How shall I put this lightly? I am not a fan of Franz Kafka’s work on The Trial. His story trails off without any sense of payoff, his characters are smug and arrogant, not likeable and wholly self-centred, coming out of their shells solely to provide narrative detail to a story that was never finished due to the tragic, sudden passing of its author. Adapting an unfinished novel for the screen is a bold and entertaining strategy, as it gives creative visionaries the chance to piece together a puzzle that has yet to be solved. Orson Welles, of course, seems like the right man to crack the case. His efforts here in The Trial make sense. A forthright creative adapting a book that read like an unfinished screenplay, the results are bound to be strong.
That they are, The Trial formulates the underlying oppression found in Kafka’s craft rather well, the mania and fear present, embodied by the host that is Anthony Perkins. His performance as Josef K. is marvellous, representing a role that is stronger than what the novel could offer. His vexation and sudden lack of self-sufficiency are enough to throw him off his focus. K’s erratic behaviour is understandable but still suffers from the exposition-heavy moments of his character, his inability to shut his mouth and withhold information from both audience and adversary a narrative flaw that cannot be fixed, nor overlooked.
What Welles does spot, though, is the extraordinary visuals such a novel could offer the screen. Vast rooms filled with desks, similar to that of The Apartment, the overbearing horrors of so many typewriters crackling, the unitary soldiers marking documents and deeds they either do not understand or pretend to. Much of the interest for The Trial comes from the underlying notion that nobody has a clue what is going on. Not K., who looks rattled and worried at his impending trial, not his neighbours who haven’t an inkling of understanding, not even his Uncle, who understands problems are ruminating but does not understand the scope of them. A crammed courtroom of jeering men, amused at the sudden surge of adrenalin afflicting a man accused of a crime he has not been told about is a sight to behold, something visuals bring prominence and imagery to, a factor Kafka could not control.
Grappling the bureaucracy and symbolism of the book as best he can, Welles turns in a strong enough effort. Far from perfect, but the threads he weaves into an unfinished narrative are rewarding enough to warrant entertaining, intricate detail. He sheds a lot of the heavier, boring weight and engages with the fleeting poignancy that The Trial has to offer. His set design serves the cast well, but it does not overcome the rather recurrent issues the writing has. This is no fault of those passionate few who wish to bring life to The Trial, but it leaves much to be desired, even if this piece from Welles marks a vast improvement upon its source material.