened. He made me feel like it was okay to embrace my imagination, to write the sort of (strange, dark, surreal) stories I found most interesting. Were it not for Kafka, I have no reason to believe that Timber Marlow—the cannibal heroine of my novel—would ever have been born. I knew this even as I was writing my novel and, wanting to pay tribute to Kafka's story, I made it part of my book:

Before reading The Metamorphosis, I assumed that the world of academia was a place for "proper" stories. Perhaps because I spent so much time in the exercise of literary analysis, I was haunted by the notion that my stories wouldn't be taken seriously. 

They wouldn't be discussed in classrooms or written about in term papers. And, while I knew that's not what made a story good or bad, I couldn't help but feel slighted.  I felt that way all the way until I read The Metamorphosis. 

So, for me, Franz Kafka literally changed my perception of what literature could be. Because of him, I learned there was a place for writers like me. Or, at least, a place for the writer that I hoped one day to become.

10 Movies That Feel Like Novels: PART ONE

PART ONE | PART TWO 

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My two great loves in this world are books and movies, so when a great book is adapted into a great movie, I am generally left in a state of euphoric bliss. I love when, during the opening credits, some version of "Based on the novel _____ By _____" turns up, as it means that somebody's already put in the hard work of writing a novel and getting it published, then somebody else read the novel and decided to go through the trouble of adapting it into a movie, so, by virtue of its journey, by the time the film reaches the big screen the probability of me loving it has gone up exponentially.

The most recent book adaptations that I saw—and loved—were Silver Linings Playbook (based on the novel by Matthew Quick) and Life of Pi (based on the novel by Yann Martell). A few of my other favorite films adapted from books are Jaws (based on the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley), The Godfather (based on the novel by Mario Puzo), The Shawshank Redemption (based on the novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" from the collection Different Seasons by Stephen King), Slumdog Millionaire (based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup), and 25th Hour (based on the novel by David Benioff).

Sometimes, however, I'll watch a movie that tells a story with such literary flair, I simply assume it was based on a novel. And when I discover that movie was not based on a novel at all, I'm left feeling appreciation and disappointment. Appreciation for a story well told and disappointment for the wonderful novel that does not exist. There are several movies that I've watched over the years that felt like they were adapted from novels; in some cases the feeling was so strong, I nearly checked my bookshelf to read a particular passage that only really exists on celluloid.

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1. Almost Famous (2000)

Watching Almost Famous in the theatre was like watching a movie that was made just for me (and, considering how poorly it did in the box office, it may very well have been). It's a coming-of-age story that is screaming to be a novel, especially since it's the semi-autobiographical tale of the writer/director Cameron Crowe who penned the novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as well as its subsequent screenplay adaptation. The story is about William Miller, a 15-year-old boy who loves rock n' roll and dreams of being a music journalist. He lucks into the chance of a lifetime when Rolling Stone Magazine (completely unaware that he's not yet a legal adult) hires him to go on tour with rising rock band Stillwater for a feature story. Even film critic Roger Ebert senses the literary nature of this story, as he writes in his review, "It's as if Huckleberry Finn came back to life in the 1970s, and instead of taking a raft down the Mississippi, got on the bus with the band."

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2. Bull Durham (1988)

Written and Directed by Ron Shelton, Bull Durham is easily my favorite sports movie and one of my all-time favorite films period. While it's not based on a novel, it has a smart and sultry narrator in Annie Sevoy, as well as some interesting things to say about the overlapping interests of sports and religion. The story is about two minor league baseball players: Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, a young pitcher destined for the major leagues, and Crash Davis, a veteran catcher who's smarts and savvy were never quite enough to get him into the big leagues.  Crash resents Nuke both for his physical gifts and his inability to fully appreciate them. But, more than that, he resents him because they both want the same woman: Annie.

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3. Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan is probably my favorite Woody Allen film. It's the story about a 30-something man name Issac, recently divorced and currently dating a 17-year-old high school student. Issac quits his well-paying job as a TV writer in order to pen his first novel. The movie actual starts with a voiceover from our protagonist, Issac, as he attempts to compose an opening passage for his fictional novel. "Chapter One. He adored New York City," Issac starts, "He romanticised it all out of proportion. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin." My goodness, how I'd love to read the rest of that book!

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4. Good Will Hunting (1997)

In 1997, I probably watched Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting at least five or six times; and, a couple years later, it would become the first DVD that I ever owned. This one has novel written all over it.  It's about a 20-year-old  mathematical genius, Will Hunting, who works as a janitor at MIT by day and drinks with his knucklehead buddies by night. Will is an orphan who suffered severe physical and emotional abuse from his foster dad. He's never really had a father figure in his life, until, after getting in trouble with the law, he's forced by the court to go to therapy. He's eventually paired up with Sean Maguire, a widowed psychology professor who—like Will—was once a boy genius growing up on the wrong side of town. Oh, I can practically feel my fingers turning the pages when I think about this movie.

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5. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich not only feels like it was adapted from a novel, it actually feels like that novel was written by Franz Kafka. The story is about Craig Schwartz, a struggling puppeteer who, in need of money, gets a miserable office job on the 7 ½ floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building. Hidden behind a filing cabinet, Craig discovers a portal into the head of world-famous actor John Malkovich (who, being a good sport, plays himself in the film). The story itself isn't simply a gimmick, either; it explores issues of personal identity and self, as each character, at various points in the film, pretends to be somebody they're not (usually John Malkovich) in the hopes of gaining love and acceptance from people who they worry (sometimes rightly so) would neither love nor accept them for who they are. If that's not the stuff of literature, I don't know what is!