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A Theory of Adaptation Audiences

In the opening scene of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992)—adapted from the 1988 Michael Tolkin novel of the same name—studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) hears two pitches. The first, from a pair of screenwriters, revolves around a T.V. star who goes on safari in Africa and “becomes worshipped” by a tribe there. “Oh I see, it’s kind of like a Gods Must Be Crazy except the Coke bottle’s now a television actress,” says Mill. “Yeah, that’s exactly right,” one of the screenwriters replies, “It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman” (see Figure 1). In the second pitch, a solitary screenwriter describes a “politely politically radical but … funny” film about a clairvoyant senator—a “psychic political thriller comedy with a heart” (says Mill) “not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate” (says the writer). In both cases, the pitch person relies on the intersection of two proven properties to sell a third, as-yet unproven property—“Two great tastes that taste great together,” to quote the famed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups pitch from the 1970s.

A Theory of Adaptation Audiences Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 1: A pair of screenwriters (Patricia Resnick and Joan Tewkesbury as themselves) pitch a producer (Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill) in The Player.

Taste is paramount in these pitches: When the screenwriters invoke Out of Africa, Pretty Woman, Ghost, and The Manchurian Candidate, they not only invoke the films’ genres and narratives but the films’ audiences as well. It’s not only Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate, but Ghost’s audience meets The Manchurian Candidate’s audience. The more disparate the source texts, the more disparate the audiences, the better—especially for Mill, whose ostensible goal as a producer is to reach as many different audiences (as many of the so-called four quadrants) as is possible with a single film. As another Altman argues in Film/Genre, this mixing is business as usual for Hollywood producers. Discussing the “Studio strategies” behind such genre mixing, Rick Altman likens film executives to political candidates who must both appease and exceed their voter bases in order to ensure victory. For Hollywood studios, generic affiliation is always potentially more profitable than naming a specific genre, since their goal is “to attract those who recognize and appreciate the signs of a particular genre, while avoiding repulsion of those who dislike [it]” (128). As such, “Hollywood prefers romantic genre-mixing to the classical ideal of genre purity”—an idea, Altman says, that is “deliciously captured” in The Player’s peanut butter-meets-chocolate concoctions.

This mixing is also business as usual for one outsize quadrant of Hollywood productions: adaptations, or works based on “based on,” on affiliation—works that strategically court audience recognition and appreciation (with the exception of Ghost, the movies that Mill’s pitchers mention are all adaptations of one sort or another.) Indeed, producers of adaptations often attempt, in varying degrees, to bring new audiences into the fold alongside the old, as novels meet films, or readers meet viewers, or—to employ Linda Hutcheon’s specific distinction in A Theory of Adaptation—knowing audiences meet unknowing audiences. That is, every adaptation is pitched between audiences who “know the adapted text” and possess “an awareness of the adaptation’s enriching, palimpsestic doubleness” and audiences who “do not know that what [they] are experiencing actually is an adaptation or ... are not familiar with the particular work that it adapts” and thus “simply experience the adaptation as [they] would any other work” (120). Simone Murray notes that most studies of literary adaptation are founded on the “key underlying assumption” that “readers of a book are easily and unproblematically convertible into screen audiences” (157)—that knowing audiences show up—but she complicates that assumption by exposing the various actors and agents who make such a conversion possible. She cites, for instance, distributor Fine Line Features’ promotion of another Altman adaptation—1993’s Short Cuts—as one of the earliest examples of a “Venn diagram-like dual focus of both book and arthouse film marketing sectors on a particular bobo demographic,” which she says “can be seen to have become standard industry practice some decade-and-a-half later” (168). Of course, the audience in question—the bobo demographic—is itself a blend, between the bourgeois and the bohemian, a mix that precipitates its own questions: What do those different audiences look like, and how or why do their interests converge on adaptation? As that other seventies candy slogan goes, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.” What tastes dictate adaptations? When do audiences feel like an adaptation, and when do they not? For audiences, when do adaptations feel like adaptations, and when do they not?

To get at those questions, adaptation scholars would have to turn from theorizing adaptations to theorizing adaptation audiences, from theorizing what meets what in adaptations to theorizing who meets whom. Hutcheon herself admits that there are “other dimensions” to the “‘knowingness’ of the audience of adaptation, in addition to the awareness of the specific adapted text(s)” (123), but she leaves it largely to other scholars to define those dimensions. This essay, then, seizes upon her suggestiveness to propose a theory of adaptation audiences—or, at the very least, a “theory of theories,” to borrow Thomas Leitch’s description of Hutcheon’s Theory (“New!” 159). What I propose is not so much a single unified theory of adaptation audiences as what Leitch has more recently articulated as a petit theory thereof, a theory “not as a series of dogmas or organizing principles, still less as a set of solutions to consensual problems, but as a series of working hypotheses” (“Against Conclusions” 703). This essay, like this special issue, proceeds as an ambling, Altmanesque series of meetings between adaptation theory and reception theory—a series of pitches that invite adaptation scholars to meet adaptation audiences on their own terms, to hypothesize those audiences more imaginatively than they already have, and to lend new dimensions to Hutcheon’s knowing/unknowing binary.

Leitch’s argument for petit theory is even more useful in this aim than he anticipates, insofar as the petit places a special emphasis on the “provisional, contingent, hypothetical valence of theory” (703), which cannot help but remind us of the provisional, contingent, hypothetical valence of adaptations themselves. To conceive of adaptation only within the context of adaptation studies is to favor the eminently knowing audience of adaptation scholars, whose field depends (after all) upon the recognition of adaptations as such. But to know adaptation also means to unknow adaptation, to attend to its contingencies. Any experience of an adaptation as such—or as if—involves the viewer, player, listener, or reader constructing her own theory of adaptation in the moment, in the instant, before or after the fact, only to revisit and revise that theory with the next experience, the next instance, or the next adaptation. Knowing and unknowing audiences everywhere intersect with overly knowing and half-knowing audiences, feeling and unfeeling audiences, amateur and professional audiences, fannish and anti-fannish audiences. For Leitch, petit theory “shifts deliberately from the singular to the plural to indicate the difference between a world, or an interpretive community, under the sway of a single consensual theory and a community in which multiple, often competing theories are constantly subject to debate because the currency of those theories is up for grabs” (704). The adaptationality of any given adaptation is also up for grabs, dependent as it is upon differing interpretations and currencies (fidelity often chief among them). This essays grasps at that grasping by moving through some imperfect pitches on how adaptation scholars might account for the competing theories of adaptation audiences.

In her consideration of literary adaptations, Simone Murray explains that while “extant readership for such classic or contemporary works” does not itself ultimately guarantee “sufficient audience to ensure a film adaptation’s success … enthusiastic endorsement on the part of the community can … generate a critical groundswell that may serve as the impetus for a cross-over publicity campaign” (169). Altman’s Short Cuts is exemplary in this respect; the director and his co-writer, Frank Barhydt, based their screenplay on nine Raymond Carver short stories and a poem that were subsequently collected into a single print volume featuring the film’s title and an introduction by Altman. The collection invites audiences to meet Carver on Altman and Barhydt’s terms, creating (or curating) a source text after the fact of adaptation. The introduction repositions Altman-the-producer as Altman-the-consumer. He writes, “it all began here. I was a reader turning these pages. Trying on these lives” (10). Maybe these lives, but not these pages, whose stories (and poem) were surely spread out among whatever collections the filmmaker consulted while conceiving the picture. These pages constrain Short Cut’s potential audiences, whom Altman only intended to offer “one look” (7), one perspective, on Carver’s oeuvre. That one look becomes concretized, offered up as an object, packaged alongside the film as part of a cross-over publicity campaign (literally, in the case of the Criterion edition of Short Cuts, which includes the paperback and DVD inside a single cardboard sleeve).

Short Cut’s crossover-determination suggests that if Murray frames adaptation as a distributive strategy, then we can also frame adaptation as a receptive strategy—or, better yet, as a receptive tactic. For Michel de Certeau, strategies belong to producers, tactics to consumers. A strategy is “the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated” (35-36); a tactic is “a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus” (37). Per Murray, adaptation is a calculation that depends on any number of variables: authors, agents, distributors, publishers, screenwriters, and producers. Adaptation is a strategy deployed by book and film industries, or a set of strategies that converges in the adaptation industry, an industry unto itself, a subject with will and power. Per Nico Dicecco, however, adaptation is also a calculated action, an “active behaviour that depends on the recombination of previous noetic activity.” The strategies of the adaptation industry inevitably collide with the tactics of adaptation audiences. Murray usefully describes some of the ways that adaptations are (or are not) framed as adaptations by producers like Altman and Mill, but how are adaptations framed (or not framed) as adaptations by their consumers? There is, after all, no guarantee that consumers see adaptations as such, whether the industry wants them to or not.

Following the tactics of adaptation audiences—from Altman, conceiving of his adaptation, to Murray, conceiving of her adaptation industry, to the film buff buying in to the prepackaged Short Cuts—would provide for a greater array of contingencies. For de Certeau, a tactic “must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power;” it “operates in isolated actions, blow by blow” (37). At present, adaptation studies lacks blow-by-blow accounts of how audiences experience adaptations, how audiences play on and with the terrain imposed by adaptation industry, or the adaptation industries. De Certeau writes

In reality, a rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production is confronted by an entirely different kind of production, called “consumption” and characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the result of the circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed on it. (31)

While adaptations spring from Broadway or Hollywood or Silicon Valley—the centralized hubs of spectacular theater, film, and the digital—they are everywhere confronted by the consumption of audiences, a consumption that constitutes its own form of production, of productivity. Audiences respond to the offerings of the adaptation industry or the adaptation industries with an array of local tactics, both by using and reusing those offerings in their own adaptations and by choosing or refusing (whether consciously or not) to accept adaptations as adaptations in the moment of reception itself.

In the first instance, audiences adapt to the adaptation industry in its image, by offering up their own products—the Maker turned makers. Murray herself avers that her “examination of film distribution … might suggest a docile, tractable audience, herded into attending specific films at predetermined times, but this is not necessarily representative of all audience sectors in relation to adaptation” (188); she gestures to fan fiction and fan films as the “best known sectors” of “the adaptation industry’s shadowy penumbra typified by audiences’ unauthorized reuse of literary materials” (188-189). Any turn to the tactics of adaptation audiences, then, necessarily involves the irrational, decentralized, fragmentary practices of fans across social networks and digital platforms.

In this respect, adaptation scholars have been quick to follow Henry Jenkins’s lead in Convergence Culture, situating adaptation as a more or less particular practice in Jenkins’s greater networks of media exchange (heralded, for instance, in the 2013 special issue of Adaptation devoted to “Adaptation, Transmedia Storytelling, and Participatory Culture”). But those same scholars could also follow Jenkins’s earlier lead in Textual Poachers, where he draws on de Certeau to propose “an alternative conception of fans as readers who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests, as spectators who transform the experience of watching television into a rich and complex participatory culture” (23). For Jenkins, audiences use fan fiction and fan films as tactics in an ongoing “struggle with and against the meanings imposed upon them by their borrowed materials” (33). These appropriations—these fan productions—represent the first front of consumers in their (sometimes legal) battles with and against the adaptation industry’s expansions. But producers borrow materials too, if somewhat more safely within the bounds of corporations and copyrights. As the circuitous path of a text like E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey proves—as a novel that began as a fan fiction adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight only to be turned into a film franchise like Twilight itself—these tactics are more aligned with the expansionist impulses of the adaptation industry than we might think. Even Jenkins himself, writing in 1992—long before the advent of fundraising services like Kickstarter and gofundme that allow fans to become co-producers in the adaptation industry—acknowledges that “a small but growing number of fans have gone on to become professional writers of media texts” (48). And established producers can surely be fans, too (as with J.J. Abrams’s approach to the Star Trek or Star Wars universes, or Reese Witherspoon’s involvement in adaptations of Gone Girl, Wild, and Big Little Lies). Fan fiction and fan films, sometimes themselves caught up in systems of commission and patronage, are not quite “an entirely different form of production,” but a different form of reproduction.

We are also after the clandestine, quieter tactics from which these (admittedly still contingent) affronts to the adaptation industry originate. We are after the invisible precursors to the more obvious responses of fan-produced texts. These are not mediated responses—responses filtered through the networks of, for instance, new media—but immediate responses, responses filtered through nothing more or less than the mind and body of the consumer herself. As Dicecco says of experiencing an adaptation, “Just because the behavior is primarily mental, it is no less behaved, no less embodied.” The corpus of fan adaptations gives way to the corporeal experience of reading, watching, or playing with an adaptation. The recognition or misrecognition of an adaptation as an adaptation is an interactive experience—an “embodied and performed act,” as Dicecco writes—that only seems passive in comparison to the more obviously recognizable consumption of fan fiction and fan films. For de Certeau, “What has to be put into question is … the assimilation of reading to passivity. In fact, to read is to wander through an imposed system” (169). Adaptation, too, is an “imposed system”; if “[r]eading is as it were overprinted by a relationship of forces (between teachers and pupils, or between producers and consumers) whose instrument it becomes” (171), so too is adaptation overprinted by the relationship of forces (between adaptation scholars, or between adaptation producers and consumers). The afterimage of the adaptation has overtaken its immediate exposure. By skipping straight to consumers’ reproductions of adaptations, scholars may overprint the more ephemeral, fleeting, blow-by-blow experiences of such texts.

As Lev Manovich writes in his own riff on de Certeau, “Users’ tactics … are not unique or random but follow particular patterns” (38). That is, when users are confronted with what Manovich calls “cultural software,” there is the “ideal reader/user inscribed by a text/software and the actual strategies of reading/use/reuse employed by actual users” (38). Here Manovich makes an important distinction between the hypothetical patterns of texts and the hypothetical patterns of audiences, the latter of which may not necessarily follow from the former. Indeed, the “available operations and the ‘right’ way of using a given cultural object are different from how people actually come to use it;” Manovich singles out the “systematic ‘misuse’ of cultural software” as a “fundamental mechanism of recent culture” (38). He cites “scratching records in DJ culture or remixing old tracks” (38) as instances thereof; adaptation is a hallmark of user-oriented culture. Adaptation scholars, in their rush to (however rightly) identify fan fiction, parody, and slash as the foremost tactics of contemporary audiences, forget that adaptation itself is misuse. Adaptation is misreading. Adaptation is malware that scrambles one user interface (the novel) with another (the film), or one work (a novel) with another (another novel, a film). Yes, the software of adaptation invites further adaptation and further misuse, whether sanctioned by the adaptation industry or not. But the software of adaptation also goes beyond “reuse,” beyond rereading; it goes not beyond but back, back to “use,” back to “reading.” Audiences do not only adapt adaptations; they also adapt to adaptations. We know some of the patterns that audiences follow after the fact of adaptation. What patterns do they follow—what tactics do they employ—during the act itself?

The Venn-Diagrammatic operations of the crossover—X meets Y; Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate; readers meet viewers; knowing meets unknowing—offer some roundabout ways to reconsider that question. Thomas Leitch writes that “[r]eviewers and adaptation theorists typically use the word adapt transitively, as a verb that requires both a subject and an object — X adapts Y” (“To Adapt” 92), as in formulations like “author Michael Tolkin adapts his novel The Player to the screen.” Leitch proposes an intransitive model of adaptation instead, “requiring a subject but no object,” in which “X does not adapt Y” but rather “X adapts to Y” (93). X meets Y, as it were. While Leitch’s interest lies in the intransitive adaptation of non-human things (i.e. stories) to “new circumstances, new cultures, and new media” (93), his model holds intriguing implications for some of the humans whom he bypasses: audiences. Consider his caution that “[i]nstead of asking … which film or television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice best captures the tone or spirit of Austen’s novel, commentators might be better advised to ask which have been most successful in finding audiences of their own and why” (99). Leitch’s intransitive model of adaptation could recast the audience as the subject of adaptation scholars’ interest. The relationship between Austen and her adapters would give way to the relationship between Austen and her fans; the relationship between Altman and Carver or Altman and Tolkin would give way to the relationship between The Player and its audience. As Dicecco says, “In order for an adaptation to be meaningful as such, and distinct from other ostensibly non-adaptive texts, the audience must process the work adaptively.” In the context of crossovers, we could ask how audiences adapt (or fail to adapt) to adaptations themselves. An intransitive approach to adaptation would encourage us to ask not only what crosses over from adapted texts to adaptations but also what crosses over in their audiences.

A Theory of Adaptation Audiences Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 2: The Player credits its source.

Adaptation is not simply the price of admission for those audiences, but part of the attraction. That is, an adaptation is not only an invitation to experience a work anew in a different textual and/or medial framework; it is also an experience unto itself. Imagine the various Venn Diagrams that govern an audience—really, the audiences—experiencing a film adaptation like The Player. There are viewers who know that the film is an adaptation when they walk in, and there are viewers who only know that when the film tells them so (in an opening credit that says the “SCREENPLAY BY MICHAEL TOLKIN” is “BASED ON HIS NOVEL”) (see Figure 2). There are viewers who miss that credit and don’t know that the film is an adaptation at all. There are viewers who have read the book and there are viewers who have read the book twice. There are viewers who have read half the book, and there are viewers who haven’t read the book at all. And there are viewers who resolve to read the book while watching the film, who subsequently turn to Tolkin as knowing audience members. The Player looks different as an adaptation depending on the viewer’s position in the theater. And in this case, at least, the adaptation announces itself as such up front. Imagine the positions that viewers occupy while watching a film adaptation that doesn’t announce itself as an adaptation until the end or an adaptation that doesn’t announce itself as an adaptation at all, even if its viewers recognize it as such (see, for instance, I.Q. Hunter on “Exploitation as Adaptation”).

Leitch notes the “whole process of adaptation might be described as an oscillation between celebrating hypotexts as honored sources and celebrating hypertexts as adaptive renewals” (“Against Conclusions” 700). This impulse, he says, “has moved several critics of adaptation [Geoffrey Wagner, Dudley Andrew, John M. Desmond and Peter Hawkes, and Linda Costanzo Cahir] to propose tripartite systems that acknowledge different but equally tenable attitudes that adaptations can take toward the texts they adapt” (700). What if—hypothetically—critics acknowledged different but equally tenable attitudes that adaptation audiences can take towards the adaptations they watch, read, or play? The trope of oscillation would seem to apply far more readily to adaptation audiences, whose recall (or lack thereof) posits adaptation as such, than adaptations themselves. And all of the differing positions listed above imply that audiences may oscillate between hypo- and hypertexts on a minute-to-minute, page-to-page, scene-to-scene basis—that adaptations may function as such one moment but not the next, for one viewer but not the other. For Rick Altman, genre “may be introduced into any film at virtually any time (in conjunction with any other genre) … represented by no more than a suggestive element here or there” (132). So too may adaptation be introduced into any work “at any time”—virtually or in reality, by filmmakers or filmgoers, publishers or readers, programmers or gamers. The consumption of adaptations is a movable feast attended by the faithful, the faithless, and the questioning alike.

In this contingency, adaptations may have much to tell us about the more general crossovers between audiences and intertexts. Adaptation scholars have long set adaptation against other forms of intertextuality: allusion, appropriation, ekphrasis, parody, pastiche, performance, remake, remix, summary, translation, etc. Hypothetically, adaptation is not only a distinct type of intertextuality but a distinct type of reception as well. That is, adaptation is as informal and interpersonal as it is formal and intertextual. Francesco Casetti has argued, for instance, that adaptation is “primarily a phenomenon of recontextualization of the text, or, even better, of reformulation of its communicative situation” (83). The adapting in adaptation takes place in the “move from one communicative situation to another;” to adapt means to “re-program the reception of a story, a theme, or a character, and so on” (85). For Casetti, adaptations ask their users to reboot, reprogram or switch software (to recall Manovich): “The second life of a text,” he says, “coincides with a second life of reception” (85). Every adaptation asks its users to navigate different “interactional,” “institutional,” “intertextual” and “existential” frames (84). And while these factors “work together and determine each other” (84), adaptation scholarship has largely shied away from that final frame, from the “set of personal and collective experiences that operate as reference” (84) for audiences. Scholarship has shied away from tactics. As well as asking what other kinds of intertexts adaptation resembles, we might well ask what other kinds of reception adaptation resembles. What oscillations do adaptations share with other texts? What tactics, if any, are idiosyncratic to adaptations?

A turn to tactics would follow Thomas van Parys’s call for an approach to adaptation “complemented by contextualization and cognitive reception analysis” (409). What is missing in adaptation studies, he says, is a “theoretical foundation for the preference of one text over the other, whichever is the adaptation” (418). An inquest into taste—into perception and perspective—could lead scholars closer not only to understanding audiences’ preference of one text over another, whichever is the adaptation, but closer to understanding audiences’ preference of adaptations over other intertexts. And to get at that preference, adaptation scholars will have to become more detailed about the ways that adaptations work. Patrick Cattrysse, going further still than van Parys (going back, in some ways, to the cognitive model of adaptation with which Kamilla Elliott concludes Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate), himself proposes a descriptive adaptation studies based in “the philosophy of science, the psychology of perception and cognitive studies” that revolves around a functional definition of adaptation as “any phenomenon that ‘functions’ as an adaptation in one particular space-time context” (16, 52). For Cattrysse, such a definition of adaptation “enables researchers to consider the functioning of a movie or an adaptation as perspective-bound: one (set of) films may at once function as an adaptation to one audience but not another” (115). Cattrysse argues for the contingency of adaptations in time and space. This notion opens the door for a closer consideration of the expectations that audiences bring to adaptations—of adaptations as phenomena bound, at least in part, by the perspectives of their audiences (whether producers or consumers).

Communicative situations that are adaptation-adjacent—i.e., communicative situations that foreground knowing and unknowing (and other) audiences —could allow adaptation scholars to delimit those boundaries, or to glance at the limits of the “mobile infinity of tactics” (de Certeau 41) that may accompany adaptations. Such situations would allow scholars to tackle the “difficult question” of “why certain hypo-hypertextual relations function as adaptational and other similar hypo-hypertextual relations do not” (Cattrysse 308). This “multilateral approach,” says Cattrysse, “brings adaptation studies closer to intertextual studies and, in so doing, conceives of adaptation as just one member of a broader family of hypo-hypertextual relations” (308). Cattrysse himself stresses that these “intertextual relations may be ascribed to the creators, but they also may be attributed to viewers” (309). Such is his rationale for attending to the function, as well as the form, of adaptations. Cattrysse writes that “[f]unctional definitions can enlarge the scope of adaptation studies and recover phenomena that have been traditionally expelled from the discipline,” since “[d]ifferent phenomena may … ‘function’ in the same way” (115, 116). Analogous phenomena allow us to ask how audiences think (or feel) about adaptations rather than what audiences think about adaptations—long the standard in adaptation studies. A new equation for adaptation studies—f(x)=?—may lead us to the conclusion that the limit does not exist, but even if we can only approach the zero degree of adaptations, at least we will be left with more precise coordinates. And even if adaptation ends up indistinguishable from other forms of intertextuality, at least we will be left with the equally productive question of why some intertexts, like some adaptations, are sanctioned and sectioned off by institutions (academic and otherwise) rather than others.

I would like to turn, then, to three petit phenomena suggested by the pitch issues in the opening moments of The Player—three phenomena that may allow adaptation scholars to better theorize adaptations’ audiences. To be sure, adaptation already has analogues and homologues housed in fully formed fields like biology, performance studies, and translation studies. In contrast, the phenomena below are drawn from other fields and non-fields in an attempt to think off the field and into the stands, to sit amongst the fans, to set adaptation against other receptive, rather than productive, tactics. Manovich says that “we may think about information behaviors used in reading literature, visiting a museum, surfing TV, or choosing which tracks to download from Napster” (39). Phenomena that foreground knowing and unknowing audiences allow us to think about the information behaviors used in choosing, reading, watching, and playing with adaptations. After all, every audience plays with adaptations in knowing and unknowing ways, their reading characterized by “advances and retreats, tactics and games played with the text” (de Certeau 175). Setting adaptation against parallel phenomena may illuminate its more “playful, protesting, fugitive” (175) dimensions. De Certeau suggests that

[w]e should try to rediscover the movements of this reading within the body itself, which seems to stay docile and silent but mines the reading in its own way: from the nooks of all sorts of “reading rooms” (including lavatories) emerge subconscious gestures, grumblings, tics, stretchings, rustlings, unexpected noises, in short a wild orchestration of the body. (175)

Each phenomenon, then, may lead us towards a more gestural, stretching, rustling, and altogether unexpected concept of adaptation, one in which the conductor passes the baton to her musicians. These phenomena allow us to elaborate a “Rezeptionsästhetik (an esthetics of reception) and a Handlungstheorie (a theory of action),” as de Certeau writes, citing the work of Hans Gumbrecht and Karlheinz Stierle (175; 226n26). Such esthetics “provide different models based on the relations between textual tactics and the ‘expectations’ and successive hypotheses of the receiver who considers a drama or a novel as a premeditated action” (175).

A Theory of Adaptation Audiences Literature/Film Quarterly

Figure 3: The Flintstones meet the Jetsons in The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones.

Most obviously, adaptations meet crossovers—to employ The Player’s parlance—or works in which characters or storylines in one series cross over into another. The crossover resembles adaptation as adaptation insofar as it lays bare the subtext of more implicit crossovers like those mentioned the beginning of Altman’s film. In the crossover, X doesn’t meet Y under cover of darkness but in broad daylight; crossovers are explicitly intransitive. Take The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones (1987), an emblematic crossover that signals in its very title the two source texts from which it draws without privileging either (as is often the case with adaptations): two great cartoons that go great together (see Figure 3). Like the goal of any good crossover, like the goal of many good adaptations, the goal of The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones is to convert unknowing audiences into knowing audiences; to invite Jetsons fans to become Flintstones fans; to invite Flintstones fans to become Jetsons fans; and to invite fans of neither to become fans of both; in sum, to stoke variously unknowing audiences’ will to knowledge. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the comics world (where Batman meets Superman, or Superman meets Captain America), which is not coincidentally home to “the most knowledgeable of audiences” (86), according to Neil Rae and Jonathan Gray, in their study of fan reactions to the original X-Men film adaptation and its sequel.

The humorous nature of The Player’s crossovers—and the humorous nature of crossovers in general—suggests yet another adaptation-adjacent phenomenon: jokes. The pleasure of reading Dark Horse’s 2015 comics crossover Archie vs. Predator, for instance, stems not only from the collision of two seemingly discrete, incompatible universes, but from the slew of intertextual in-jokes that the artists and writers offer fans of both series (e.g. a drawing of “Dutch’s Beach Bar,” a nod to Predator’s original protagonist, in one of the panels; see Figure 4). In parody—not coincidentally, one of the largest domains of fan culture—knowing audiences are often rewarded for their knowingness. The humor of Ghost meeting The Manchurian Candidate only works if you understand that one of these things is not like the other—if you understand that the joke is juxtaposing “supernatural romance” with “political thriller,” what humor theorists would call opposing scripts. Jokes raise the stakes between knowing and not knowing. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it—and if you don’t know enough, then the joke may not function as a joke. Perhaps adaptations’ functionality, then, may be gauged in the knowing laughter of its audiences. And perhaps adaptation studies’ functionality may be enlarged by humor studies’ own focus on cognition and linguistics, on methodologies that divvy up knowing and unknowing more carefully than adaptation scholars ever have.

A Theory of Adaptation Audiences Literature/Film Quarterly

Figure 4: The first issue of Archie vs. Predator nods to Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, the latter series’s protagonist.

The jokes in The Player, of course, revolve not only around opposing scripts but opposing genres, a third phenomenon that may draw adaptation scholars closer to adaptation audiences. Hutcheon herself writes that “[k]nown adaptations obviously function similarly to genres: they set up audience expectations (Culler 1975: 136) through a set of norms that guide our encounter with the adapting work we are experiencing” (121). Genre has already received some play in the field of adaptation studies. Leitch’s own Hail Mary, “Adaptation, the Genre,” finds him wondering “which textual features are most likely to extend an invitation to a mass audience to consider a given film as an adaptation” (108). Yet Leitch remains somewhat resigned when it comes to the question of whether audiences accept or reject that invitation: “In the end,” he says, “the decision about how to experience an adaptation as an adaptation is up to individual members of the audience,” even while “their decisions will be everywhere inflected by the power of the institutional contexts within which a given adaptation, and adaptations in general, are made available to them and identified as such” (117). For Leitch, “institutional contexts” appear more stable than receptive contexts. But the extended path of Fifty Shades of Grey, pornographic fan fiction that inspired pornographic and non-pornographic adaptations, shows just how inseparable these sectors have become, as audiences themselves negotiate adaptive and generic contracts with (and outside of) the adaptation industry, inflecting and reflecting their desires. Fifty Shades of Grey highlights the private desires and pleasures of adaptation, the genre, or of adaptations, the subgenres. (Consider Netflix’s adaptation-inspired browsing categories: “Dramas Based on Real Life”; “Dramas Based on Books”; “Movies based on children’s books.”)

These three phenomena suggest that adaptations invite audiences to cross over from knowing to unknowing and back again in the span of a scene, a sentence, a second. And only by starting from these slight oscillations between knowing and unknowing will we begin to understand adaptation as a collaboration between consumers, producers, and works, between individuals, institutions, and adaptations. Leitch cautions that an undue focus on reception excludes creators and maybe even “the text of the adaptation itself” in defining adaptations as such (“Adaptation and Intertextuality” 95). But as such, institutions and texts tend to dominate the study of adaptations. As Casetti says of the interplay between frames and individuals in the communicative situation of adaptation, “sometimes one of them overcomes the other and determines the whole” (84). Even a preliminary attempt at articulating adaptation’s limits—via some of the vectors with which it intersects—could restore more balance to this tripartite structure. Leitch acknowledges as much: “A definition of adaptation that emphasizes intentionality and reception is fundamentally economic because it focuses on the motives and interests that provide legal, moral, and aesthetic sanction for some kinds of copies, the derivations that are not derivative, but not others” (96). Adaptation lies in the eyes of its beholders—both in its conception and its perception.

Casetti says that in the study of adaptations, “consideration needs to be given not only to the text as such, but also to its conditions and modes of existence” (83). Adaptations are contingent, conditional, existential. In his own Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Bruno Latour recounts the “discontinuous leaps”—really, the instances of adaptation—that allow a scientific researcher to determine that “between a yeast culture, a photograph, a table of figures, a diagram, an equation, a caption, a title, a summary, a paragraph, and an article, something is maintained despite the successive transformations, something that allows him access to a remote phenomenon” (39). Despite decades of adaptation study, adaptation remains in some ways a remote phenomenon; it remains phenomenologically remote. Scholars must make their own discontinuous leaps to determine that something is maintained between adaptations, crossovers, jokes, and genres, something that allows us access to the remote phenomenon of adaptation. Latour writes that “Science is not made ‘of science, but ‘something scientific’ circulates in it nevertheless” (40). What is the “something adaptational” that circulates among adaptations, adaptation audiences and the adaptation industry? What is maintained across myriad adaptations across myriad media? As the aesthetic and industrial divisions previously emphasized by adaptation start to disappear in convergence culture, the adaptation experience remains. We may follow Latour in asking, “how are we to register the documents that might allow us to give this research an empirical dimension and thereby enable the reader to distinguish the experiences identified in this way from the accounts of them that are usually offered, as well as from the account that will come along later in place of the first?” (48). Adaptation study is awash in accounts—and accounts of accounts—not just of adaptation but of adaptation study; what is lacking is a better sense of experience, of what it means to experience adaptations as such in the moment of playing, reading, or watching.

In short, adaptation studies lacks a phenomenology, one of the most important tenets of which is “the impossibility of a complete reduction,” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty asserts (lxxvii); phenomenology is, by its nature, “unfinished” and “inchoate” (lxxxv). (Leitch’s own plea for a non-reductive theory of adaptation is appropriately titled “Against Conclusions.”) As and if adaptation scholars take up the task of describing adaptation audiences—“[p]henomenology involves describing, not explaining or analyzing” (lxxi)—those accounts must be similarly unfinished, inchoate, and incoherent. Merleau-Ponty cautions that

[t]he whole life of consciousness tends to posit objects, since it is only consciousness (or self-knowledge) insofar as it takes itself up and gathers itself together in an identifiable object. And yet the absolute positing of a single object is the death of consciousness, since it congeals all of experience, as a seed crystal introduced into a solution causes it suddenly to crystallize. (74)

This essay is only one attempt to shatter adaptation, to make adaptation less readily identifiable as an object and more readily identifiable with its subjects and subjectivities. Those subjectivities, whether and when they stem from studio executives, paying or pirating audiences, or adaptation critics, emphasize the “connection of experiences,” the “very knot of relations” (lxxxv) that hold adaptation together as such. The competing petit theories of adaptation audiences reflect Merleau-Ponty’s sense that “perspectives intersect, perceptions confirm each other, and a sense appears” (lxxxiv).

But, as he cautions in language that will raise the hackles of any knowing scholar of adaptation, “this sense must not be separated, transformed into an absolute Spirit” (lxxxiv). Staying true to the spirit is an absolute fantasy, because any adaptation involves a chorus of ghosts haunting at cross purposes. Recall the scene in 1984’s Ghostbusters—echoed in the 2016 adaptation of the same name—in which EPA stooge Walter Peck shuts down the Busters’ Containment Unit, sending myriad sprits racing over skyscrapers, gusting out of subway tunnels, scurrying into tailpipes, and hanging out of hot dog carts. This spiritual scene reflects the phenomenological world that Merleau-Ponty imagines, not as “pure being, but rather the sense that shines forth at the intersection of my experiences and at the intersection of my experiences with those of others through a sort of gearing into each other” (lxxxiv). This essay—more an epiphenomenology of adaptation than a phenomenology proper—seeks only to begin joining the gears of experience to the more general workings of the adaptation industry, to gesture to the processes of those subjects who give rise to the product or object of adaptation, the objet petit a, the semblance of adaptation, the sense of adaptation as such. In the end, as in Altman’s defense of Short Cuts’ lack of truth to the sprit, “characters have crossed over from one story to another; they connect by various linking devices; names may have changed” (7-8).

Works Cited

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Altman, Robert. “Introduction: Collaborating with Carver.” Short Cuts: Selected Stories, by Raymond Carver, Vintage, 1993, 7-10.

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