The Many Literary Adaptations of Orson Welles


It’s notable that in My Lunches With Orson — the collection of taped conversations between Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom in the last years of the Citizen Kane director’s life — Welles mentions writers Jean-Paul Sartre, Jorge Luis Borges, Dwight Macdonald, James Agee, Joan Didion, and John O’Hara… but in the capacity of their film criticism, not their novels or nonfiction. Reading the conversations, it becomes clear that Welles was a big reader and obviously had a love for great literature — something also evidenced by the many film adaptations of literature he had a hand in. Here’s a selection of the most interesting.

Don Quixote

Terry Gilliam may have documented his own failed attempt at bringing Cervantes’ novel to the screen, but Welles is sort of the standard-bearer when it comes to trying and failing to bring Sancho Panza to the silver screen. It took nearly 20 years, and the death of Francisco Reiguera, the actor playing Quixote, before Welles finally gave up.

The Merchant of Venice

Welles finished Shakespeare’s classic, but the negative was stolen in Rome in 1969. According to the film’s Wikipedia entry:

The original negative has survived, but it lacks any sound; and in the absence of a workprint it is impossible to tell how the silent negative material should be edited together, or to restore the original sound.

Welles later gave Shylock’s famous monologue wearing a trench coat, although it isn’t clear what the footage was for.

Heart of Darkness

Welles had planned to play Charles Marlow in a 1940 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic. There was extensive planning, and some test shots filmed, although those are now lost to history. The script, however, survived.

The Third Man

As Welles points out in My Lunches With Orson, “Graham [Greene] wrote the [book] after the movie was made,” meaning this one technically wasn’t an adaptation. But either way, Welles was no doubt excited to star in a film written by the famous English novelist.

Jane Eyre

The Charlotte Brontë masterpiece was adapted to the screen by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley, and features both Welles and Elizabeth Taylor in initially uncredited roles. Not too shabby, and even better when you add in the fact that Welles also initially asked Igor Stravinsky to do the score.


Welles had a small role in this adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic satire.


Welles went to Paris to speak with Nabokov about adapting his 1969 novel. Nothing came of it, which is sad when you consider what great films brilliant directors could make from Nabokov’s books.

Treasure Island

What kid doesn’t want to be Long John Silver at some point in their life? Welles got to play the famous pirate in this 1972 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale.


As evidenced by his attempt to make Don Quixote into a film, Welles liked the big novels. He brought Herman Melville’s epic to the London stage with 1955’s two-act, Moby Dick—Rehearsed, then failed at his attempt to sell the show to television. The footage is now lost, but we still have Welles as Father Mapple in this 1956 adaptation of the epic written for the screen by John Huston and Ray Bradbury.

The Trial

It’s a bit ironic when you think about it: Welles famously didn’t complete several big films in his career, but he saw Kafka’s famous unfinished work through as director.

Histoires Extraordinaires

Welles was supposed to direct Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado” for this series of films based off the famous writer’s stories. He pulled out in 1967, which is too bad since he missed out on seeing his name on an amazing poster.

The Deep

Another one that Welles never completed, this adaptation of the book Dead Calm by Charles Williams never entered post-production. Both color and black and white copies of the film do still survive, however, and have been shown to the public.

King Lear

Welles played King Lear in this 1953 live television version of the Shakespeare play of the same name.

Ten Little Indians

Welles supplied his voice for this adaptation of this Agatha Christie mystery, which originally had a very different name.