St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Donnie Darko and The Metamorphosis

or: Show Me Where the Bad Man Touched You

First thing on a Saturday morning, I’m going to pretend to be high-brow. The technique is so simple you can do it too. What you do is take a popular text that everyone already knows — let’s say, Donnie Darko (2001). Then you compare it with a text known to be high-brow, inaccessible and smart — say Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Now we all get to bask in the glow of being an insightful and erudite literary critic without all the years of actual work.

Donnie Darko

I read Donnie Darko and The Metamorphosis as the story of two essentially good people, Donnie Darko and Gregor Samsa, without whom the world would be a better place. Donnie is a nice guy, we know that. He gives intelligent answers in school without being a dick about it and he’s compassionate enough to stop Cherita being teased. He is never motivated by cruelty or malice. If he has one fault it’s being too sensitive to the world around him. But despite being a nice guy, Donnie makes things worse for everyone he knows. He gets his English teacher fired, exposes Jim Cunningham to public scandal, causes his girlfriend to be run over by a car, and shoots his sister’s boyfriend in the face. The whole of Donnie Darko is the process of Frank showing Darko the time stream in which he survives. When that time is up Darko actually welcomes the opportunity to go back in time and die in the plane crash that starts the movie. Donnie says it so succinctly when he grabs Cherita and says, “I promise that one day things will get better for you.” He knows that one day very soon the world will simply better off without him.

The Metamorphosis

The world is also better off without Gregor Samsa, another nice guy. He works himself into a nervous exhaustion at a job he hates in order to support his family. By waking up one day as an insect, Samsa is immediately removed from the story and reduced to the role of an observer. From the vantage of his bedroom he watches his family blossom. His sister becomes assertive and responsible, his father grows a spine and his mother becomes a seamstress. They all get jobs. They become self-sufficient. They become happier. And the final rush of that happiness comes when Samsa dies. The way his sister basks in her youthful, sexual vigor is almost obscene considering what’s just happened to her brother: “And, as if in confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions, as soon as they reached their destination Grete was the first to get up and stretch out her young body.” Despite being a good man, the only thing Samsa ever achieved was to hold his family back. They were better off without him.

Donnie Darko and The Metamorphosis are part of a little-used and unnamed genre that I call “show me where the bad man touched you”. Texts in this genre are not so much focused on plot but rather on the impact the protagonist has on the people around him. In texts like Donnie Darko and The Metamorphosis we have protagonists who have a negative impact on the people they know. Darko and Samsa make people’s lives worse. There are other texts, however, in which the protagonist makes people’s lives better.

Think about Harvey (1950) or A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In each of these we have a truly mad central character — Elwood P. Dowd with his invisible bunny rabbit, and the indignant, supercilious Ignatius J. Reilly. Despite being mad, Dowd brings a kind of peace and appreciation into people’s lives. Despite being an abusive, delusional meddler, Ignatius accidentally sets everyone else’s messed-up lives back on track. In this way our texts are opposites of each other. Darko and Samsa are nice guys who make the world worse, while Dowd and Reilly are madmen who make the world better. It’s also true that both Harvey and Donnie Darko feature a giant, imaginary bunny rabbit. I can’t help but wonder if one didn’t influence the other.

On a Saturday morning my massive, unwieldy brain has determined that Donnie Darko is like Kafka. This is really the only way I can process The Metamorphosis. I can’t see any point to it other than the idea that good people can be a bad influence. But now you know the technique to appearing more intelligent than you actually are, you too can write shallow and uninformed treatises about books no-one cares about. Who wants to take Jurassic Park vs. Anne of Green Gables? Anyone?

  • Donnie Darko. Dir. Richard Kelly. 2001. Blu-ray. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008.

  • Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. Trans. David Wyllie. Project Gutenberg, 2005. Web. 21 July 2012 <>