Research 2 – Franz Kafka

Research 2 – The Metamorphosis (Kafka)

A short story first published in 1915, The Metamorphosis is about a man called Gregor who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a beetle.


Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague, into a middle-class family.  Prague was the centre point for Bohemian thinking and art at that time.  He studied law and practiced it and his writing was only done in his spare time.  He wrote a number of short stories that were published in magazines but nothing of prominence ever came of them at the time.  After his death at the age of 40, his friend went against his wishes to destroy all his work.  He became famous as a result and his work is very popular and influential.

The Metamorphosis is a short story by Kafka.  It focuses on Gregor, who wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a beetle.  As the story has very little to focus on beyond the elements listed above, the challenge to illustrators is how to convey the cover of a book for this story without revealing important details.

As it is stated clearly that the beetle transformation occurs, it isn’t a big reveal.  It can be used.  The story however, alludes to a tone and vibe that resonates with despair and isolation.  The emotion conveyed with the transformation is something that would be important to convey to readers.

Elements within the story:

  • Door
  • Beetle
  • Parents house
  • Bedroom
  1. How have illustrators tackled this story?

For the book cover designs, it seems that a lot of the illustrators focused on the after of the transformation.  There are some that chose to show half man, half beetle to suggest that the transformation was in progress as we view it.

The font and the colours used are important and none of them except one, have used primary colours or pastels or any type of happy colour palette.  There is a definite colour palette of aged paper, black and sepia and echoes of the past.  The two book covers that used red and blue, are predominantly pushing for the horror element in the top row.  The blue with red text is going for a more paper collage and quirky feel.

The one I am drawn to the most is the first.  It has a beetle in bed on it’s back and the original although black and white, is a beautifully detailed line drawing.  It echoes elements of illustration from old books and the character in the image doesn’t appear as threatening.  It has an unusual quality to it but there is an element of curiosity that draws you in.

  1. How have illustrators used the elements?

As mentioned, most of the illustrators have opted for the transformation rather than the angst, isolation and confusion that was depicted in the original cover.  I feel that the ones with the beetle cover are clearer and more interesting than the original cover with a man in a house coat.  Perhaps it was too strong for that time period, but the man holding his head and a door ajar isn’t enticing enough.

One of the illustrators opted for the beetles’ legs to become the font, which was a lovely twist and the play on the word ‘metamorphosis’ is something that worked.  The most successful colour palette for me, however, is the last illustration which has elements of purple, yellow, red and green.  The colours work well, and the textured layers are something I really enjoy seeing.  A pinned beetle would indicate something to be examined or collected, so it holds the image in place while we admire this sample of an unusual beetle.

  1. In relation to film, artists, theatre, T.V. and other visual representations.  Where in the narrative have artists placed the image – before, after or during the transformation?

After the transformation seems to be a common starting point for a lot of the visual representations in movies.  The movie genre, whether they’ve chosen to interpret the book as a psychological horror or just a horror, has influenced where the focus is placed on the image.

For some, the ‘monster’ created is the focus, with a reflection in the eye of the beetle for the 2012 version.  For others, it is about the transformation and a reference in bright colours to the stages of a butterfly are used.  In others, the focus is on the insects oversized teeth and potential threat. 

  1. How have illustrators’ choices framed your understanding of what the story is about?

The illustrators for the book covers have put the beetle front and centre for the image and the juxtaposition of human environment and oversized insect produces an alarming visual.  In the cases where human form has been used, it either looks less dramatic or a book about depression and anguish but not about transformation, or it evokes a sense that the book is a horror and about possession.

There are lots of various illustrations completed in charcoal, pen and ink, sepia and pencil.  Some have used watercolours while oils have been used for portraits of Franz.  The most common colour palette involves that pale yellow/beige and sepia, black and white and a strong red accent for the apple.

For the comics, the style of the illustrator or artist shines through but the tone of the story remains consistent in that it is black and white or black and sepia.

images sourced from google search ‘the metamorphosis’

The sequential art has a strong humour in it but it tells the story with the same panic and anxiety in how the character, Gregor, wakes up.  The detailed linework of Crumb helps us to feel that sense of enclosed space and panic at being trapped.

In comparison, Tianshu has opted for a very simple illustration, the beetle is human sized and the people visibly in fear.  The colours are simple and the texture from the dry brush adds to the image immensely.  The simplicity of the image and the wrap around nature of the cover is really effective.

Ben Jones has opted for a mashup of man and beetle, focusing on the various parts, distorting it and dissecting it.  This feels very experimental and the boxes indicate something of a science lab experiment and curiosity in examining this unusual biological mishap.

  1. Which is the most successful?
image by Tianshu – sourced from

From the images viewed, the ones that stand out for me are the picture book style cover of Tianshu and Ben Jones.  They’re very different.  The colour and arrangement for the illustration by Tianshu has a playfulness to it in the characters design.  It doesn’t feel heavy but the colours suggest anxiety.  The size of the beetle suggests a light terror but there is a clean design to the composition and the wrap around cover means you see the beetle on the front and the terrified people on the back of the book.  I really like this design.

Ben Jones – imaged sourced at

Ben Jones has a more intense image, it evokes a lot more and it suggests that the human and insect have morphed and morphed again, and science has tried to make sense of it with it’s glass box trying to contain it.  This could represent the mind and the fragmentation of it, so it is a stronger representation of the story.

Refs in pdf