Do you like to read? Do you like to watch films? Are you unsure of which novel adaptations and/or remakes you should be watching? If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of the above questions, then read on!
This week we’ll decide which novel adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is better: Orson Welles 1962 version, titled The Trial, or Martin Scorsese’s cult film from the ’80s, After Hours.
The Trial, Franz Kafka
Most Famous Adaptation: The Trial, Orson Welles
Lesser Known Adaptation: After Hours, Martin Scorsese
In 1914-1915 Franz Kafka, a little known office clerk who wrote short stories on the side, decided to write something big and huge: The Trial, his epic novel masterpiece, which was never finished and wasn’t even published until 1925, 11 years after he started writing it and 1 year after he died.
Such was the case with Franz Kafka. Kafka was sort of like Vincent Van Gogh: an artist of amazing uniqueness and vision, who lived in relative obscurity despite his amazing gifts. Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two; Kafka, after all, did manage to publish some of his most well-known short stories during his lifetime, even if they weren’t appreciated and didn’t make him much money. Van Gogh, on the other hand, only managed to sell two paintings in his entire life, one to his neighbor and another to his brother. (Then again, Van Gogh was much more prolific than Kafka…he painted many more pictures than Kafka ever wrote stories).
Either way, this was Kafka’s life…mundaneness during the day at his office job followed by the writing of strange and dark stories at night. The Trial is truly Kafka’s masterpiece…even unfinished, it shines from the pages like a dark and beautiful flower that smells of toxic pollen. Toxic because nothing positive comes out of it…all we see is a nightmare vision of society, where no one is trusted, where everyone is against one man.
I first gained interest in The Trial while living in Southeast Asia. While living there I frequented the country of Cambodia often, and visited sites where terrible events occurred in the not too distant past: S-21 prison, The Killing Fields, even the temples of Angkor Wat, where machine gun craters scar the front entrance. While living in Vietnam and traveling around Cambodia, I read as many books about Cambodian history as possible, simply to try and get a hold of what had happened. One such book was Voices from S-21, an academic study done by David Chandler, an expert on Cambodian history at Monash University in Australia. Chandler has written numerous books on different aspects of Cambodian, or rather Khmer, history. Voices from S-21 focuses exclusively on the former prison which sits near the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, where 17,000 people, all deemed enemies of the state, were systematically processed, photographed, tortured, and murdered (no murders actually took place at the prison…all murders were done a half hour’s ride outside of town, in the Killing Fields).
Chandler did a marvelous job examining what took place behind the walls of the prison…it’s tough to really know when there are virtually no survivors (in actuality, there were seven survivors). He pulled on numerous sources to explain what happened, most of them historic. But two literary sources kept popping up during his work: 1984, by George Orwell, and The Trial, written by Kafka. At the time, I had read neither. When I read 1984, I became convinced that Pol Pot and some of the other monsters whom he worked with probably garnered inspiration from the pages of Orwell’s masterpiece. But when I read The Trial, I knew that none of them could ever have read it, or appreciated it. Orwell’s 1984 provides a recipe book on how to use terror and torture to keep an entire population under control, which would be useful to the Khmer Rouge; The Trial does not provide any of this. The Trial lacked the side plots, characters, and intricacies that Orwell deployed so masterfully in 1984; instead, there was simply a man walking through a never-ending nightmare, accused by everyone of committing a crime unknown only to him.
Chandler referenced The Trial mainly to emphasize that when the Khmer Rouge were in power in Cambodia (1975-1979), the authorities didn’t need a reason to arrest you. What happened to Josef K. in The Trial happened to real people, everyday, in 1970s Cambodia. Josef K. is the protagonist of The Trial, a relatively ordinary guy with an office job (presumably not much different from Kafka). He’s arrested in the opening pages at his home, on his birthday no less, and the trouble goes from there; as the novel continues K. finds himself wrapped deeper and deeper into a terrifying narrative starring himself, accused of a crime he doesn’t know or understand. Throughout the novel he never stops trying to figure out his dilemma, and he remains ever positive that he will get to the bottom of things by means of communication with other residents of the city he lives. But no one ever helps him; in fact, everyone seems to be against him. The normalcy of K. as a human being, as well as the characters he meets, is terrifying: can people really act this way? The sad answer is that all too often, people do act this way.
K.’s character is trusting and positive, despite his problems. This is in stark contrast to 1984, where the protagonist, Winston, is very much aware from the beginning that he lives in a terrible, terrible world. By talking to as few people as possible, Winston plans to outsmart Big Brother, the government that watches his every move. K., on the other hand, leads a normal life until the police come to the door of his small, normal apartment. And even then, for awhile, things seem normal, until the paranoia starts to seep through the cracks of reality. Most noticeably in contrast to 1984 is the agreeableness of K.; though at times he becomes indignant, and he never stops questioning what his crime is, he is always willing to talk it over with authorities. This never helps the situation; in actuality it seems to make things worse, which of course was also true of Cambodia in the mid-1970s: if you were accused of a crime by the Khmer Rouge, you probably ended up being tortured and murdered, and you probably never committed a crime in the first place.
Perhaps this is why I’ve never been a huge fan of the adaptation done by Orson Welles in 1962, also titled The Trial. Welles was working in Europe at the time, banished from Hollywood once again, and he used the locations available to his advantage to set up a dark, foreboding atmosphere that would be appropriate for Kafka’s nightmare vision. And, indeed, the lighting and effects produced by Welles were not of this world. Once again, Orson Welles had proved himself to be the Great Auteur of film.
But despite the dark shadows and ominous lighting, Kafka never comes to mind for me when watching Welles’ take on The Trial. Instead, Welles does. Orson Welles and Franz Kafka, of course, are two giants of their respective worlds, literature and film. It’s difficult for one unique master to represent another unique master in this sense; I’m not sure if Michelangelo would have done well copying down The Mona Lisa. It seemed somehow inevitable that Welles would put his own unique footprint on Kafka’s work.
One major problem for me was Anthony Perkins, who was cast to play K. Perkins was an amazing actor who was most famous for playing Norman Bates, the innkeeper of Psycho fame. If anyone could nail the feeling of paranoia, it was Perkins (the guy seemed like every weird, neurotic neighbor you’ve ever met). But for me Perkins dialed it up too high: this may have been due to Welles direction, and what he wanted from his actor. In the opening scene, when the police come to arrest him, Perkins jumps around his room indignantly, crying bloody murder and demanding to know what the problem is. But the K. in Kafka’s novel gave off a feeling of quiet indignation before succumbing to authorities; sure, he was indignant, but he wasn’t dramatic. Kafka’s K. was always willing to go along with the charade, and always seemed slightly unaware (though not stupid). Perkins, on the other hand, seems to be ahead of the authorities at times; it’s almost as if he expected the police to show up at his door, and was waiting to go crazy with rage. He’s defiant and extremely untrusting, as if he knows the world is against him and he’s ready to fight. Kafka’s K. never wanted to fight, never wanted to be a hero: he just wanted to get to the bottom of whatever crime he was accused of.
What we’re left with is still a treasure: it is one of the few films that Orson Welles, the greatest director of our time, ever directed. It’s perhaps the most wildly dramatic performance that Anthony Perkins ever game us, including Pyscho. The lighting, on location filming, and overall atmosphere of the film are incredibly unique, and provide us with another example of why Orson Welles was the Great Auteur, the Master of Atmosphere.
But it’s not really Kafka; what it is, more or less, is Welles doing Welles, pretending to do Kafka.
For those of you who really want to watch a movie that evokes the feeling of Kafka, in particular The Trial, you need to try an often overlooked film made by an immensely popular director: After Hours, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1986. In 1985, while he was trying to get funding to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese got his hands on a script that had been written years earlier by a film student in his twenties. Scorsese decided to direct it in his spare time.
After Hours isn’t a real adaptation; it’s more of what you’d call a “loose adaptation”, taking plot elements instead of the entire plot. It follows the misadventures of an office worker named Paul (Griffin Dunne) in Lower Manhattan. It starts innocently enough, with Paul meeting a girl named Marcy at a coffee shop one evening; she gives him her phone number, and from there all Hell breaks loose. But the entire storyline fits nicely with The Trial; as ominous as authorities at your home are, the opening scene to The Trial seems somewhat innocent: just head to the courthouse and see what the problem is, yuck yuck yuck.
Paul spends the entire evening going from one place to another, meaning well the entire time, and yet making everyone angry as he goes. It starts when his cab fare inadvertently blows out the cab window, infuriating the driver, and it never stops. Everywhere he goes he is considered an asshole, though he isn’t; everywhere Charles K. went he was considered a criminal, though I think it’s safe to assume he wasn’t one.
As Scorsese’s film moves along, it gets darker and darker; the plot is not important, but the mood is. What starts as funny becomes terrifying: we see two thieves, played by Cheech and Chong, stealing a piece of art: Oh, that’s funny, it’s Cheech and Chong. But soon thereafter we discover a woman has committed suicide, and things become decidedly darker and scarier: they become Kafka-esque. The outcome of the film isn’t quite as dreary as Kafka’s novel (or what passes for the ending today), but it’s still a nonsensical nightmare vision, a normal world turned completely mad and hostile for no reason whatsoever. The contrasting humor and darkness are important: anyone who has read The Trial knows that despite its overall darkness, it is a very funny read at times, particularly the dialogue between characters. This is one area where Welles version of the film is different: it is devoid of any humor that may have been found in Kafka’s story.
Scorsese’s film nailed everything Kakfa did perfectly: the comedy of a completely absurd situation, the darkness of a world gone completely mad, and the feeling that everyone is out to get you for reasons unknown. It’s unclear why After Hours has fallen through the cracks the way it has. Scorsese was fairly well established by this point: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, among others, had garnered him international fame and respect. It did well with critics, even if audiences weren’t crazy about it. It even won Scorsese the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, so it certainly wasn’t ignored. But in the years that followed Scorsese became a mega-director: The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino: these films, which resonated with critics and audiences alike, probably helped to push After Hours to the back of our unconscious. After Hours didn’t have any stars (besides Cheech and Chong); it was quirky and artsy; it was small. Why watch After Hours when one can watch Goodfellas, a film directed by Scorsese, that, it must be said, is much better than After Hours?
And so it is: there is a little known film out there by the name of After Hours, directed by mega-director Martin Scorsese, and it just might be the best Kafka interpretation we have on film. If there were still video rental stores out there, it would probably be sitting on a shelf in the corner, the dust collecting on its edges, just waiting to be picked up by some unsuspecting movie renter a Friday night. It’s a film that deserves to be watched, and if he was alive in our time, it’s probably a film that Kafka would have enjoyed.