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Guest Editorial: Introduction to special issue on Transcultural Adaptation

Literature Film Quarterly

On February 9, 2020, the South Korean film Parasite became the first ever non-English language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Following a string of notable wins at other award ceremonies, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019, this Best Picture win was hailed as a significant cultural breakthrough for Korean cinema on the international stage. Meanwhile, five days later, the Hollywood remake of the Swedish film Force Majeure (2014), titled Downhill, was released in US cinemas to a largely negative critical reception. The conjunction of these two events inspired a number of comment pieces arguing that Hollywood should shift away from the production of remakes of foreign-language films. From Esquire’s “Parasite and the (Long Overdue) Death of the English-Language Remake” (O’Brien) through to The Washington Post’s “On the Heels of Parasite’s Oscars Win for Best Picture, Can We Finally Jettison the Dreaded American Remake?” (Hornaday), there was a substantial amount of critical discourse arguing that the crossover success of Parasite meant that Hollywood’s practice of producing remakes of foreign-language films had become largely redundant.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that director Bong Joon-ho is currently in talks with HBO to adapt Parasite as an English-language limited series. While this is framed differently from many other Hollywood remakes given that Bong is himself closely involved with the adaptation process1 and that adapting it for television should allow him to expand on the central narrative, it is evident that this whole affair raises some key tensions surrounding the practice of transcultural adaptation. On the one hand, the underlying critique of global capitalism in Bong’s film undoubtedly resonates outside of the Korean context and could clearly be adapted elsewhere. Indeed, in one of the first English-language reviews of the film, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis highlighted the potential universality of its themes, arguing that “The story takes place in South Korea but could easily unfold in Los Angeles or London” (Dargis). On the other hand, this story is highly specific to its cultural context within South Korea, with Ju-Hyun Park in Tropics of Meta, for example, offering an insightful account of how Bong’s social critique is “particular to Korea’s neoliberal and neocolonial present” (Park). This tension, between a conception of Parasite as a largely “universal” commentary on global capitalism that could easily take place in other major cities such as Los Angeles or London, and a reading of the film that suggests it needs to be understood primarily within its specific Korean context, is evocative of the wider cultural issues raised by processes of transcultural adaptation. To what extent can a text that is rooted within one specific cultural context be adapted to another? What can we learn through these texts about processes of cultural globalisation and hybridisation and the tensions that underpin them? How might analysis of the specifically transcultural dimensions of adaptations help us to grapple with the politics of adaptation more broadly?

This special issue on the topic of Transcultural Adaptation investigates these questions by bringing together five articles that investigate a range of different transcultural engagements across world cinema. Indeed, this is a particularly timely intervention given the contemporary prevalence of debates around border-crossings, hybridity and cultural appropriation. It is therefore important that we outline at the start what we mean by transcultural adaptation. The concept of transculturalism, in its initial formulation by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, seeks to overcome traditional models of cultural difference. In Cuban Counterpoint (1940), Ortiz examines various territorial movements, colonialist expansions, and waves of migration towards Cuba, where people as diverse as the Portuguese, Anglo-Saxons, French, Asians, and North Americans underwent an experience “of disadjustment and readjustment, of deculturation and acculturation” (Ortiz 98). According to Ortiz, this process is far too complex to be merely categorised as the simple transition from one culture to the next, for it undeniably sees the target culture itself be fundamentally changed. Cuba may have been a rather unique example in its time, yet this is no longer the case in a globalised world where the newly-found sense of mobility affects all lives and cultures, and where “people and culture now rather more than before refuse to stay put in [ordinary, territorially circumscribed places]” (Hannerz 12).

It is notable that more and more scholars working in the field of Adaptation Studies have adopted a transcultural view-point, as is evidenced by recent handbooks and essay collections which have started to feature the respective thematic sections (see Frus/Williams; Hopton et al.; Nicklas/Lindner; Hassler-Forest/Nicklas; Leitch). It is easy to see why: a transcultural approach offers the discipline a chance to reconceptualise itself beyond the classical dichotomies of “original” and “adaptation” and, by implication, of “us” vs. “them”, a binarism that also informs the heated discussions surrounding matters of cultural appropriation: “they act like that, but we act like this” (Huck/Bauernschmidt 242). Going beyond this simplified state of affairs is a necessary adjustment to the realities of a globalised environment, and it also takes into account the work of postcolonial critics, who frequently stress that the process of adaptation allows for traditional power hierarchies to be re-negotiated (Chatterjee/Singh 80).

Nevertheless, the sheer ubiquity of the concept of transculturalism has led some of its critics to argue that it is but the latest trendy symptom of an utter relativism in theory, and indicative of a fundamental terminological crisis during the “Second Modernity”2, one that seeks to sabotage any kind of meaning whatsoever. “Trans” labels may come with a dubious reputation as too unwieldy, ambivalent, and prone to misunderstandings (Weichhart 66), but they are highly adequate to a world (not to mention a scholarly environment) that is still struggling to rid itself of binaries and outdated notions of essentialism. While it is true that transculturalism suddenly seems to be everywhere, it does approach the “complexity of culture in a world increasingly characterised by globalization, transnationalization, and interdependence” (Schulze-Engler ix) in a way that interculturalism cannot. Unlike the latter, transculturalism emphasises “mutability, porosity, hybridity and inconclusive processuality” (Lange/Wiemann 7), and crucially, it does not merely assume differences between individual cultures but within them, too, looking beyond the realm of individual cultures to acknowledge the realities of globalisation and migration (Bolscho 29-31).

This special issue comes out of the international symposium ‘Transcultural Adaptation’,3 hosted at TU Dresden (Germany) in 2018, and contains five articles that each offer a distinct perspective on these transcultural processes of adaptation and exchange. Udo Bomnüter opens our issue with an analysis of Alexander Abela’s Makibefo (1999), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was made in collaboration with the indigenous Antandroy tribe on the southern tip of Madagascar. The article analyses how Abela worked to fuse both Western and Antandroy traditions within this culturally hybrid text. For Bomnüter, it was the active participation of the indigenous community that was key to this process. Abela adopted a quasi-ethnographic approach, following the recommended fieldwork practices of ethnographic filmmaking advocated by anthropologist Timothy Asch, and he involved the Antandroy not only as actors but also as screenwriters, musicians and crew. Through a close analysis of the myriad ways in which Makibefo adapts Shakespeare’s text, therefore, Bomnüter proposes this as a genuine case of transcultural adaptation.

In the second article, Martina Pfeiler discusses the German-language version of Moby-Dick titled Dämon des Meeres (Demon of the Sea, 1931) in relation to its nineteenth-century folkloric precursors and to its critical reception within Germany on its release. While the film itself is now lost, Pfeiler analyses several script versions by the German translator and author Ulrich Steindorff in order to explore the various ways in which the Moby-Dick narrative was adapted for a German audience. Moreover, Pfeiler explores the subsequent critical reception of Dämon des Meeres within Germany at the time and uses that to further interrogate the politics of these processes of transcultural adaptation. Drawing attention to the manner in which the hunt for the white whale has been embedded within a number of contested transcultural spaces connected to race, sexuality and gender, Pfeiler emphasises the ways in which Steindorff’s screenplays allow for a transcultural imaginary of empathy to emerge.

This is followed by Ivo Ritzer’s article on the cinematic work of Walter Hill, and its dialogues with the work of Akira Kurosawa, John Woo and Jean-Pierre Melville. Attempting to break away from the epistemological privileging of the West within discourses of world cinema, Ritzer advocates a model of transcultural adaptation based around Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “speaking to”, as opposed to “listening to” or “speaking for”, the Other. Ritzer argues against an understanding of transcultural adaptation in which the West produces the “genuine” material and non-Western cultures adapt and rework that material, and instead argues for a decentring of the West and a reframing of transcultural adaptation via the concept of “speaking to”. Through a close analysis of Hill’s The Driver (1978), Last Man Standing (1996), and Bullet to the Head (2013), Ritzer ultimately explores how the politics of “speaking to” in Walter Hill can be understood as a form of transcultural adaptation of “Asian” cinematic traditions.

Wieland Schwanebeck’s article investigates transculturality in the West-German Edgar Wallace films. Building upon existing studies of the Wallace films that have tended to analyse them primarily through a national cinema lens, Schwanebeck specifically focuses on these films as adaptations and teases out their transcultural qualities. Even when the films themselves were no longer based on any Wallace properties, Schwanebeck explores how the authorial brand of Edgar Wallace continued to function within the marketing of the films and in the collective memory. With a particular focus on Zimmer 13 (Room 13, 1964), a film which has had almost no critical attention to date, Schwanebeck discusses how the Edgar Wallace films adapted to contemporary cinematic trends such as the Italian giallo cycle of the 1960s and 1970s. Moving us beyond interpretations of the Wallace films as pure-blooded “Germanisations” of their English sources, Schwanebeck instead positions them as a transcultural success story that negotiated with a variety of international influences and contemporary cinematic fashions.

Finally, as part of a new series of articles from the archives of LFQ, we have brought back Erin Suzuki’s 2006 article on Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957). We both agreed that this was one of the best academic articles on transcultural adaptation we have read, and we were delighted to have the opportunity to republish it in this special issue. Central to Suzuki’s argument is the idea that Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth is neither a “Japanified” version of Shakespeare’s tragedy nor a transposition of the play’s essence into universal visual images, but instead “stages a historically specific negotiation between traditional Japanese and imported Western culture.” It is this emphasis on historically specific negotiations across and between cultures that makes Suzuki’s article a particularly fitting way to conclude our special issue on transcultural adaptation.


1  There have been, of course, cases where directors have remade their own films in a different industrial context; very often, these are European directors who are hired to direct American versions of their own successful films. The most prominent cases include Alfred Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1993), based on his own Spoorloos (1988), and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007), based on his own Austrian film of the same name (1997).

2  A term coined by Ulrich Beck to indicate the shift from industrial society towards a new networked “risk society”.

3  A report on this conference (“Transcultural Adaptation”) was included recently in LFQ (47:2): please visit https://lfq.salisbury.edu/_issues/47_2/transcultural_adaptation_an_international_symposium.html

Works Cited

Bolscho, Dietmar. “Transkulturalität: Ein neues Leitbild für Bildungsprozesse.” Transkulturalität und Identität: Bildungsprozesse zwischen Exklusion und Inklusion. Ed. Asit Datta. Frankfurt/London: IKO, 2005. 29-38.

Chatterjee, Sudipto, and Jyotsna G. Singh. “Moor or Less? The Surveillance of Othello, Calcutta 1848.” Shakespeare and Appropriation. Eds. Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer. London/New York: Routledge, 1999. 65-82.

Dargis, Manohla. “‘Parasite’ Review: The Lower Depths Rise With a Vengeance.” The New York Times, 10 October 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/10/movies/parasite-review.html

Frus, Phyllis, and Christy Williams. “Introduction: Making the Case for Transformation.” Beyond Adaptation: Essays on Radical Transformations of Original Works. Eds. Phyllis Frus and Christy Williams. Jefferson/London: McFarland, 2010. 1-18.

Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. London/New York: Routledge, 2000.

Hassler-Forest, Dan, and Pascal Nicklas, eds. The Politics of Adaptation. Houndmills/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Hopton, Tricia, et al., eds. Pockets of Change: Adaptation and Cultural Transition. Lanham: Lexington, 2011.

Hornaday, Ann. “On the Heels of Parasite’s Oscars Win for Best Picture, Can We Finally Jettison the Dreaded American Remake?” The Washington Post, 13 February 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/on-the-heels-of-parasites-oscars-win-for-best-picture-can-we-finally-jettison-the-dreaded-american-remake/2020/02/13/af7d4f28-4e76-11ea-b721-9f4cdc90bc1c_story.html

Huck, Christian, and Stefan Bauernschmidt. “Trans-Cultural Appropriation.” Travelling Goods, Travelling Moods: Varieties of Cultural Appropriation (1850-1950). Eds. Christian Huck and Stefan Bauernschmidt. Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2012. 229-251.

Lange, Bernd-Peter, and Dirk Wiemann. “Transcultural Britain: An Introduction.” Journal for the Study of British Cultures 15.1 (2008): 3-10.

Leitch, Thomas, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies. Oxford: OUP, 2017.

Nicklas, Pascal, and Oliver Lindner. “Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation.” Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation: Literature, Film, and the Arts. Eds. Pascal Nicklas and Oliver Lindner. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. 1-13.

O’Brien, Jon. “‘Parasite’ And The (Long Overdue) Death Of The English-Language Remake.” Esquire, 07 February 2020, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/film/a30795781/parasite-oscars-english-language-remake/

Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. [1940] Trans. Harriet de Onís. Durham/London: Duke UP, 1995.

Park, Ju-Hyun. “Reading Colonialism in ‘Parasite’.” Tropics of Meta, 17 February 2020, https://tropicsofmeta.com/2020/02/17/reading-colonialism-in-parasite/

Schulze-Engler, Frank. “Introduction.” Transcultural English Studies: Theories, Fictions, Realities. Eds. Frank Schulze-Engler and Sissy Helff. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009. ix-xvi.

Weichhart, Peter. “Das ‘Trans-Syndrom’. Wenn die Welt durch das Netz unserer Begriffe fällt.” Transkulturalität, Transnationalität, Transstaatlichkeit, Translokalität. Theoretische und empirische Begriffsbestimmungen. Eds. Melanie Hühn, Dörte Lerp, Knut Petzold, and Miriam Stock. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2010. 47-70.