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Orson Welles would seem to be the perfect director to bring the tortured fiction of Franz Kafka to the screen. The deep chiaroscuro, mordant humor, and labyrinthian qualities of his films are sufficiently Kafkaesque to suggest a sympathetic match between novelist and filmmaker. Yet the filmed version of The Trial brought forth a chorus of negative reviews, especially from the Anglo-American press. Plagued by its own set of problems (and what recent Welles film has not been), The Trial elicited as violent and negative notices on its initial release as any garnered by a major director within recent memory. It was a critical lashing that has been salved only recently by those film commentators who have had the luxury of a broader perspective with which to consider The Trial within the context of the development of Welles's cinema.
The initial problems Welles encountered were due to his having adapted a modern literary classic, provoking a spate of reviews comparing Welles's adaptation to the original story, and since Welles had had the audacity to tamper with the novel's plot line, such as it is, he fell afoul of the critics. The largest discrepancy between the film and the fiction, however, was in Welles's making of Joseph K into a more active character. Welles later admitted in an interview that the passivity of Kafka's anti-hero just did not fit with his own world view. After the death camps and advent of the atomic age, Welles felt that Kafka's morality tale needed updating, and in typical Wellesian style he did so.
The major problems the critics pounced on had less to do with the film's faithfulness, however, than with the film's opacity. A number of critics claimed that the film was even less understandable than the book; furthermore, they found the movie boring. The attacks against The Trial remained fairly uniform in British and American papers and weekly magazines. In more recent assessments of Welles's career— James Naremore's The Magic World of Orson Welles, for example— the film has received much more careful and appreciative treatment. Naremore finds the movie a fascinating study of repressed sexuality, and he is at pains to place the film within the Welles canon, especially by making comparisons with The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil. If the film remains little shown today, at least it has assumed a respectful place for students of Welles's cinema.
The Trial may not be much liked, but at least it is now dealt with. Even one of the movie's most severe critics, William Pechter, admitted that in spite of its overall failure, Welles had pushed mise-en-scène beyond any concern for narrative or dramatic necessity into a realm of purely visual effects, into the realm of pure cinema. At least Pechter found the experiment an interesting one. The use of the abandoned railway station as the central office set, which caused one critic to remark that the film seemed dominated by its decor, produced a brilliantly evocative visual representation of the post-war world. Moreover for Peter Cowie, The Trial is Welles's finest film since Citizen Kane, partly because it conveys so perfectly ''the terrifying vision of the modern world'' that is characteristic of Kafka's novel and partly because the film so clearly bears the stamp of Welles's personality, to rival only Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil in this respect. Cowie wrote that Welles had succeeded in not only translating the book into film but also in creating a cinematic environment that revealed the complexity of Kafka's world and reflected the inability of the human mind to grasp complexity which is ''the tragic moral of the novel and of this extraordinary, hallucinatory film.''
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