Welles’ Trial

February 22, 2010

Orson Welles adaptation of Kafka’s Trial is a masterpiece of adaptation. I don’t mean to suggest that it in itself is brilliant (though it often is), rather, that it’s one of the most interesting adaptations I’ve ever seen. Kafka’s story does not lend itself easily to film; so much of its brilliance lies in its narrator’s voice (how would you work in “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K”?) and in its play with the genre of realism. Everything seems as if it’s obeying the laws the laws only to get farther away from reality as we learn more and more about its world. There’s also no coherent plot.

Welles’ adaptive genius is the mis-en-scene. Kafka’s spaces are often narrow and claustrophobic whereas Welles makes them overly monumental, though paradoxically still claustrophobic: it makes the bureaucracies seem even more impressive/oppressive. Rooms are sparse and minimal as if the world can no longer be at all decorous. The costuming give the world a classic-noir feel instead of the Imperial feel of the original. The world is recognizably Welles and Kafka.

And then there’s Joseph K.  The casting is brilliant. Two years after playing Norman Bates–still bearing the mark of killer–Anthony Perkins oscillates between innocence and guilt. But mostly, he’s just frustrated that he always seems two-steps behind everyone else. It’s a brilliant move by Welles who saw The Trial as a comedy. Instead of a morality tale, we’re suddenly given an enlightened Peanuts Strip with K as Charlie Brown. He never quite says “Arrgh” or “Good Grief!” but the sense of it lies behind everything else.

For those who haven’t seen many late Welles’ movies, The Trial is an excellent starting point. The production value manages to be high even as the budgets are low, and the artistry is there even as it struggles to come across in lesser settings. But most of all, it’s simultaneously brilliant and frustrating, something you’ll love dearly in retrospect even if you can’t love in the moment.