A Cold War Kafka: Orson Welles’ The Trial

In Shimer’s Humanities 4 class, we read Kafka’s The Trial and watched Orson Welles’ 1962 film adaptation. As it’s a public domain work, you can watch the film as well, for instance on YouTube:

Generally speaking, the students were disappointed in the changes Welles made to the story — the way he ended it was a particular source of outrage, but other changes seemed to “flatten” the book and the character of K. somehow. I agree with them, but I actually take that as evidence that Welles has done a very capable adaptation of the novel into a film.

Broadly speaking, it seems that a film adaptation of a novel needs to do two things: it needs to capture the spirit of the book in a significant way while simultaneously answering the question of “why now?” For a popular novel like Harry Potter or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the second question answers itself — we’re doing the movie now because the material is popular now. For a novel like The Trial, that takes more work.

My theory is that Welles answered that question by transforming the plot of The Trial from a grim anticipation of totalitarianism to a direct protest against actual-existing totalitarianism — a particularly relevant topic in the early 1960s, when the USSR seemed poised to overtake the West. Read the rest of this entry »

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