20 April 2008

The Trial

I love Kafka, but it would never cross my mind to try to adapt anything of his to film. In fact, if you suggested it, I'd probably smile politely, nod, and think that you were an idiot. Kafka is a genius, but he's not exactly cinematic material. Or so I thought, until I watched Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial. Holy crap y'all. It's amazing. It's one of the better page-to-screen adaptations I've ever seen. And this is coming from me, who a. is generally dubious of page-to-screen adaptations, and b. is an appalling elitist about Kafka. I'm working on it. I really am. But I tend to cringe whenever people tell me they LOVE Kafka. c. Is of the belief that if you're not reading Kafka in the original German, you're getting a pale imitation of his actual genius. Which isn't to say you shouldn't read him in English, or that the translations aren't admirable, but seriously. Part of what makes his works so incredible is that every word matters. Every single one. Even the seemingly throw-away irrelevant ones. They're all there for a reason. And you just can't get that in the translation. Anyways, so you'd think that I would hate any movie version of a Kafka text. But oddly enough, this proved not to be the case.

To be fair, I haven't read The Trial in a few years. But I think the film actually follows the text quite closely. I noticed a few omissions and changes, but not many. One interesting difference is that the parable, Before the Law, serves as a preamble to the film. And is followed by a short introduction where Welles talks about the text itself and the ways in which it's been interpreted. Sounds cheesy, but it works well. The plot of the novel really isn't that gripping, but somehow, Welles manages to retain your interest. Actually, K. as a character is somehow more emotionally affecting than he is in the text. I think this is probably because the third person narrator of the novel has been replaced by the camera, a cross-over that I generally find fascinating and difficult and am still thinking through.

Anyhow, what's most brilliant about the movie is the general aesthetic. Visually, it's genius. It's the kind of thing where I was like, "my god, that's exactly what it would look like! it's what I was envisioning all along, and I didn't even realize!" This is all the more impressive because Kafka isn't really a scene-painter in his works - it's fairly conceptual stuff, with very sparse descriptions. And yet, Welles' portrayal strikes one as being exactly right. 

Furthermore, as an adaptation, it's of course also an interpretation, and what I found fascinating was the way that it visually represented the sort of "rise of bureaucracy, terrors of capitalism" interpretation in a truly compelling way. Granted, I may be more prone to this at the moment, given that I'm TAing a class on Marxist theory, but I've always found that reading of Kafka somewhat overdone, and here, for once, I was truly convinced. 

The final scene sort of threw me. There's a change to the text that's executed in a somewhat pointed way, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. I don't mind taking liberties with the work, but if it's meant to be signpost to the text's resonance with current (well, in the 1960s) conditions, I'm somewhat unimpressed. 

Still, ultimately, an excellent film. Worth investigating, especially if you're familiar with the book. It's really a phenomenal tribute to Kafka's work.

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