As the incoming Assistant Editor of Literature/Film Quarterly, I was invited by Elsie Walker to select around half a dozen articles from the journal’s archives for this special issue. Doing so has been instructive and thrilling, but I admit it has also been a somewhat strange exercise. I say “strange” because the very act of assembling an issue like this implies retrospective evaluation, and yet being new to adaptation studies (an “outsider” if you will) I find myself taking up such a perspective without the requisite expertise or experience to authorize it. Maybe my ambivalence is simply an expression of the anxieties of an early-career academic, always the self-described interloper, but I sense something deeper at play here (or at the very least more interesting) than my imposter syndrome while adapting to a new position. Specifically, I think it has to do with the experience of being out of place or perhaps not on time. After all, adaptation studies has been around since at least the mid-twentieth century but remains as intractably amorphous and rife with contradictions as it has ever been. As Meg Tarquinio aptly puts it, adaptation scholarship frequently abounds in “malcontent indictments on the state of the field.”1 Characterizing adaptation studies as “the bastard offspring of literary studies and film theory” in the pages of this journal in 2008, Simone Murray suggested the field had “struggled to achieve respectability since its inception in the 1950s,”2 and as early as 1984 Dudley Andrew described the field as “frequently the most narrow and provincial area of film studies.”3 Such characterizations practically paint the picture of a discursive phobic object: relegated to the margins, debased from without, fractured from within.
I was drawn toward this undercurrent of abjection in adaptation studies as soon as I sensed it. That curiosity is what initially drew me to Kamilla Elliott’s 2014 article “Rethinking Formal-Cultural and Textual-Contextual Divides in Adaptation Studies.” Elliott’s piece provides an engaging overview of recent debates in the field, diagnosing its various impasses and fissures in a manner that strikes me as both lucid and principled. Her analysis rests on a crucial recognition, borne of the author’s keen attentiveness to broader developments within the humanities over the last several decades, of what could be described as the untimeliness of adaptation studies. As Elliott points out, adaptation studies only underwent its “theoretical turn” beginning around the turn of the 21st century, much later than other fields in the humanities. One result of this belatedness—of adaptation studies having, so to speak, arrived too late—is that the theories themselves had already been fleshed out, their methods and implications litigated and subsequently “rejected” or “integrated” by these discourses. For Elliott, this resulted in theoretical debates that proved in many cases to be especially “reductive, dismissive, polarized, and shrill,” often depending upon bossy oppositions between “text and context,” or between formal and cultural concerns. As I read it, Elliott’s article ultimately mandates a kind of discursive cognitive dissonance, urging us not to banish perceived contradictions or neglect areas of genuine conflict but to incorporate them into some meaningful form. At the very least, for Elliott, this would begin with a recognition that formalist and cultural concerns are absolutely intertwined, that text and context exist “side by side.” What is ultimately at stake in Elliott’s call to “hybridize adaptation studies” clearly transcends academic concerns. Theory is essentially a means of relating to our objects of study, and thus always to some extent reflects how we relate to ourselves and to history, to the world and its constituents. In light of the political and social divisions thrown into such sharp relief in 2020, I found one of Elliott’s lines to be especially pertinent: “We need to study adaptations not simply to affirm the theories we already believe and to oppose those we reject, but to test and challenge our theoretical beliefs.”
Though Elliott’s article brings us closest to the present, for me it provided a kind of thread for knitting these essays together. Contained to the last two decades of LFQ’s publication history, these essays reflect a discourse as fluid and playful as it is rigorous and self-aware, and one enhanced rather than imperiled by its internal contradictions.
At first blush, Thomas Leitch’s essay “101 Ways to Tell Hitchcock’s Psycho from Gus Van Sant’s” (2000) could appear as an exercise in analytical or enumerative mania. For the purposes of scholarship-as-performance-art, this would have been enough. But Leitch’s essay cuts deeper. Beneath the surface of its withering refutation of Universal’s claim for Van Sant’s 1998 film as a “line-by-line, shot-by-shot remake” of Hitchcock’s classic, Leitch’s idiosyncratic essay discloses the demonic spectacle of fidelity itself. As I read it, Leitch’s essay projects a seamless performance of the fetishist’s obsession with textual seams—an expression, sincere in its delivery if bitterly ironic in its implications, of the delights and plights of the fantasy of perfect correspondence.
Karen Pike’s essay “Bitextual Pleasures” (2001) turns to Camp for its ability to “synthesize the fantastic text and the parodic text, suspending the viewer between the uncanny familiarity and emotional involvement of one mode and the intellectual, critical distance of the other.” They both “thrive on contradiction.” Looks at three vampire films—Lair of the White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988), The Addiction (Abel Ferrara, 1995), and Nadja (Michael Almereyda, 1994)—each of which draw from Bram Stoker’s Dracula while effecting “its particular blend of parody, Camp, and the fantastic,” where each of these modes are “continually undercut to keep the viewer bouncing back and forth between modes of reception.” This turbulence obtains at every level in Pike’s analysis, including that of interpretation, ideology, representation, and identity.
Tanine Allison’s essay from 2010, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History,” is a lively and engaging account of video games about the Second World War, ranging from beloved classics like Wolfenstein 3D (1992) to installments in contemporary blockbuster franchises like Medal of Honor (1999- ) and Call of Duty (2003- ). For Allison, the emphasis video games place on repetition and interactivity make this medium a particularly intriguing staging ground for historical myth. In this regard, the World War II video game acts as a “simulation of history,” which, being a “representation of the present disguised as the past,” makes this form more pertinentas an object of ideological critique. Allison’s attention in this piece is not limited to video games, however, but cinema and television as well. This intermedial and intertextual fluidity with which Allison examines the World War II video game’s simulation of history reflects a broader blurring of boundaries between “viewers” and “players,” users and media.
In her 2010 article, “The Taming of the (Arab-Islamic) Shrew,” Yvette Khoury zeroes in on a largely neglected film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Fatin ‘Abdel Wahab’s Ah Min Hawwa (Beware of Eve, 1962). While Khoury acknowledges from the outset that Wahab’s film is rather unexceptional on its surface, she also finds Hawwa to be the “most captivating” of the five adaptations of Shakespeare’s play produced by the Egyptian film industry. Her essay ultimately stands as a powerful testament to its cultural and historical significance. Through a keen, at times even granular attention to elements of language and mise-en-scène in Hawaa, Khoury reveals a dynamic and often quite unruly interplay between aesthetics and politics.
In his 2006 “The Problem Body Politic, or ‘These Hands Have a Mind All Their Own!’,” Ian Olney turns to “body horror” cinema and literature to consider how the genre might undermine normative ideologies of corporeal form. Olney’s essay thus sidesteps the prevailing focus of disability studies at that time on challenging stereotypes around corporeal difference in mainstream media, instead pitching the horror genre as a potential “site of resistance” to such ideological formations. To do so, he turns to Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel Les mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) and four of its “cinematic progeny,” an auspicious constellation of objects for Olney’s study not least because the crisis at the heart of the Orlac narrative revolves around the hands: aspects of the body that are perhaps most synonymous, at least in a normative sense, with capacity and intent. Throughout his study, Olney taps into some of the most essential questions in film and literary discourse—and one that runs through all the essays in this collection—concerning the dynamic between screen and text, between reader and viewer.
That this collection of articles is far from exhaustive should be self-evident in its relatively diminutive size. No sampling of articles could represent the full range of intellectual achievements in the pages of this journal over the last two decades any more than it could provide some synthetic reflection of the state of field. If the present collection does somehow accomplish the latter, it is in challenging the mandate of disciplinarity itself, or the idea that a given field of intellectual inquiry should aspire to a cohesion and stability. As each of these articles attest, taking up the question of adaptation today means diving headlong into the thrilling and messy interplay between mediums, texts, forms, and cultures. In the coming years, I hope we can double-down on that spirit of intellectual experimentation, diversity of thought, and productive uncertainty that continues to make adaptation studies such a dynamic and living discourse.
1 Meg Tarquinio, “The Pleasure of the Intertext: Toward a Cognitive Poetics of Adaptation,” Unpublished doctoral dissertation (Northeastern University, 2017), 12.
2 Simone Murray, “Materializing Adaptation Theory: The Adaptation Industry,” Literature/Film Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2008), 4.
3 Dudley Andrew, Concepts in Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 96.