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Rethinking Formal-Cultural and Textual-Contextual Divides in Adaptation Studies

Literature/Film Quarterly, 2014, Vol. 42, No. 4 (2014), pp. 576-593

When I began my career as an adaptation scholar in the late 1990s, it was as an interdisciplinary scholar of literature and film. My research included but was not limited to adaptation. Adaptation studies was then chiefly concerned with literature and film: primarily novels, but also theater, with a tertiary interest in television adaptations of canonical literature. Although cultural studies was making inroads at the time, the field was, as it had been for most of the twentieth century, dominated by formal theories, most commonly aesthetic formalism, New Criticism, and structuralist narratology. These theories were regularly engaged to contest the relative values and capacities of literature and film in order to claim disciplinary, media, and cultural territory for one or the other. By the time my book historicizing and analyzing these interdisciplinary dynamics was published in 2003, dialogics and structuralist and poststructuralist theories of intertextuality were challenging older formal theories. New formal theories were seldom used to vaunt one discipline or medium over another; they were more often used to champion one theory over another: formal hybridities over aesthetic formalism’s medium specificity, poststructuralist intertextuality over structuralist narratology, and dialogics over New Critical organic unity. Thus, while in the twentieth century literature and film scholars used adaptations to vie for disciplinary territory and power, in the twenty-first, they have more often used adaptations to compete for theoretical dominion and authority.

Theoretical contests in adaptation studies have in the twenty-first century not been solely or even primarily waged between older and newer formal theories; they have been fought more prominently among formal/textual and cultural/contextual theories, epistemologies, and methodologies. If in the twentieth century aesthetic formalist scholars recommended that literature and film should occupy separate spheres,1 in the twenty-first, formal and cultural scholars do more than occupy separate spheres: they oppose and at times seek to do away with the other kind of scholarship. Since no critic denies that a full understanding of adaptation requires both and, more than this, that textual and contextual aspects of adaptation intertwine inextricably, this is somewhat perplexing. This article therefore seeks to explicate current and recent formal-cultural and textual-contextual divides in adaptation studies by tracing their history, probing the theoretical differences driving them, considering prior attempts to redress their rifts, and suggesting further ways to do so.

Historicizing the Rifts

While disagreement and criticism are essential components of any academic endeavor and can be highly productive, the belated arrival of the theoretical turn in adaptation studies has produced a particularly acute polarization between formal and cultural approaches to adaptation that has often been unproductive. Bringing theories into adaptation studies in the mid-1990s that were established elsewhere in the humanities by the 1980s and mainstream by the early 1990s with the vigor and polemics of the 1960s and ‘70s proved all the more fraught because literature and film studies and adaptation studies were established refuges from the theoretical turn—strongholds of New Criticism, formalism, aestheticism, and humanism. Indeed, Literature/Film Quarterly was founded in 1973 in response to the incursion of high theory in film studies and its uncompromising hostility to older theoretical approaches (Leitch, “Where Are We Going”). This meant that many scholars of literature, film, and adaptation had already considered and rejected the cultural and neo-formal theories brought into the field by Deborah Cartmell, Imelda Whelehan, Ian Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye, Robert Stam, Robert B. Ray, Sarah Cardwell, Thomas Leitch, and others at the turn of the twenty-first century. The conflict was further exacerbated by the fact that the theoretical turn arrived fully formed in adaptation studies, missing out on dialogues between Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysts, structuralist and poststructuralist semioticians, modernist and postmodern cultural theorists, and colonial and postcolonial scholars—discussions that had produced more gradual and integrated revolutions elsewhere, incorporating as well as rejecting prior thought. In adaptation studies, the absence of these more integrated debates has meant that theoretical debates have been particularly reductive, dismissive, polarized, and shrill.

However, these turn-of-the-century scholars were not the first to bring the theoretical turn into adaptation studies nor the first to recommend that the field needed to consider the cultural contexts influencing and determining adaptations. From 1949, Lester Asheim’s studies of adaptation prioritized industry, audience, and cultural influences on adaptations over formal ones. In 1980, Dudley Andrew had called adaptation studies to take “a sociological turn.” Few, however, heeded his call.2 Instead, adaptation scholars from the late ‘70s to the mid-90s were preoccupied with testing, contesting, and protesting the new formal theories that were challenging the dominance of aesthetic formalism, particularly narratology and structuralism (soon to be themselves challenged by dialogics and poststructuralism, a process accelerated by the belated arrival of new theories to adaptation studies). It was not until 1996 that cultural adaptation studies gained any momentum. In that year, Cartmell and Whelehan published the first of many co-edited collections publications that brought left-wing politics and postmodern cultural theory into literature and film studies with the force of the returning repressed.

Two books in 1996 marked the divide between neoformal theories and pioneering cultural theories of adaptation. Joining Cartmell and Whelehan’s Pulping Fictions: Consuming Culture across the Literature/Media Divide (co-edited with Hunter and Kaye), Brian McFarlane’s Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation theorized adaptation via structuralist narratology. Both books challenged the New Criticism and aesthetic formalism that had hitherto dominated the field, albeit in contrasting ways. Cartmell, Whelehan, and their contributors challenged these theories on political grounds. Against high art aestheticism, the guardian and propagator of humanist values, they set left-wing politics, championing low and popular culture over and against high and elite culture, and attacking humanism for its complicity with capitalism, sexism, heterosexism, racism, nationalism, and colonialism. McFarlane brought a different kind of challenge to what he considered to be the fuzzy, impressionistic, subjective methodologies of New Criticism and aesthetic formalism, recommending the categorical clarity and scientific empirical objectivity of structuralist narratology “to replace the reliance on one’s subjective response to the two texts as a basis for establishing similarities and differences between them ” (195).

These two approaches might have found a theoretical linchpin in the scholarship of Roland Barthes, who had influentially connected semiotics to ideology in 1957, determining, as Ray astutely observed in 2000, that “if narrative was not specific to any medium, neither was ideology” (40). But they did not. While McFarlane readily acknowledged that cultural and contextual factors are essential to any full account of adaptation, he conceded that the narratological theories and methodologies he promoted could not account for them systematically or comprehensively, and so sidelined them in his theory of adaptation (210). Yet this impasse was not an entirely pragmatic affair; it was equally the product of ideological, epistemological, and methodological factors. Far from aspiring to a cultural equivalent of McFarlane’s formal system, postmodern scholars rejected the empirical, systematic, objectivism of structuralist semiotics and narratology on political and philosophical grounds. Structuralist narratology’s naming, defining, categorizing, and systematizing were and remain at odds with postmodern theories of indeterminacy, pluralism, hybridity, fragmentation, and pastiche. Structuralism’s aspiration to a totalizing system did not simply falter because it was unable to systematize cultural aspects of adaptation; it was rejected for being epistemologically and theoretically at odds with postmodernism’s rejection of master narratives and grand theories. Radical political postmodern scholars further distrusted the objectivism of scientific methodologies, deeming it complicit with a politically oppressive essentialism, used to hierarchize, limit, and marginalize persons, media, disciplines, and ideologies to serve those in power.

Formal scholars were and still are more likely to ignore or footnote than to directly challenge cultural approaches to adaptation, continuing a longstanding tradition in which anything outside the text is treated as secondary, background material of value only in so far as it serves textual analysis. In keeping with this tradition, McFarlane’s theory of adaptation sidelines contextual and cultural aspects of adaptation rather than integrating them into his system. Other formal scholars have critiqued postmodern cultural studies on philosophical and epistemological grounds. Poststructuralist Timothy Clark, for example, considers postmodern relativism to be as fuzzy and imprecise as Mcfarlane does aesthetic formalism, going further to argue that left-wing political theories, predicated on idealism and ideology rather than on empirical research or philosophical logic, lack both real-world significance and epistemological credibility.

Ten years on, two new books marked the ongoing rift between formal and cultural approaches to adaptation. In 2006, Linda Costanzo Cahir’s Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches continued the field’s focus on literature and film and on formal and aesthetic approaches to adaptation, while Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation developed a postmodern cultural theory of adaptation—a pastiche of theories rather than a master narrative. Cahir’s book is more hostile to and exclusive of cultural studies than McFarlane’s; it not only contains a polemical introduction protesting the theoretical turn in the humanities by LFQ co-founder, James M. Welsh; it further carves out separate spheres for formal and cultural approaches to adaptation at the theoretical baseline of field definition. In the wake of poststructuralist and postmodern attacks on the inadequacies of translation theory to explicate adaptation by Cartmell and Whelehan (Adaptations), Stam (“Beyond Fidelity”), Ray (“The Field of ”), and Leitch (“Twelve Fallacies”), Cahir advocated restoring translation as the primary terminology for literary film adaptation, displacing adaptation:

“To adapt ” means to alter the structure or function of an entity so that it is better fitted to survive and to multiply in its new environment .... “To translate, ” in contrast to “to adapt;’ is to move a text from one language to another. It is a process of language, not a process of survival and generation. (14, original emphasis)

Cahir here carves out separate territories for formal and cultural studies of adaptation at the ground level of field terminology.

Conversely, Hutcheon’s postmodern A Theory of Adaptation is more concerned with cultural than formal aspects of adaptation, placing the definition of adaptation more in the eye of the beholder, as postmodern audience response theory does, than in terminology, formal properties, or the practitioner testimonies that so keenly interest aesthetic formalists. Although her postmodern commitment to eclecticism means that her theory does consider formal issues, unlike aesthetic formalists, she does not prioritize them or mine adaptations solely for their humanist, aesthetic value; indeed, her influential expansion of the field beyond literature, theater, film, and television to all manner of popular cultural forms marks a rejection of aesthetic value as the primary goal of scholarship, when she includes

not just films and stage productions, but also musical arrangements and song covers, visual art revisitations of prior works and comic book versions of history, poems put to music and remakes of films, and video games and interactive art ... theme park rides, Web sites, graphic novels ... operas, musicals, ballets, and radio and stage plays (9; xiv).

Hutcheon joins Cartmell, Whelehan, and other postmodern scholars in turning from excavating elite, canonical books, films, and adaptations for their aesthetic value to probing books, films, and adaptations of all kinds for their cultural and ideological functions, which requires attention to their consumption and reception.

Here again, as cultural scholars worked to redress what was missing in prior adaptation studies, the two camps could have joined forces to create a more comprehensive understanding of adaptation’s products and processes, joining texts to contexts and artistic production to audience consumption. But ideological and methodological barriers, together with left- and right-wing political disagreements over what constitutes cultural value, prevented them from combining forces to explicate the field. Cahir’s linear, teacherly treatise failed to satisfy scholars seeking theoretical complexity and cultural diversity, while for all its breathtaking range and rigor, Hutcheon’s postmodern, theoretically laissez-fair pastiche failed to satisfy scholars seeking theoretical systematicity, synthesis, or a metatheoretical discussion that would evaluate and adjudicate contesting theories, or set them in incisive and extended dialogue with each other.

Even so, Hutcheon’s international reputation and formidably wide-ranging coverage resulted in her book being more influential than Cahir’s, with 963 citations to Cahir’s 40 on Google Scholar as of 24 July 2014, and a second edition published in 2012. Subsequently, adaptation became the field’s dominant term, displacing “literature and film studies:” In 2008, the Association of Literature on Screen changed its name to the Association of Adaptation Studies, and its Oxford journal, established that year, abandoned its proposed moniker, The Journal of Literature on Screen, to become Adaptation. Also established in 2008 was The Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance; together, these journals challenged the dominance of Literature/Film Quarterly, although by this time, LFQ was under new editorship and expanding its theoretical horizons, as I detail below.

At this time, tensions between postmodern cultural and aesthetic formal scholars were coming to a head. In 1999, Whelehan had announced that “a cultural studies approach foregrounds the activities of reception and consumption, and shelves—forever perhaps—considerations of the aesthetic or cultural worthiness of the object of study” (18). In 2010, she and co-author Cartmell seemed perplexed by the persistence of formalist adaptation studies, described by them as “a small body of work moving against the main tide of theory;’ “an attitude to adaptations ... that refuses to go away ” (11).3

The following year, Colin MacCabe, lead editor of the first Oxford University Press book on adaptation containing essays by high profile scholars such as Andrew, Laura Mulvey, Tom Gunning, and Frederic Jameson, responded directly to Cartmell and Whelehan: “The fact is that people are still interested in how and why filmmakers adapt books and what they did to adapt them. So these issues and questions are not going to go away and perhaps it is time to ask why it is that we refuse to address them” (7, emphasis added). MacCabe not only defended his position; he also attacked theirs: “academic abandonment of questions of value is not simply theoretically ignorant but also practically disastrous” (9). Yet cultural studies scholars are as keenly concerned with questions of representational value as aesthetic formalists and their work is centrally informed by theoretical principles. They are just not aesthetic formalist values and principles.

Also at this time, Simone Murray extended the formal-cultural divide into a broader textual-contextual one. In a 2008 essay expanded to a book-length project in 2012, Murray challenged textual studies of all kinds, including postmodern cultural textual studies: “Adaptation studies urgently needs to ... move out from under the aegis of long-dominant formalist and textual analysis traditions ... and instead begin to understand adaptation sociologically” (“Materializing Adaptation,” 10). Placing textual studies of all kinds into one camp, Murray assessed that dialogician Stam had “merely closed the circle” on more than 5 0 years of textual adaptation studies inaugurated by aesthetic formalist George Bluestone (“Materializing Adaptation, ” 5).

However, Murray could herself be charged with merely closing a circle on more than 5 0 years of using adaptations to fight disciplinary wars. Given that textual analysis is intrinsic to literary studies, as well to art, theater, film, television, and media studies, to reject textual scholarship and replace it with methodologies from political economy and sociology is to exacerbate disciplinary rifts and forge far wider divides between the humanities and social sciences. The social sciences indubitably and illuminatingly inform adaptation in a myriad of ways, as Murray has shown; yet so too do the humanities, including its textual studies.

Theorizing the Rifts

It is not within the scope of this article to theorize these rifts fully; what follows here are a few observations that build on my arguments in Chapter 5 of Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate that formal theories from aesthetic formalism to poststructuralism fail to explicate what transfers in adaptation in any convincing or satisfactory way. Since that time, it seems to me that this failure of formal and textual theories to explicate adaptations formally has fostered the rise of cultural and contextual adaptation studies. Since Bluestone’s pioneering study of novel to film adaptation in 1957, when formal theories failed adaptations, cultural and contextual theories sought to fill their gaps. Cardwell astutely notes that Bluestone only turned to contextual factors (censorship, book sales following film adaptations, industry practices, etc.) in an attempt to explain the persistence of adaptations in culture after aesthetic formalism and medium specificity had failed to account for them (50 ). Similarly, when Andrew called adaptation studies to take “a sociological turn ” in 1980, he did so largely in response to the limitations of structuralist semiotics and narratology to explicate adaptation. Although he found processes of “matching ” and “equivalence ” advanced by semiotic, philosophical, and narratological scholars promising for redressing formalist failure to account for adaptations, since these lacked structuralism’s quasi-scientific systematicity, Andrew determined that such deficiency “demands that the study of adaptation includes the study of both art forms in their proper historic context ” (102, original emphasis).

In the 2000s, the growing prominence of cultural and contextual adaptation
studies reflects the subsequent inadequacy of poststructuralist intertextuality to account for adaptation (Leitch, “Adaptation ”). Moreover, in the wake of structuralism’s subjugation of content to form and poststructuralism’s evaporation of content, scholars have relocated what we used to call content (meaning, themes, ideas, values, beliefs, ideologies, etc.) from imprisonment inside form to reside outside of form as “ideologies ” produced by social, cultural, historical, discursive, economic, political, and textual contexts. Content, released into and redefined as context, now imprisons form as form once imprisoned it. Under discursive constructionism, forms of all kinds, including human bodies and psyches, become empty vehicles, devoid of significance, inscribed from without by contexts rather than bearing their significance within as content. Scholars interested in ideology and meaning have therefore turned from empty forms to study contexts. Scientistic efforts to construct universal formal and totalizing narratological and semiotic systems have exacerbated the sense of forms as empty, as they carry the emptiness of forms to universal formal theories. Such theories are predicated on emptying forms of any specific historical, cultural, aesthetic, or local semantics or significance. At a symposium I attended recently, as we listened to a formal scholar unfold a new and ingenious method of categorizing media forms, a cultural scholar beside me whispered, “Yes, but what do we do with it? ” The system offers nothing to inform the social, cultural, and political questions that cultural studies scholars ask. From this angle of view, not only are forms empty, so too are formal theories aspiring to universality.

Francesco Casetti contends that formal studies, for all their claims to universality, are deceptive, partial, and superficial:

analyses devoted merely to formal aspects should not be trusted ... the passage from the source text to its adaptation is not simply a formal variation. There is something else going on, something deeper: the fact that the source text and its derivative occupy two entirely different places in the world scene and in history. Therefore, when we talk about adaptations, transformation, remakes, and so on, we should not simply focus on the structure of those texts—their form and content—but on the dialogue between the text and its context. Evidently, adaptation is primarily a phenomenon of recontextualization of the text (83, emphasis added).

For Casetti and many other scholars, what is secondary, backgrounded, or footnoted in textual studies becomes “primary ” in cultural studies; as texts are emptied of content, contexts carry “deeper ” significance.

Not so problematically inextricable from form as structuralist content, contexts (which we have seen McFarlane concedes are too diverse and complex to be systematized) elude formal systems and float free of them. The separation of textual and contextual approaches to adaptations, then, are the fallout of larger theoretical rifts that adaptation particularly highlights and foregrounds and can potentially redress.

The 2000s and 2010 s have witnessed attempts to bridge formal and cultural rifts in adaptation studies, albeit without resolving their underlying theoretical differences. Under the new editorship of Elsie Walker from 2003 and David Johnson from 2004, Literature/Film Quarterly has become to my mind the most theoretically ecumenical and fully inclusive of the three adaptation journals, spanning the whole methodological and ideological spectrum. Other editors have also made moves toward wider theoretical inclusivity. In 2007, Cartmell and Whelehan made McFarlane lead author in their edited collection and in 2010, after pioneering a wider field, themselves returned to their initial interests in literature on screen. In a 2012 essay, Murray retracted some of her more extreme attacks on textual studies ( “Business of Adaptation, ” 129). More often than not, however, differing approaches exist side by side in edited collections, journals, and anthologies rather than engaging in debate or informing adaptation in integrated, hybrid ways. The belief is that, if we use all the theories, then we will arrive at a comprehensive picture of adaptation. But theoretical disagreements prevent such integration of the field.

Formalism’s aspirations to the universality of scientific systems and disregard for how local cultural and historical contexts inflect forms, countered by postmodern cultural studies’ resistance of master narratives and systematicity, are not the only theoretical chasms dividing formal and cultural scholars. Political disagreements also divide formal aesthetic and postmodern cultural adaptation scholars, as we have seen. And yet their shared interest in cultural value and social amelioration through arts and media means that the two camps have far more in common with each other epistemologically, rhetorically, and methodologically than they do with scientistic narratology or philosophical abstraction. Both aesthetic formalists and postmodern cultural scholars are centrally concerned with adaptations as vehicles of cultural value; both believe that scholars have a duty to promote these values to benefit and improve society. Both aesthetic humanists and left-wing radicals consider their cultural values to be inaccessible and superior to science, empiricism, and logic, possessing higher truth value, with real world applications and benefits. They simply (but significantly) differ on what those values should be.

In consequence, their rhetoric and argumentative strategies are remarkably similar. For example, while cultural scholars critique formal scholars for a preoccupation with fidelity to fictional texts, they themselves study adaptations in terms of their fidelity to theoretical texts. Roger Bromley, for example, confesses: “My problem with this adaptation [of The Scarlet Letter] is not that it desecrates a canonical text, or even is ‘unfaithful’ to it, but that it produces meanings which give credence to the ideology of the ‘imperial self’ ” (79).4 Even as he rejects the idea that a film should be faithful to canonical literary texts, he chastises this film for infidelity to canonical theoretical texts. In a similar vein, cultural scholars object to formalist uses of adaptations to valorize literature over film (Whelehan 17; Carroll 2), but they too read adaptations to valorize literature over film. When Heather Emmens praises Sarah Waters’s “subversive ” literary representations of lesbian sexuality in Tipping the Velvet while castigating the BBC television adaptation for its “stereotypical ” representations ( “Taming the Velvet ”), or when Julian North critiques Ang Lee’s film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for augmenting the novel’s political conservatism ( “Conservative Austen ”), they valorize literature over film for its greater conformity to political and theoretical “types. ”

Ideological affinities extend to methodological ones. In 2000, Ray complained of adaptation studies’ fragmentation into case studies under aesthetic formalism and its lack of a presiding poetics (44). Postmodern cultural studies has made a virtue of such fragmentation and lack of a master narrative, going further to oppose attempts to structure and unify the field (Cartmell and Whelehan, The Cambridge Companion; Cartmell, Review). However, even as postmodern scholars oppose narratological and formal taxonomies of adaptation, they order the field according to other taxonomies, such as identity politics (feminism, racism, heterosexism, etc.), as well as more traditional academic categorizations of medium, genre, nation, and historical period.

While from one viewpoint aesthetic formalism’s affinities with postmodern culturalism offer the potential for bridging formal-cultural rifts, their political polarities have prevented any bridges from being substantially forged.

Reconciling the Rifts

Formal and cultural, textual and contextual approaches to adaptation need to be synthesized rather than existing side by side if we are to develop any adequate understanding of adaptation, because formal and cultural and textual and contextual aspects inhere in each other complexly and inextricably. Emptying forms of their cultural and ideological factors, we have seen, produces a sterile, dead, taxidermied, culturally irrelevant formalism. Conversely, reductive, dismissive, phobic rejections of formal scholarship on political and philosophical grounds produce formulaic, doctrinaire, predictable, intellectually lightweight cultural studies, when adaptations are mined solely for their conformity to and promotion of familiar cultural and political ideologies. The task before us is not to insist upon theoretical agreement and field uniformity, but to find ways to study adaptations holistically across formal-cultural and textual-contextual divides amid ideological disagreements.

Rethinking adaptation studies requires rethinking how we have theorized the field. Paul de Man notes that theorization traditionally follows three stages: definition, taxonomization, and the development of theoretical principles. So too do academic fields. Therefore, the first step toward integrating formal/textual and cultural/ contextual divides is to reconsider our field definitions. In spite of the growth of cultural and contextual approaches to adaptation, our core field definition remains a formalist one, defining adaptation as a transfer of a narrative from one medium to another. Our retention of this definition is testimony to medium specificity theory’s vice-grip on the field. Logically, there is no reason why we could not define adaptation as an intercultural or inter-historical transfer and no reason why such adaptation needs to involve a change in medium. Insisting upon medium change means that entire fields, such as neo-Victorian studies, are excluded from adaptation studies or limited to their book to film and television adaptations.

Nineteenth-century English copyright cases fought prior to the ascendency of formalist medium specificity theory offer illuminating historical insights into our current field definition and avenues to field redefinition. In 1870, a theater manager bought the rights to translate a French play into English, but when his translator “virtuously extracted the sting of wickedness in his version and made an old roue of a father a comparatively harmless person, and a rattle-brained daughter not so wickedly conscious of her father’s misdeeds as in the French, ” he was taken to court, charged with violating the Copyright Act by going beyond translation to adaptation. The Copyright Act of 1842 distinguished translation from adaptation not in terms of medium but in terms of formal versus cultural changes to a text: “A translation means a delivery from one language into another, having regard to the difference of idioms ”; an adaptation accommodates a work to “the tastes and feelings of an English audience ... according to English notions ” ( “Literary Intelligence ”). Both translation and adaptation in this case are text-to-text affairs, yet translation considers only formal and linguistic conventions, while adaptation considers social, cultural, and moral ones; translation looks back to the French text, while adaptation looks forward to its English reception.

Subsequently, medium specificity theory at the turn of the twentieth century, with its rigid segregations of arts and media and its insistence that forms are untranslatable, led to constituting arts and media as different cultures studied by different departments and disciplines, requiring adaptation rather than translation. These views have been widely discredited, but require further challenging. Redefining our field more equitably in cultural as well as formal terms, so that adaptation no longer requires a change in medium, should uncover hitherto unnoticed affinities between formal and cultural approaches to adaptation and help to bridge them. Already, Cahir ’s daring recommendation that we replace adaptation with translation as the core term of our field has been picked up in a modified form, as Leo Chan, Katja Krebs, Cristina Della Coletta, and others advocate reconsidering adaptation in terms of translation, not to the exclusion of cultural concerns, but restoring formal and linguistic aspects as indispensable to understanding cultural adaptation.

Since taxonomization, next in de Man’s stages of theorization, is no longer universally considered to be an essential or even viable theoretical undertaking and has, as we have seen, exacerbated rifts between formal and cultural adaptation studies, I would suggest that we substitute “methodology ” here. Adaptation studies needs hybrid methodologies that integrate formal and cultural and textual and contextual factors; indeed, it is most surprising that, for all our neoformalist recognitions of adaptations’ semiotic hybridities and all our postmodern celebrations of their cultural hybridities, we have not yet developed methodological hybridities—a formal culturalism, a cultural formalism, a textual contextualism, or a contextual textualism.

These hybrid terms are open ones to be explored as scholars see fit in potentially myriad ways. They gesture to reciprocal and inverse methodologies in which formal/ textual issues are integrated into cultural/contextual studies and cultural/contextual issues are integrated into formal/textual studies. Though reciprocal, they are not identical. A formal culturalism would attend more scrupulously to the forms and formal properties of cultures and ideologies, while a cultural formalism would attend more rigorously to the cultural dimensions of forms. Similarly, a textual contextualism would consider the textuality of contexts. In the case of the adaptation industry that Murray set against textual studies, this would involve attention to the wording of crediting practices, the diction of awards and award ceremonies, the textuality of marketing and legal contracts, and so forth. Conversely, a contextual textualism would attend more scrupulously to the ways in which contexts inform and inhere in texts rather than solely in how they construct them from without. For example, Juliet’s rumination on Romeo’s name in Shakespeare’s play ponders simultaneously the referential emptiness and arbitrariness of proper names in relation to bodies and yet their enormous power in constructing, constraining, and destroying bodies in culture. Similarly, Romeo and Juliet’s jointly composed sonnet at their first meeting not only adapts and challenges the ways in which poetic courtly love conventions construct bodies, but the rare and unspoken stage direction, “They kiss, ” goes further to silence and displace even their own linguistic pairings (rhymes, couplets, etc.) with an embodied coupling. Indeed, their poetic lines serve as linguistic foreplay to this silent reappropriation of their speaking lips. In either direction, the methodological focus would be on the interpenetrations of texts and contexts, forms and cultures.

De Man’s third stage of theorization, the development of theoretical principles, is equally requisite to bridging rifts between formal/textual and cultural/contextual adaptation studies. Formal scholars need the courage to challenge the prevailing formalist theories that render adaptation aesthetically undesirable or semiotically impossible and the insight to devise new formal theories that can reclaim content from context. Formal adaptation studies also needs a middle ground between the narrow, elitist practice of mining canonical adaptations in traditional media to glean their antiquated, high-art aesthetic value while ignoring the values and concerns of new academic generations, theories, and media. It equally needs to revisit and revivify the systematic, objectivist, categorical modes of formalism, which do not address the social, cultural, or philosophical questions that are essential to understanding representations, nor the dynamics processes of adaptation.

From the other side of the rift, cultural scholars need to broaden what aspects of “culture ” they address so that cultural studies no longer unfolds solely as left-wing political polemics or affirmations of postmodern philosophy. “Culture ” is myriad and extends far beyond the theoretically constructed concerns of identity politics and anti capitalist protest, as do adaptations. Indeed, there is no essential or inherent reason that cultural adaptation studies cannot be philosophically positivist or politically conservative. Conversely, there is no essential or inherent reason that aesthetics cannot be philosophically indeterminate or politically radical. If they are to remain connected to the mass culture they champion, cultural scholars need to move beyond the current wholesale rejection and suspicion of aesthetics on political grounds to consider aesthetics of popular culture more broadly—and not just as capitalist modes of manipulating witless audiences. Audiences do not simply consume media for their ideological properties; they do not simply respond ideologically to adaptations; aesthetics are not simply weapons of the dominant classes used to obfuscate and empower their oppression of the underclasses. There is also ample scope for scholars to develop left-wing aesthetic theories.

Prior scholars have modeled ways in which we can extend our commitment to studying those formal and cultural hybridities we call adaptations to theoretical and methodological formal-cultural, textual-contextual hybridities. W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (1986) undertakes a cultural formalism, probing the cultural, historical, and ideological functions of words and images without losing focus on their forms. His work stands in marked contrast to the “representations of ” scholarship that mine different forms and media for similar ideologies without attention to how their formal differences construct and inculcate these ideologies in contrasting ways. A great deal of knowledge is lost in the process. For example, books and films construct very different modes of identity politics and inattention to the differences of forms often produces flat, reductive, ideologically catechismic readings. Back in the mid- l 990s, I was teaching Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman and its film adaptation, The Birth of a Nation, at the University of California, Berkeley. I received a note from a student asking, “I want to know why, watching this film, I found myself rooting for the KKK and hating people of my own race. The book had no such effect on me. ” I threw away my lecture notes and opened up discussion. Students affirmed that the format of the novel ’s verbal racism had the opposite effect: they found themselves agreeing with the arguments made against racism in dialogues between characters and unmoved by the dramatic situations devised to inflame readers against freed slaves. By contrast, the primitive symbolism, threats of violence, terrifying chases, and spatial entrapment achieved through shot composition and editing bypassed their logical and rational structures to construct strongly visceral and emotional responses that ran not only in diametric opposition to their intellectual and ideological views, but in the case of the African Americans in the class, against their own social, psychological, embodied identities. Forms possess formidable and variegated modes of cultural power; cultural scholars cannot afford to dispense with them just as formal scholars cannot afford to dispense with the cultural aspects of forms.

Joining and building upon Mitchell’s work, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra (The Artist as Critic) has demonstrated how political and cultural theories can fruitfully inform formal studies of hybrid media. Coining the term “bitextuality ” to theorize relations between the prose and pictures of fin de siècle illustrated books, her study carries a centuries-old rhetoric that genders words male and images female into a study of how contemporary theories of gender and sexuality inform textual exchanges. Kooistra ingeniously joins a nineteenth-century sexual and gendered rhetoric of illustrated books as prose married to pictures, as aesthetic incest, bisexuality, and hermaphroditism to formal textual analyses of how prose and pictures combine to construct meaning.

Within adaptation studies, theorists from Bluestone to Hutcheon have juxtaposed formal and cultural theories and approaches, but in most cases, one supersedes the other—medium specificity theory for Bluestone and postmodern cultural theory for Hutcheon—and the two exist side by side without much integration. Recent studies are bridging these gaps, linking textual and cultural theories to create hybrid theories through which to address translation and adaptation. In 2005, Julie Sanders suggested merging Homi Bhabha’s cultural theory of postcolonial hybridity with poststructuralist intertextuality to theorize adaptations as hybrid formal-cultural entities (17). In 2012, Chan, countering Bhabha’s resistance to homogenization, argued that linguistic translation theories can provide a “strategy for the assimilation of [cultural] differences ” in adaptation studies (416). While neither Sanders nor Chan offer case studies to illustrate their hybrids, Della Coletta’s When Stories Travel: Cross-Cultural Encounters between Fiction and Film (2012) does, addressing “adaptation in both formal and cultural terms as a process of transmediation and cross-cultural dialogue ” (3) with considerable theoretical sophistication. Jennifer M. Jeffers’s Britain Colonized: Hollywood’s Appropriation of British Literature (2011) engages both structuralist theories of myth and politico-cultural theories to read Hollywood forms and conventions across cultural contexts.

What these and other examples beyond the scope of this essay make clear is that the problem is not that scholars cannot envision ways in which to hybridize adaptation studies, but that the theories currently underpinning dominant formal, cultural, textual, and contextual adaptation studies and the polarities that they have created stand in the way of more confident, creative, free methodological and theoretical hybridities. We even differ in our definitions of what theory is and does. Scientifically inclined formal scholars believe that if they have not universalized their theories by stripping form of ideology and semantics and taxonomized forms solely according to formal properties and principles, they have not properly theorized their field, while postmodern cultural scholars consider that if they are not attacking universals and systematization, they are failing their postmodern theoretical principles. Aesthetic formalists believe that if they are not sifting out the best high art aesthetics and humanist values from cultural productions while occluding and opposing the incursions of mass culture and radical politics upon the arts and media, they are failing their academic calling and social mission, while left-wing political scholars are equally convinced that if they are not attacking cultural elitism and conservative politics while championing mass culture and radical politics, they are failing their academic and social vision. It is these underlying theories—rather than the shared straw man of fidelity criticism, a mythical discourse attacked by formal and cultural scholars alike, when both far more often champion infidelity (Elliott, Rethinking 128-29)—that have most limited our field.

While hybrid methodologies can, I believe, help us over time to gradually move beyond current impasses, a reconsideration of our relationship to our own theories is also essential. 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. If our current theories cannot adequately account for adaptations, then we need to get rid of them and develop new ones. Part of being willing to challenge our own beliefs involves being more respectful of and attentive to opposing ideologies and theories and engaging them more directly in a fuller debate. This will help us to break out of our separate theoretical spheres; engaging rather than dismissing opposing views can further help us to develop new concepts, new ideas, new theories, and new methodologies through which to study adaptations and discover what we do not yet know about them.

This is far more risky than the kinds of radicalism we usually promote in western academia, for it threatens our own careers and economic stability. In adaptation studies, a pervasive rhetoric of innovation and radicalism often substitutes for actual theoretical innovation and radicalism, as both neo-conservatives and old school political radicals lay claim to innovation while maintaining decades-old theories without actual theoretical innovation. It is easy to be a political radical in western academia; in many if not most institutions, it is a mainstream position that maintains the academic status quo. It is far more difficult to be a theoretical radical; this may and has cost scholars their posts. Even for those who hold onto their posts, academic protocols encourage and reward intellectual conformity and theoretical fidelity through systems of patronage in tenuring, promotions, grants, reviewer reports, publications. Academic radicalism is difficult and costly. Just as Virginia Woolf wondered what might have happened to the literary productions of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, I often wonder what radical theoretical publications have gone unpublished and what radical theoretical projects have gone unfunded. I am grateful to my present and past editors for the opportunity to publish these and other challenges to the theoretical status quo. For all its limitations, omissions, reductions, and failures, my research has found a more tolerant home in adaptation studies than in other fields and institutions, and for this I am grateful. Beyond adaptation studies, I hope that, since our field exaggerates and exacerbates formal-cultural and textual-contextual rifts characteristic of humanities academia more generally, its attempts to redress these rifts will have wider repercussions and applications, potentially shifting it from the theoretical margins not to the theoretical mainstream but rather to a position from which its challenges to the theoretical mainstream will be heard.


1  ln 1957, Bluestone concluded that “The film and the novel [should] remain separate institutions, each achieving its best results by exploring unique and specific properties ” (218).

2  Those who did include Ellis, who undertook cultural and contextual studies in 1982; Larsson, who applied left-wing politics to adaptations in the same year; and Boyum, who championed reader response theory in 1985.

3  It may have been a small body of work when Cartmell and Whelehan’s book went to press; however, in the year their book was published, it was outnumbered by aesthetic formalist books, including essay collections edited by Albrecht-Crane and Cutchins, Desmond and Hawkes, and two edited by Cutchins, Raw, and Welsh. Cultural studies monographs by DeBona and Constandinides joined Cartmell and Whelehan’s book in 2010.

4  Sarah Cardwell has also critiqued this reading (71).

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