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Classics as Comics: Franz Kafka’s THE TRIAL: A Graphic Novel

By Andy Frisk
March 22, 2009 - 11:47

One of the 20th Century’s greatest works of existential and expressionist literature, Franz Kafka’s THE TRIAL, has been adapted and translated into graphic novel form by David Zane Mairowitz and renowned French graphic novel artist Chantal Montellier, and it’s an interesting interpretation that accurately portrays the novel’s themes in a strikingly visual way.  


THE TRIAL, published posthumously by Kafka’s friend and editor Max Brod, is one of the most well known and read works of Kafka’s along with THE METAMORPHOSIS.   Its themes of existentialist and expressionist absurdity, alienation and persecution are highly representative of their respective movements.  Briefly, the novel is the story of Joseph K, a bank clerk who has just turned thirty years old and is arrested one morning for a crime that neither his arrestors, the court or even his defense attorney can inform him of.   He spends the next year trying to advance a defense against a crime he somehow has unwittingly committed, with “help” from a bed ridden lawyer and advice from a painter and prison chaplain, all of which, like Macbeth says in the play by Shakespeare bearing his name, “…is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”   Eventually Joseph K fires his lawyer, drops his defense and when new arrestors come for him on this thirty-first birthday, he goes willingly, then unwillingly, and finally acceptingly with them to his execution, never knowing the nature of the crime he has committed.



Graphic novel interpretations of works of literature have been being produced for some time and are recently enjoying a renaissance of sorts with Marvel Illustrated’s THE ILLIAD and MOBY DICK, and Sterling Publishing’s THE TRIAL, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, NEVERMORE and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY being published recently.  With THE TRIAL: A GRAPHIC NOVEL we get a very good adaptation in realistically sketched black and white pencils that mix absurd and nightmarish visuals with realistic renderings of surroundings which come together to convey the “Kafkaesque,”   defined as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre or illogical quality.”i On several pages, for example, in fact more often than not, we get sketches of a sometimes grinning, sometimes leaping, sometimes laughing or dancing skeleton who invades, crosses and distorts the panel boundaries within the complete page.   This little visual vivisector of panels not only looks and moves in an absurd manner but clues the reader in on a theme of the work interpreted as the existentialist meaningless of action: we all end up dead, and a skeleton often represents the death that no matter what we do in life comes to us all, and the expressionist “nightmarish action, distortion and oversimplification (and) the de-emphasis of the individual,”ii since: as we all have skeletons what’s so special about Joseph K’s predicament?


Another aspect of expressionism in literature is the presentation, by the author, of his or her own subjective view of events, surroundings, and reactions to various encounters instead of an objective view.iii The writer may also present only the subjective view of one character, or a main character like Kafka does often in THE TRIAL.  In the graphic novel adaptation which is the subject at hand, we get a visual representation of this aspect of expressionism at work. One example of a visual representation is in the continual use of thought or speech balloons that simply contain punctuation marks such as “?” or “!.”  Joseph K isn’t the only character to whom these balloons are assigned but their repeated use by Joseph K and other characters in reaction to each other and the absurd events of the story starkly and very simply convey the expressed emotion of the character.  These punctuation mark reactions also help convey visually that “The novel is written (originally) in German in uncomplicated, well-crafted, easy to understand sentences designed to depict the feelings invoked in Joseph K. by the world around him, as in expressionism.”iv   The skeletal interloper and panel cutter as well as the stark and direct, yet simple, use of single punctuation marks in thought and speech balloons both help to translate the existential and expressionist themes of Kafka’s original novel to a visual format.


There are other drawn visuals that further convey the novel’s original themes which go beyond the skeleton and punctuation mark balloons.  In particular there are panels that represent conversations between Joseph K and other characters in the story where the only thing visible in the panel is a mouth and a one word exclamation.   Page 39 contains one such panel in the center-left of the page where Joseph K attempts to intervene and save two men from receiving and intense flogging by pleading with the flogger.  The flogger responds “NO!” and his mouth is the only representation of him in the panel.  This absurd and rather nightmarish image of a disembodied mouth meets the definition of an expressionist image, especially since it is meant to convey Joseph K’s expression of what strikes him most about the flogger during this verbal exchange.  The flogger’s loudness in his denial of mercy to the men and the source of this forceful exclamation, his mouth, is made prominent in the drawing.  Another such odd and expressionistic distortion conveyed powerfully through the visual art of the graphic novel is the scene where Joseph K makes a sexual advance upon his neighbor, Miss Burstner, by kissing her upon the lips and neck unexpectedly.  Joseph K is depicted in the scene with flames welling up inside of him that, like the skeleton sketches mentioned earlier, disrupt and distort the panel boundaries.   The reference is an easily grasped expression of Joseph K’s passion in the moment and what he is feeling.   In this panel as well we get a spoken “NO!” by Miss Burstner and in the very next panel a reverse black and white image of the preceding panel with the word “NO?” spoken by Joseph K.   The rendering of Joseph K’s completely reverse expression of the work “NO” is strikingly conveyed by the color reversal.   Very simply yet powerfully, without even changing the penciled drawing of Joseph K kissing Miss Burstner’s neck, but simply, reversing the color scheme like a photographic negative, we get a clear vision of Joseph K’s reverse expression of Miss Burstner’s “NO!”


One final yet noteworthy visual representation in the graphic novel of Joseph K’s nightmarish collision with the meaninglessness of the world and the “discomfort, anxiety, loneliness in the face of limitations, and desire to invest experience with meaning by acting upon the world”v which is a hallmark of existentialism, is the consistency of the expression drawn on Montellier’s renderings of his face.   As the reproduced cover of the graphic novel above shows, Joseph K has an intense and wide-eyed and nearly eye-lidless expression and several times in the graphic novel is depicted as such.   Joseph K has the look of a man who is intently preparing to dive passionately headfirst into an action designed to invest meaning in a meaningless world and/or the look of a man who is staring death in the face wide eyed, as he ends up doing at the end of the tale preparing for the unknown.   Perhaps the two different interpretations of his wide-eyed expression are not necessary mutually exclusive though.   For staring death and staring tomorrow in the face are both stares into the unknown and it is the existential moment we are living through now that needs the most intense scrutiny, as we shall never pass through this moment again and the next moment is as unknown to us as the moment that immediately follows our deaths.  


Overall, simply stated again, while no graphic novel interpretation or adaptation of a classic of modern or classic literature will ever take the place a study or enjoyment of its source work, some graphic novel interpretations of such works can enhance the study and enjoyment of these works.   If anything, they can serve as vehicles for talented individuals such as Montellier and Mairowitz to enrich us with their art and in turn enrich our experience of, in this case, Kafka’s original novel.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “Kafkaesque,” Merriam-Webster Online. (accessed March 21st, 2009)


ii  William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature: Seventh Edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), 205.


iii  Cummings Study Guides, “The Trial by Franz Kafka (1883-1924) A Study Guide,” Cummings Study Guides Online. (accessed March 19th, 2009)


iv Cummings Study Guides, “The Trial by Franz Kafka (1883-1924) A Study Guide,” Cummings Study Guides Online. (accessed March 19th, 2009)


William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature: Seventh Edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), 203.


Rating: 10 /10

Last Updated: January 24, 2022 - 11:00

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