The 1956 version of The Fly begins with one of the main characters, Helene, confessing to killing her husband, Andre, to her brother-in-law, Francois. Francois arrives to the grisly scene of his brother’s head and arm crushed in an industrial press. After questioning Helene, the inspector Charas determines that she murdered her husband, but is insane. Francois, who is in love with her, disagrees and tries to clear her name. Francois convinces Helene to tell her lucid story to himself and Charas, giving us the backstory of Andre. Andre had been experimenting with teleportation, the breaking down of matter into atoms and sending it to another destination. After a few troubles with the process, Andre finally attempts a human experiment; himself. Unbeknownst to Andre, a fly had worked its way into the cabin that housed Andre. This combined their molecules and Andre teleported with the head and arm of a fly. Sending notes to his wife because he is no longer able to speak, Andre tries to fix the problem as Helene looks for the fly that has Andre’s head and arm. Unable to find it and beginning to feel the mental debilitation, he tells Helene to kill him. She makes her way to the press with him to end his life. Charas now believes that Helene is truly insane and declares that she must be committed to an insane asylum; Francois attempts to find the fused fly to clear Helene’s name. Both Francois and Charas find the fly and Charas kills it out of fear. They agree to concoct a story that clears Helene of murder, and the story ends with Francois and Helene and Helene’s son Philippe living happily ever after.
The Fly (1986)
In the 1986 adaptation of The Fly, we open up on scientist Dr. Seth Brundle, an eccentric and enthusiastic scientist trying to speak to a journalist Ronnie. After explaining his project that he believes can change the world, Seth convinces Ronnie to come to his apartment. After a few more meetings the two become a couple where they begin to care for each other. After a small fight during a celebratory moment for Brundle, Ronnie walks away to take care of problems with her ex. Brundle decides at that point that it would be ideal to be a human test subject for his teleportation machine. Brundle does not notice, but the camera pans to a fly that landed inside his machine. Brundle emerges from the other side, seemingly unharmed. After Ronnie returns she begins to notice some differences in Seth’s behavior. At first they are subtle, but then both physical and emotional traits are evident. Seth has begun a type of metamorphosis, and not for the better. In a turn of events, Ronnie realizes that she is pregnant with Brundle’s child. Fearing that it might be a monster, she opts for an abortion. Brundle overhears this and proceeds to kidnap her, taking her back to his lab. Ronnie’s ex attempts a rescue at the cost of a hand and a foot, but after another struggle and Brundle’s final transformation into a fly, they manage to severely wound him. In this moment, Brundle asks for Ronnie to end his life.
Because this is an adaptation, there are many similarities. One of the main similarities is the framework of the story, a scientist attempting to teleport matter. Of course in the 1986 version there are a few updates to help modernize the concept, but they are roughly the same thing. There is also a type of love triangle between two men and one woman, the main protagonists being in a relationship with each other while one other male protagonist looks on from the outside. Another strong similarity is the romance interest from the perspective of the wife or girlfriend to the husband or boyfriend, respectively. There is a kind of beauty and the beast romance at play where the woman is in love with a man who is transformed into something hideous. Despite these deformations, the women are both still in love with the man that they know is underneath. They attempt to help and rehabilitate their significant others, but unlike a Disney ending these movies end with a woman killing the man she loves, unable to bring him back from the creature he has become.
Despite being an adaption some of the points of difference are fairly substantial. One of the main differences is certainly a product of its time. The male protagonist in the 1986 version stands in stark contrast to the original 1958 version. In 1958 most male characters were romantic and charming. Jeff Goldblum’s interpretation moves in a completely different direction. Instead of being a caring, hardworking and rich scientist with a family, Seth Brundle is a bit awkward, poor, and eccentric. One of the most important differences is the transformation process. In the 1958 version of The Fly, the transformation is immediate. Andre is immediately part fly, hiding his head and arm from his wife Helene. In contrast Seth Brundle’s transformation happens gradually. He begins to notice small things, fingernails falling off and extra thick hairs, until eventually his transformation becomes far more obvious. “There are clear parallels to the pop psychological stages of grief, but Cronenberg and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue add another wrinkle to the mix in the form of the encroaching influence of the fly DNA. It’s one of the few ideas borrowed from the 1958 original (itself an adaptation of a 1957 short story by George Langelaan), but here made immeasurably more interesting. In the ’50s version, the fly mind makes itself known through controlling the scientist’s one entirely insectile arm, leaving poor actor David Hedison wrestling with himself on set. Cronenberg reimagines it as a subtler influence, creeping into Brundle’s decision-making, blurring the lines between compassionate human thought and the ruthless insect mind. As the Brundlefly becomes increasingly erratic during the film’s finale, it becomes harder and harder to tell where Brundle ends and the fly begins, which is exactly Cronenberg’s point. By the film’s end, there’s no point looking for Brundle – he’s long gone. So’s the fly, and all that’s left now is the Brundlefly hybrid” (lwlies.com).
Historical References and Inspiration
One of the most notable things about The Fly is to understand where its inspiration comes from. Frankenstein has an enormous impact on both versions of the film, evidenced in a variety of ways. “The Fly is a classic sci-fi B Movie about the hubris of a brilliant scientist, with psychological chills akin to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and themes that echo William Blake’s “The Fly”. I first saw it as a teenager on late-night television, and loved its Gothic chills and classy interpretation of future technology, juxtaposed with 1950s elegance. It posed familiar questions for the genre: does man have the right to tame the universe for his own ends? Is man at the mercy of nature? But it managed to become more cautionary tale than pure dystopian sci-fi; reflecting the aspirations as well as the pitfalls of the nuclear age”(framerated.co.uk).
It is impossible to talk about this film without talking about Frankenstein. Frankenstein is one of the most popular stories ever told and redefined the way the world looked at storytelling as a whole. Mary Shelley challenged the world with her dark stories and gruesome content. Unsurprisingly the daughter of philosophers, Mary Shelley asked important questions about science, life, death, and morality. As Jeff Goldblum says in another cult favorite “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” This truth is echoed through the Frankenstein archetype and adaptations. How far should we push the limit of humanity? In the 1958 version Andre himself asks the same question, driving home to point that Mary Shelley was making years ago.
To end with another quote, “The Fly remains absorbing and entertaining, and it’s easy to see why such a mind-bending story could become one of 1958’s biggest box office hits. Although its theme of “there are some things that man should leave alone” was well-worn even back then, The Fly humanizes the story more successfully than many other sci-fi films of the time” (denofgeek.com).