Theorizing Adaptation

Just a quick pointer to Laura’s comments at The Valve about the study of literary adaptation. Laura cites Dudley Andrew’s claim that adptation theory is “the most narrow and provincial area of film theory.” Like Laura, I have some investment in thinking about issues of adaptation. I’ve published on Charlie Kauffmann’s Adaptation, cinematic interpretation of Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, and an essay I wrote about the experience of teaching Fight Club (both the film and the novel) is currently finding its way towards publication. While writing these essays and talking about the differences between the Fight Club novel and film with my students, I struggled to find a satisfactory vocabulary for talking about adaptation. These questions seem valuable to any discussion of film, especially given the prominence of adaptations in film studies and literary studies classrooms.

Laura notes that she

can’t think of another sub-discipline of either literary or film studies which is so widely taught, studied and discussed, at all educational levels and in all types of fora and publications, yet remains so undersupplied with concepts and vocabularies purpose-built for talking about the things (texts? or processes?) under investigation.

She later speculates that this lack of concepts is largely institutional. Adaptation essays that simply compare novel and film are “ast to write and relatively easy to publish.” They are also the kinds of books that libraries are more likely to purchase.

But I also think Laura’s conclusion that the lack of a developed adaptation theory is “perhaps a manifestation or symptom of adaptation presenting itself to us for consideration: a (naive) response to the way adapted movies irresistibly invite comparison with their sources, openly or furtively.” This reliance upon comparison is certainly a complicated problem (and extends even to the “low-brow” adaptations of graphic novels, as this screen shot-comic panel comparison from Sin City indicates). It’s tempting to develop these comparisons, even if you don’t hold the original in high regard, but such comparisons, even if they account for and appreciate historical differences between the two texts (adaptation theorists that embraced Clueless, for example), I’m not sure that’s a sufficient way to establish a more effective vocabulary for thinking about adaptation (this critique becomes more explicit in one of Laura’s comments on the same entry).

One possible solution may be to ground these questions historically in a more precise fashion. In the comments (a great discussion in general, by the way), Chris desscribes his work on postwar social problem films and the preference given to literary adaptations during the 1940s, as Hollywood sought greater cultural legitimacy. These historical positionings seem crucial to me, as would a more precise attention to the role of the two media themselves in shaping teh adaptation (or even the decision to adapt). But again, I’m fairly convinced by Laura’s argument that a more developed vocabulary for talking about adaptation would contribute to film and literary studies.


  1. marc Said,

    July 28, 2005 @ 4:19 pm

    I’m glad to see you’re struggling with these issues too, Chuck. I think that one of the problems with developing a vocabulary is that it is necessarily going to be drawn from several fields, from cultural studies to economics to the wide array of discourses linked to the media being adapted. I also think that there is little, if any, work being done to develop a narratological stance with regards to adaptation. Don’t get me wrong– some has been done, including Kamilla Elliott’s recent “Literary Film Adaptation and the Form/ Content Dilemma” (2004).

    But Laura is correct to mention that the “easy to publish” book-to-film route has been somewhat limiting to the field, mostly because it’s focus has been so content oriented. A true vocabulary of adaptation would have to account for material issues as well, and not just pull the ol’ Claude Bremond medium-independent narrative transposition move.

    Anyways, these are all things that are going to be part of my dissertation, which in some small way I hope can contribute to this severely lacking discipline.

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 28, 2005 @ 5:16 pm

    Marc, the material issues are certainly crucial. I kept stumbling over how to communicate tha idea and ultimately forgot to discuss it in any detail. I haven’t thought about these ideas in a systematic way, but they’ve emerged in various projects, including the ones I mentioned….

  3. Laura Said,

    July 28, 2005 @ 8:35 pm

    Hi Chuck, thank you for the trackback and for the engagement. It’s funny, I just added a comment to the post which reaches a similar conclusion re: historicising adaptation. Would love to know what you think about it.

    You too, Marc. I’m dissertating on film adaptation, is that your project also? I couldn’t quite tell from your blog, which I sneaked a peek at (I’m meant to be sworn off blogs while i finish writing…ha.)

  4. marc Said,

    July 28, 2005 @ 9:10 pm

    Laura, I’m actually doing work on multimedia adaptation. So, yes, film adaptation will be a part of it, but so will games, comic books, TV shows, etc. Transmedial narratives, basically, with a large emphasis on materiality and narrative theory (esp. cognitive narrative theory). I’d love to hear some of your thoughts but I know that if you’re writing right now, time’s probably not on your side. Plus, there’s that whole messy issue of keeping your ideas to yourself (until that job arrives, at least ;-).

  5. Chris Martin Said,

    July 28, 2005 @ 11:03 pm

    I think the case of is interesting because Alexander Payne decided to make it into a film when he read the manuscript before the book was published. Speaking of Fight Club, what do you think of Durrenmatt and the adaptation of The Pledge? A blogger I know pointed out that similar themes run through Durrenmatt and Palahniuk novels.

  6. Chuck Said,

    July 29, 2005 @ 9:40 am

    Laura, I like your comments about historicizing adaptation, and there should be more elegant ways of talking about this process. And I wonder if Marc’s work on multimedia adaptation indicates a more general interest in adaptation that might translate nicely onto literary adaptation.

    Chris, I haven’t seen or read The Pledge. When it was a new release, I was never in the mood, and now that it’s a few years old, it slipped off my radar. Payne’s adaptation of Sideways is an interesting case, as is the Clarke/Kubrick 2001 collaboration, which certainly tests the limits of adaptation, with the novel and film being made simultaneously….

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