Essays · Movies

Trials and Tribulations: The Art of Adapting Kafka

Should all adaptations of classic works be faithful?
By  · Published on April 7th, 2017

Should all adaptations of classic works be faithful?

In an interview with the BBC’s Hew Wheldon, Orson Welles set out his philosophy concerning adaptation, more specifically, his willingness to interpret and alter source material:

WHELDON: Do you have any compunction about changing a masterpiece?

WELLES: Not at all, because film is quite a different medium. Film should not be a fully illustrated, all-talking, all-moving version of a printed work, but should be itself, a thing of itself. In that way it uses a novel in the same way a playwright might use a novel – as a jumping off point from which he will create a complete new work. So no, I have no compunction about changing a book. If you take a serious view of filmmaking, you have to consider that films are not an illustration or an interpretation of a work, but quite as worthwhile as the original.

The “masterpiece” Wheldon is referring to is Franz Kafka’s The Trial, published in 1925. In it, an ambitious office worker is arrested on unnamed charges, prosecuted by an illogical and masochistic judicial system, and executed in a ditch – like Welles says: “Read the book sometime. It’s short.”

Welles brought The Trial to the big screen 1962, and it is, in every practical sense, an outstanding cinematic achievement (as well as Welles’ favourite among his own films). It is to Welles’ eternal credit that he is one of the few filmmakers – perhaps the only one so far – to successfully realize Kafka on-screen in a mainstream capacity. Kafka isn’t easy to film; his prose, while certainly visual, is intense, and his style is so unrelentingly personal that any narrative or tonal deviation is immediately suspect.

a tale of two Josephs

There is only one other film adaptation of The Trial. It was made in 1993 by David Jones and stars Kyle MacLachlan with a screenplay from Harold Pinter and currently boasts a well-deserved 33% on Rotten Tomatoes. And while there’s nothing particularly spicy about crowning Orson fucking Welles the superior filmmaker – setting these two adaptations alongside one another, charting their narrative and technical difference as well as their respective (in)fidelity to the source material, does yield some compelling insight into what it takes to realize Kafka on-screen; that such adaptation demands not only a baseline craftsmanship, but an artistry.

The divergent portrayals of the bureaucrat-turned-suspect Joseph K. are immediately striking. In Welles, K. is played by a squirmy and endlessly endearing Anthony Perkins, who twitchily oscillates from smarminess to rage, from vexation to defeat, his voice erupting in conjecture one moment, only to devolve into stuttered self-effacement the next. Critically, Perkins’ K. is not just some innocent pencil-pusher, or sheepish victim, but a (partially) willing servant of the system itself. In a rare Q&A session in 1981, Welles put it like this:

[K. is] not the poor little faceless accountant but a young man very anxious to get ahead in this awful world and is doing his best to do that and therefore is in a state of real neurosis because he is both terrified of, and anxious to, conquer the same thing.

For Welles, K.’s complicity in this irrational violent system is no small point, nor is it something passive; it blinds him to the uneasy way in which he interacts with women, to his cruelty towards his fellow accused, and to his own misplaced sense of entitlement. Gradually, K.’s initial righteousness contorts into inspired madness; not quite resignation, but something resembling understanding (“so I’ve lost my case, what of it!”). McLachlan, whose inactivity is more in line with the text, is comparatively one-note, consistently speak-shouting a bland indignation that never really amounts to much more than that. Consequently, Jones’ protagonist lacks the essential vulnerability that invests us in Perkins. It’s difficult to buy McLachlan’s gentlemanly K. as a man whose life is gradually corroding on all sides, let alone a three-dimensional character who is both oppressed by, and a member of society.

Like K.’s more pronounced complicity, the nightmarish quality of Welles’ scenery is thematically resonant: it is a deliberately fractured and confounding world. Unlike Kafka’s text, which anxiously represents the jumbled crush of a crowded human populace, the streets of Welles’ city are empty; an alienating and faceless extension of bureaucracy. It’s a landscape unfixed not only spatially, but temporally, straddling both a pseudo-Soviet modernism and a decayed and fetid 19th century aesthetic. These are improbable, paranoid spaces: the closet where K. finds the court officials being flogged is in his office building; the back door of Tintorelli’s water tower-based portrait studio which inexplicably leads to the law court office; a door in a seemingly abandoned apartment that gives way to a massive courtroom. These disorienting moments are also present in Jones’ Trial, but are undermined by the film’s firm rooting in 19th century Prague, and effectively amount to isolated incidents rather than an ever-present visual sense of un-reality. Meanwhile, space in Welles’ Trial, constantly alternates between the intimidatingly vast and the stiflingly claustrophobic, to the effect of literally inducing existential nausea in our hero. Jones’ K. also suffers from queasiness, but we never suspect that his surroundings are the cause. Not so in Welles, were it is as if the spatial illogic of Lewis Carroll (or H.H. Holmes) has been writ law, endemic of a systematic and impenetrable nonsense.Welles’ uninterrupted tracking shots bear mentioning. There are two that come to mind: the first, where K. is navigating his office; and the second, when he assists a friend of his neighbour in moving a heavy trunk across a barren field. Both serve to further intensify our overwhelming sense of unease, presenting monumental spaces only to deny both the characters and the audience any escape, let alone climactic revelation, as with the final shot of Citizen Kane. Jones, unlike Welles, fails (outside of one underwhelming smash pan) to do anything remotely affected in terms of cinematography. In this way, where Welles’ dutch angles, abyss-like field of depth, and occasional frenetic shaky cam contribute to the disconcerting tone in an ampliative sense, not much can be gleaned from Jones’ film by looking at how it was shot; it’s the cinematic equivalent of trying to glean the distinct feel of a book by reading its wikipedia summary.

Jones’ Trial is, for all intents and purposes, the more “faithful” adaptation: K. brings the investigators his identification papers; he’s forced to wear a black jacket to his initial inspection; it’s made explicit that K. works at a bank; K. is lured to the Cathedral under the false pretence of taking an Italian client sightseeing. More notably, Welles’ film is bookended by two particularly glaring deviations: a prologue featuring the parable of the Law; and a decidedly heretical final scene. The parable, which tells of a man confronted and neutralized by the inaccessibility of the Law, is narrated by Welles and animated by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker. Later in the film, Welles’ Advocate repeats the myth – another deviation, as this is properly the task of the Priest that K. encounters in the cathedral. While it differs from the source material, manipulating the placement and emphasis of the myth in this way is far from detrimental, rather, it becomes an ouroboros as ovular and dizzying as the Law itself.

Welles’ conclusion is far more problematical. In both the original Kafka and in Jones’ film, K. is brought to a ditch, laid on his back, stretches his arms out to an unknown silhouette in a window, and is gutted by his executioners. There is, as is the case with most Kafka, no real sense of closure at the end of The Trial (one illicitly suspects because most of his works were unfinished, but that’s another story). In Welles’ film, the executioners are so unwilling to go through with the murder that they abandon K. in the ditch and toss in a handful of lit dynamite, which K. in turn picks up, and cackling, attempts (unsuccessfully) to throw back. When asked at the 1981 Q&A as to why he made such a startling alteration Welles responded thusly:

The book was written before the Holocaust…and I couldn’t bear for him to submit to death as he does in Kafka, masochistically…I had to let him shout out defiance until he was blown up.

Though the film cannot be reduced to a distinct political allegory, just as Kafka cannot be reduced to a prophet of 20th century totalitarianism, Welles, ever heretical, replaced that whimper with a transcendental bang.

This is often the loudest criticism levied against Welles’ Trial: that it is an ineffective adaption insofar as Welles eclipses Kafka. This criticism, and I’m in agreement with Welles here, fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of adapting literature (or any media) to film: “Every film is an original work. A film should never be an illustration of a book or of a play, it should be itself and it cannot be itself unless it is creative.”

Welles inserts himself into The Trial, as a narrator, a character, a director, and at one point, as an uneasy combination of all three: when the Advocate corners K. between a projection screen and recites a condensed version of the film’s opening parable. The Trial is, manifestly, Welles’ particular reading of Kafka, inflected with all his subjectivities, anxieties, and latent sentimentality. And this, adaptation that accepts and makes room for subjectivity and ampliative creativity, is the way to adapt Kafka, I think. To obsess over replication is to do the source material a great injustice; to represent it as sterile, and unnecessary. Jones’ may be the more “faithful” adaption, but as Roger Ebert notes: for all its fidelity, “it lacks the madness.” It’s somewhat naive and presumptuous to think such a gilded and infallible translation is possible; it’s not that Kafka is unadaptable, merely that adaptations ought to add something to the appreciation of the source material, rather than pointlessly parrot it back like inalienable gospel. More appropriate than, is Welles attempt – to cinematically express, with all the methods particular to cinema, his own contemporary interpretation of the Kafkaesque, however deviant.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).