Re-Introducing Adaptation

Last fall when I taught my university’s Introduction to Literature course, I used a theme focused broadly on the issue of adaptation.  The goal was to provide the course with a “hook” that would help to frame a wide range of materials, both historically (from Sophocles to Sita Sings the Blues) and textually (poetry, plays, fiction, and film).  Now, I’m looking ahead to fall semester, when I will be teaching that course again and will have a chance to choose a new textbook for the course.

I liked the “adaptation, remix, remake” theme quite a bit and want to do something like that again.  In addition, I am currently in the planning stages of an essay focusing on adaptation for a book collection (more on that later), so this will be a good opportunity for me to bring some aspects of my research in line with my teaching.  Because the course is designed to introduce students to the practices of reading literature, especially close reading, I’m leaning toward going with John Brereton’s Living Literature and supplementing it with other readings where appropriate.

One of the activities that worked best last semester required my students to adapt a scene from Hamlet, either to video or for the stage (i.e., the front of the classroom).  Most groups chose video, and one group in particular even added “deleted scenes” and a “making-of documentary” that was very funny (and smart).  I may tweak this assignment and have students adapt short stories this time, but I think that one of the strengths of the activity was that it made Shakespeare more accessible.  One of the challenges of teaching adaptation–especially between literature and film–is that such evaluations often start with evaluations based on fidelity: did the director do a good job of remaining consistent to the book?  This is especially tempting in graphic novels that practically provide directors with storyboards for designing certain shots.

So, one of the challenges I’ve been thinking about is how to get around some of the more simplistic comparative analyses that privilege one text over another (this BYU instructional resource is really good on this point).  The approach I’d like to take is analogous to some of the work being done in adaptation theory by people like Thomas Leitch, who challenge the tendency in adaptation studies to focus on fidelity. It’s still way too early to be thinking about next fall–I’m using this blog post as an excuse to avoid grading–but I like the idea of using adaptation broadly as a means for thinking about how texts interact with each other, both within media and across them.


  1. Kelli Marshall Said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    The HAMLET assignment sounds fun. Any student work posted online?

    And yeah, “fidelity” is an issue that, try as everyone might, is incredibly hard to lay down. In fact, I actually embrace it — alongside discussions of intertextuality, self-referentiality, etc., of course. =)

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    I don’t think any of the work is online. I’ll dig through later to see if I can find copies. But it turned out really well. There was silent film version of the final act that used titles rather than dialogue that worked really well.

    The fidelity issue is complicated, and I don’t mean to suggest that it should be completely ignored, but I think it is worth asking what, exactly, fidelity means. Fidelity to the words on the page? Should a remake be slavishly imitative, as in Van Sant’s Psycho?

  3. Kelli Marshall Said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    Oh dear lord, no, not Van Sant’s PSYCHO! =)

    Yeah, it’s definitely “worth asking what it means”; that’s what I was attempting to say above. Many scholars try to ignore the issue altogether — and I’ll emphasize the word TRY — but they always return to it in some form or fashion, whether they’re considering a work’s intertextuality or something else. So I don’t think we should completely turn away from the fidelity discussion.

    One of my PhD fields was “film adaptation,” so I had to immerse myself in WAY more adaptation scholarship than I cared to. =) And what I discovered was that, and I’ll quote from the intro of my dissertation here, although it has never “been in vogue to discuss the issue of fidelity or to tie the adaptation to its original source and vice versa […], the contention has spanned four decades.” Four decades!

    Such constancy, I think, suggests three things: that the issue of faithfulness/accuracy is for some reason still at the forefront of critical thinking, that the academic world continues to wean itself (and others involved in the media) off debates on fidelity, and that apparently this mindset is extremely tough to chuck out.

    But yeah, again, you’re right: defining what “faithfulness” and “fidelity” mean is important — and, incidentally, quite fun in the classroom.

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    Yeah, the “fidelity” discussions are usually fun. As I may have mentioned, the course themes will roughly align with some research I’m doing for a book chapter that addresses the issue of adaptation from a slightly different perspective. It’s a good opportunity to think about these issues from a different POV during our transmedia moment.

  5. The Chutry Experiment » Remake Angst Said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    […] of a planned essay on movie adaptations–I’ll be a little more specific about details in a few […]

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