The Trial (1993)

*. One of the maddening things about the achievement of Orson Welles — and I think it’s much the same with any great artist — is that you have to compare everything that came after him with what he did. So when you watch this adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial the first thing you’re likely going to think of isn’t Kafka but Welles’s 1962 film.
*. Welles’s The Trial was a freewheeling interpretation, full of visual exuberance and taking some real liberties with the text. This didn’t bother Welles a bit. He felt that books and movies were totally different media and that every film adaptation was by necessity an original creation. A director wasn’t just permitted but obliged to do something different.

*. I think director David Jones felt differently. This is a very respectful and literal adaptation of Kafka, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Pinter’s drama is often informed by the Kafkaesque, and in writing the screenplay I don’t think he was interested in taking things in any new directions. In general I’d just observe that it’s even darker. There’s little sign of humour and the people we meet seem angrier and more dangerous. If Pinter’s theatre was one of comic menace the emphasis here is mostly on the menace.
*. As far as the look of the film goes, it’s far less stylized and experimental than in Welles. The setting is Prague, and the costumes and conveyances suggest that every attempt was made to get not just the location but the date right. Instead of a timeless setting we feel like we’re in a period drama. Does that confine Kafka? I want to say yes, but then wonder if I’d say the same about a modern-dress staging of Shakespeare.

*. Because it’s such a faithful adaptation, all of the problems with the novel remain. Primarily what I’m referring to here is the episodic nature of the story, which strings together a bunch of only slightly related incidents and encounters in a random order (in fact, we don’t even know what order Kafka intended the chapters to be put in). Welles was able to knit the different episodes together remarkably well, but little effort is made to do the same here. The separate scenes in Huld’s house (a sadly underutilized Jason Robards), the painter’s garret, and the church (where the parable of the law is recited by Anthony Hopkins) all seem unconnected and disposable.

*. I think Kyle MacLachlan might have been good if he’d been let loose, but here he seems too constrained. I never had the sense of his Joseph K. having a distinct personality, like Anthony Perkins’s climbing neurotic. And this K.’s relationships with women, so essential to the book and to Welles’s version, are left completely mystifying.
*. I could go on making comments like this but I think you get the picture. This is a well-handled production, faithful to a fault to the novel, but it’s not a work of genius. One might recommend it to students too lazy to read the book but I think film lovers will want to stick with Welles.

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