We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

On adaptations as such · 7 March 07

Dear Harriet,

I’ve been reading Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation and want to add another general meditation which connects to film adaptations of novels.

Hutcheon’s is a remarkably stimulating book which makes one see the various art forms for inventing and telling a story with believable-enough characters in a new way: she discusses adaptation not just from the point of view of novels into film, but also films back into novels (influencing novels), and novels and films into operas, concerts, plays, interactive video games, and all these back into and influencing novels and further films, operas, concerts, plays, interactive video games. What she shows is we like adaptation as adaptation. That’s why people keep using the term though they profess dissatisfaction with it as adaptation comes in three distinct forms: 1) the apparently faithful; 2) the free adaptation or interpretation that remains literally faithful to much in the original but constitutes a kind of new commentary from the new makers’ point of view; and 3) the transposition into another era or country or set of characters where much may be altered. She makes mince meat of the usual derogatory dismissive way of treating apparently faithful adaptations as particularly ripe for sneering at since without the original work they would probably not have been made and no one would watch them.

This is really true of many of the film adaptations produced by the BBC (from those on Austen’s novels, to Raven and David’s The Pallisers, which I’m watching right now), to the freer adaptations and depatures to another era, time, set of characters, even story—though interestingly one of the ways we recognize a transposition is it often keeps the story line of the original and can drop key characters and still be recognizable (e.g., Clueless for Emma , Ruby in Paradise for Northanger Abby and Metropolitan for Mansfield Park.

What Hutcheon says is adaptations enables us to interact with the older text and see it transformed, altered, presented in new perspectives. We are enjoying seeing the new perspective, seeing how what we had imagined ourselves may actually look when placed into a new medium, enjoying new insights we couldn’t get by ourselves (or different ones from other people).

All this is not just legitimate art; it’s at the heart of the experience of art. We enjoy the process of adaptation, enjoy participating in it. One of Hutcheon’s sections argues that the idea that a film or text is inferior because we wouldn’t read or see it if it were not for the original text is silly and comes out of irrational fetishicizing of texts that often have become famous or icons or super-respected for all sorts of reasons.

Film adaptations teach us about the original book by this sort of comparative analysis which we love.What we must not do says Hutcheon is go about such analysis from the point of view of literal fidelity with the original work simply presented as necessarily superior or something the second or further adaptations must hold to. Why? In the medieval period and particularly before copyright reinforced the feticizing of first texts, audiences would have said, why I prefer Malory to those 13th century long deadly French romances he took his story and characters and themes from; today we may prefer Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac to either: he combines the intense pessimism of the 13th century mode with the psychology acuit of the 15th, but also presents it through the medium of a 20th century film.

Her outlook would cover translations. Thus far she doesn’t go into how the copyright law of the later 18th century reinforced this outlook that what comes second must be inferior, though she does bring it up. There the denigration of the secondary work is a product of wanting to defend a newly understood "right" of ownership over a text, and the ability of an author to make money from his or her brain.


Posted by: Ellen

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