Orson Welles Robert Hatch - Essay

Robert Hatch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most disconcerting thing about Orson Welles's screen version of The Trial is that in retrospect it doesn't seem to matter. At the moment, it is entertaining; at times its ingenuity and insight are admirable; it commits (except for a grotesquely inappropriate final shot) no factual offense against Kafka's novel. Yet a few days after I had seen it, it had slipped off my mind and left the book just as it was.

The same thing, I find, can be said of the pictures Welles made of Macbeth and Othello. They had great cinematic vigor, they were clearly intended as shocks to entrenched attitudes toward both the plays themselves and the suitability of the screen for the transmission of Shakespeare. But whereas I have had to work at erasing Olivier's movie-Hamlet from memory, Welles's Macbeth and Othello have obligingly bleached away. (p. 85)

[The Trial] goes astray because Welles is a romantic—and, I think, an optimist…. Kafka's story of a man who is the law's victim because he is the utterly lawful man becomes the tale of a student rebel, the sort of young man who looks as though he couldn't care less about the law and its institutions. In the book the law devours its most ardent disciple; in the picture the totalitarian police pick up a potential dissident (and quite properly, given the viewpoint). That is an idea for a picture, but it is not Kafka's idea. Nor did Kafka have it in mind to warn his public against the imminence of atomic war—he was dealing with a horror of the soul. The mushroom cloud at the end of the film is another example of the boy scout in Welles; he has never been able to pass a soapbox without jumping up for a brief exhortation. (p. 91)

Robert Hatch, "Adult Prodigy," in Horizon (© 1963 American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. V, No. 6, July, 1963, pp. 85-91.