Some days ago, I was invited to watch again a children-horror classic: The Witches, a Roald Dahl book adaptation for film by Nicolas Roeg. In the film, the protagonist Luke is transformed into a mouse by a convention of evil witches, whose goal is to exterminate all children from the face of the planet, for the only reason of their opinion that children are disgusting. The transformation of humans to animals was also an important motive in the recent movie The Lobster by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. In the imagined universe of this film, the inhabitants who want to find a love partner need to check into a hotel isolated from society. If they failed to find a partner within forty days, they are transformed into an animal (of their own choice).
In both films, the transformation into an animal is considered as a curse. The protagonist in The Witches, Luke, easily adapts to its new existence as a mouse and plots a revenge against the witch convention with the help of his grandmother. For the protagonist in The Lobster, David, the transformation into an animal will only remain a daunting prospect, but daunting enough nonetheless to escape the hotel and live in the wild as a “loner” in a group of renegades who are actively persecuted by the “adapted” members of the society.
In both cases though, the cause of the transformation is clear. It is the result of an explicit policy to exterminate certain people from society; children and singles respectively. Not so clear is the cause of the transformation of Gregor Samsa in the famous novel by Franz Kafka Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis), who wakes up one morning realizing he has become an insect. While Luke and David try to actively rebel against the people who instituted the transformation of people into animals, Samsa’s only possible action is to explore his own guilt to find out why he deserves such a punishment.
Becoming an animal is in all stories perceived as something involuntarily and undesirable. Being an animal if you have been human before is apparently a regression from a “higher” state of being. From transforming into an animal, it is only a small step to complete annihilation, which Samsa will in fact suffer. All stories show an anthropocentric worldview, to which animal life is clearly distinguished and also inferior. If we put the animal at the centre of attention, Luke could be considered as liberated from the repulsion of the witches (his new natural enemy will be the cat, another animal); David could find liberation from the pressures of human society to behave in a certain way if he would accept being transformed into a lobster. Only for poor Samsa, the transformation into an insect will just be the beginning of his soul searching. If guilt is not restricted to the human world, we could ask whether Samsa has in fact transformed into an animal or whether he can only really understand the gravity of the human condition as an animal.