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Playing with discourses in literature and film. Comparative analysis of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and its adaptation Spoor by Agnieszka Holland

Remarkably popular in contemporary humanities, the concept of discourse finds application also in film theory1. In this academic field, as in other areas of research, the notion remains ambiguous, and its definition depends on the adopted methodology. Theorists inspired by cognitive linguistics and pragmatics would likely associate discourse with generating meanings and directing the viewer’s attention in audiovisual narratives (Wildfeuer, Janney). In humanities, however, another research trend turned out to be more influential – the one initiated by Michel Foucault, who linked discourse with social context, institutions and power. Post-Foucauldian researchers working within the framework of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) focus on communicative situations, socially determined rules of speech acts, explicit and implicit ideology expressed in texts and the laws defining who is allowed to speak and who does not possess this privilege.2 Although the representatives of the CDA usually indicate spoken and written language as a medium of discourse, the category is sometimes extended to include also non-verbal forms of expression, e.g. film narratives (Bateman).

Surprisingly, the concept of discourse still has not become the subject of academic debate within Adaptation Studies, although it has already been used both in relation to the theoretical framework of the field and to the research material itself. Metatheoretical discourse analysis was carried out, among others, by Cobb, who argued that the language which predominates in Adaptation Studies is unconsciously ideological and deeply gendered (29-31). However, the notion of discourse has also been used as a tool to describe film adaptations themselves. The proposal of Casetti turned out to be particularly influential, as he postulates to depart from formalistic research and to treat novels and films as “sites of production and the circulation of discourses” (82). Every adaptation situates elements of the adapted text (like a plot or a theme) in a new discursive field “that locates itself in a certain time and space in society,” (Casetti 82). Rather than focusing on the structures of the texts, Casetti suggests that researchers analyze the changes in the communicative situations within which a novel and its adaptation operate. Casetti’s anti-formalistic attitude, however, does not allow him to capture relevant features of literary and film discourses, which themselves can carry out critical discourse analysis, using specific literary and audiovisual techniques.3

The discursive relationship between artforms such as literature or film is multidimensional and may be examined from various points of view. For example, while any novel is a representation of literary discourse governed by its own rules, it can be treated as an indication of a broader social and cultural discourse (patriarchal, feminist, etc.). However, it can also be viewed as a space where the author plays with different discourses, evoking them within the text, arguing with them, or ridiculing them. The distinction between the first and the second perspective is crucial. While in the first case, the text (sometimes without the author’s awareness) reproduces the rules of a particular kind of social discourse, in the second, it makes discourse an object of critical reflection.

Novelists and filmmakers can create literary and cinematic representations of social discourses in order to reveal their mechanisms and criticize the way they function. This type of meta-discursive play remains a particularly interesting subject of research within Adaptation Studies. A novel or a film can be seen as a kind of interdiscursive adaptation in how it brings different kinds of discourses into relation. The situation becomes even more complex when such meta-discursive play is adapted from one medium to another. In literature, the critique of social discourses can be largely a critique of their use of language, and therefore such a literary strategy cannot be simply “transferred”4 to the film medium. First of all, then, comparative studies may identify the challenges faced by the authors of film adaptations of subversive contemporary novels which play with discourses. Secondly, a comparative perspective can enable an in-depth reflection on the specific means of both media in the field of social criticism.

In his famous lecture “The Order of Discourse,” Foucault argued that discourse is based on rules governing who can speak, what can be said, and what the criteria are for assessing the truthfulness of utterances. However, novels and films remain a unique space for anarchic questioning of these laws and exposing their violence. One type of meta-discursive play which has not yet been extensively researched may be called “infecting” discourses. This strategy is based on undermining social discourses and violating their coherence by confronting and combining them with other, often completely different discourses.5 The comparative studies of literary and filmic ways of “infecting” discourses should focus on how different arts may oppose power and subvert social rules.

The case study of the novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) by Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk and its film adaptation Spoor (2017) directed by Agnieszka Holland (with the collaboration of Kasia Adamik) shows that the strategy of "infecting" discourses can be realized in literature and in film on many textual levels: stylistic, narrative, and genre. It is an interesting example of how literary figures and techniques can inspire filmmakers to experiment with a film form. While Tokarczuk criticizes social discourses through language, Holland tries to express subversive ideas using visual rhetoric. The aim of the present study is to not only show the similarities between the critical strategies used by both artists, but also to highlight the differences caused by the change of the medium, which situates the story in a new sign system and a new genre-related context. The comparison of Plow and Spoor may highlight some specific features of literary and filmic rhetorical devices which would be more difficult to recognize if the two works were considered in isolation.

The notion of discourse is an especially useful tool for describing both the practices of the narrator of Plow and the literary strategy of Olga Tokarczuk. Within the framework of a first-person and highly digressive narrative, the main character of the novel, a middle-aged woman Janina Duszejko, presents her view of the world, notably her attitude toward the non-human world. It can be said that Duszejko is trying to develop her own narrative about reality, polemicizing against dominant, foundational discourses (such as the legal or the religious one) and playing with them. For Tokarczuk, such an "anarchist” narrator becomes a perfect medium for questioning social discourses. In Plow we can find various kinds of discursive play, which take the following forms:

1) The narrator’s repeated imitation or embodiment of particular styles of discourses throughout the book. For example, Duszejko imitates the style of the Bible (Cf. Tokarczuk Drive Your Plow… 39) and the style of legal discourse (when she tries to convince the police that the murders were committed by animals; cf Tokarczuk Drive Your Plow… 189);

2)  The narrator’s explicit contentions with the worldviews propagated by specific discourses. For example, in the fragments of Duszejko’s narration which imitate the style of the Bible, there is an open polemic with Catholic dogmas. (Cf. Tokarczuk Drive Your Plow… 39);

3) The narrator’s self-distancing from the language of particular discourses. For example, she criticizes the “slang” of the priest, who uses the word “trepidation” instead of “fear,” “enrich” instead of “learn,” etc. (Tokarczuk, Drive your Plow … 235);

4) The narrator’s transgressions against the spoken or unspoken rules of discourses, particularly when it comes to the non-human world. For example, when Duszejko interrupts a sermon in which the priest praises hunters as “ambassadors and partners of the Lord God in the work of creation,” she gets up from the church bench and goes to the pulpit shouting: “Hey, you, get down from there.” (Tokarczuk, Drive your Plow… 242);

5) The narrator’s mixing of different discourses and displacement of them into new, often surprising contexts. For example, while she is “thrown” into the legal discourse during a police interrogation, Duszejko prepares her statement according to the principles and methods of inference of an entirely different, astrological discourse, which completely confuses the interlocutors. (Tokarczuk, Drive your Plow… 163).

Within the novel, literary representations of social discourses are created with the help of stylized language (distinctive vocabulary and syntax, intertextual references to the Bible), with the use of certain rhetorical devices such as argumentation and inference, and by explicitly revealing the communicative context of certain speech acts. Dominant social discourses are subverted through narrator’s juxtaposition of different speaking styles, her staging of arguments between characters, and her use of metalinguistic reflection. Duszejko breaks the ban on speaking, deals with taboo topics, redefines terms used in different discourses, and violates the basic principles of interaction which apply to them. It can be said that the main heroine “infects,” subverts, and undermines dominant discourses. The strategy of Duszejko may resemble the modus operandi of an archetypal trickster, a jester who questions the obvious and turns the order upside down.6

One of the main goals of the protagonist is to change the discursive positioning of animals within the human world. Duszejko gives the police misleading clues pointing toward deer as the killers of hunters, because she wants to make people to see agency in non-human beings. She assumes that if the society begins to associate the concept of revenge with animals, it will also have to acknowledge that they possess a sense of harm. Additionally, Duszejko cannot accept the position of non-human beings within the discourse of the Catholic Church, which assumes that animals do not have souls and excludes them from the community. The arguments made by the woman, who repeatedly speaks of the need to respect the environment and questions the superiority of man over animals, corresponds, to a certain degree, with the rhetoric of selected ecofeminist and posthumanist ideas. According to Polish linguist Artur Rejter, posthumanist discourse is represented in the Plow, inter alia,on the level of orthography (capitalization of species names), semantics (avoiding vocabulary which objectifies animals, such as the names of meat types), rhetoric, and axiology (44-45). However, the recognition of the aspects described above does not yet allow one to explain the specific, heterogeneous form of the novel. It can be said that the basic strategy of Tokarczuk and Duszejko is to play with various discourses, which collide both with other discourses and the applied genre conventions.

One of the most distinctive features of Plow, which has been characterized by the commentators and by the author herself as “a pastiche of a thriller with a crime plot” (Olga Tokarczuk, qtd. in Sobolewska 60), or "an ethical and ecological treatise" (Wierzejska 11) is genre hybridity7. Due to the specific, meta-reflexive character of both Plow and Spoor, three different aspects of the category of the genre should be taken into account in this case8: 1) a set of semantic and syntactic features, 2) an expression of a worldview and system of values9 and, therefore, a representation of socio-cultural discourse, 3) the interpretative framework (Moine 87-95, Pietrzak 186), an “instruction” how to read a text. The second and third aspect require a comment. The creators of Plow and Spoor do not simply follow genre patterns, but they create a space in which the evoked genres (architexts)10 are critiqued and transformed. It can be said that in both works the genres themselves are treated as forms of social discourses. Moreover, the genre may be considered the "reading instructions" of a work. In Plow and Spoor the collision of incompatible genres, styles and conventions leads to a multiplication of interpretive frameworks which is extremely important in the rhetoric of both works.11

In Plow, we can find textual references to various genres and subgenres, including fairy tale, murder mystery, and crime revenge story. The aim of the archi- and intertextual references is often to criticize and overcome the social discourses which influenced the evoked genres and stories. For example, while referring to the story of the Little Red Riding Hood, Tokarczuk reverses gender relations depicted in the fairy tale. In the novel, the Red Riding Hood costume is worn at a masquerade ball by a man (the heroine’s neighbor) and a fancy wolf dress by Duszejko. This possesses double symbolism – the woman dressed as a wolf is, after all, an avenger killing people in the name of animals.

References to the murder mystery genre appear in the novel by Tokarczuk both at the level of plot (the theme of mysterious murders) and narration (false clues in Duszejko’s narrative). However, the author breaks the rules of classic crime fiction, which, because of the features sometimes associated with it, such as violent action, chauvinistic descriptions, individualism and the implied acceptance of the patriarchal order, is often viewed by feminist scholars as a typically “male” genre (Knight 162-163). The story is constantly interrupted with digressions of the main heroine which have nothing to do to with the main plotline. Just as Duszejko mixes, for example, legal and astrological discourse, Tokarczuk mixes (“infects”) crime fiction with social drama and the form of an “ecological treatise.” The author also violates the principles of the revenge story genre, in which there is usually an unwritten rule about who can take revenge – and for what reasons. Playing with “male” genres, Tokarczuk presents feminist and posthumanist perspectives. The writer gives agency to an elderly woman and prompts the viewer to think of the hunted animals as victims.

In the novel, however, it is primarily language itself that serves as a tool for criticizing social discourses, because, as Tokarczuk said, “reality is a bunch of languages with which we talk about the world” (qtd. in Sobolewska 60). This was the cause of numerous problems with the film adaptation. Holland mentioned that when Tokarczuk was creating the first version of the script, she could not get accustomed to the new medium and tended to overuse monologues.12 Although the voice-over commentary is sometimes used in Plow, the role of the words was ultimately significantly limited.

A worldview of Duszejko, which to some degree corresponds with feminist and posthumanist discourse, is eventually presented by audiovisual rhetoric which promotes specific attitudes – harmonious coexistence with nature, empathy toward animals, etc. Numerous descriptions of the Kłodzko Valley environment, presented in the first-person narration in the novel, gain a new dimension thanks to the photographic properties of film medium. In the opening of Spoor, we see spectacular images of nature, whose peace is disturbed by the coming of hunters. Already at the very beginning of the story, this indicates the destructive character of human interference in the environment. This type of relationship with nature is contrasted with Duszejko’s friendly attitude, depicted in the next scene of the film. The woman, who goes out for a walk with her dogs at sunrise, is first shown from the low perspective, and then from the high point of view, against the background of a beautiful sky, which expresses her sense of connection with both the micro- and macrocosm.

However, Holland does not stop at such simple contrasts and tries to create a representation of the meta-discursive play from the novel. In order to “visualize” discourses represented in novels by words, filmmakers must reflect on the screen what is often only implicit in utterances – that is, the rules of social interaction, the relationship between the subject and the object of speech, the assumed worldview, etc. The most obvious adaptation procedure seems to be the concretization of the social context by showing the situations in which speech acts are performed. However, discourses are criticized in Spoor also by means of what David Bordwell calls “narrational commentary,” which is achieved by the use of specific stylistic devices (Bordwell 209). In the scenes of Duszejko’s meetings with different representatives of (broadly understood) power, cinematic techniques represent the inequality of interlocutors in various ways. A good example is the scene showing the collision of Duszejko’s perspective, who mourns her lost dog, with the point of view of Father Rustle (Polish: Szelest), who is convinced that animals have no soul. The representative of the Church remains deaf to the protagonist’s arguments, and their conflict is expressed through stylistic means. The characters are either situated at opposite ends of the frame, facing each other, in a somewhat confrontational position, or shown separately, in completely mismatched shots. Non-standard editing (for example breaking the 180-degree rule; see Figure 1 and Figure 2), creates the impression of spatiotemporal incoherence and confuses the viewer. Disorganized, fragmented space becomes a symbolic representation of the lack of a common (discursive) ground between interlocutors.

Playing with discourses in literature and film. Comparative analysis of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and its adaptation Spoor by Agnieszka Holland
Robert Birkholc (University of Warsaw)
Figure 1. Breaking the 180-degree rule. The end of shot 1.

Playing with discourses in literature and film. Comparative analysis of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and its adaptation Spoor by Agnieszka Holland
Robert Birkholc (University of Warsaw)
Figure 2. Breaking the 180-degree rule. The beginning of shot 2.

Moreover, Holland emphasizes that animals have a completely different status in dominant discourses and in Duszejko’s worldview through the mise-en-scène. An example is a scene in which the woman tries to convince a representative of the authorities that the killings were committed by harmed animals. When Duszejko reminds him of the fact that the murdered hunter Inner (in Polish – Wnętrzak) was abusing foxes, we see the prosecutor against the background of the coat of arms of Poland, which is a white, crowned eagle, occupying a large part of the screen (see Figure 3). The composition of the frame not only accentuates the higher, institutional position of the man (it is a representation of social, vertical hierarchy), but also draws attention to a different position of animals in official discourse and in the woman’s vision of the world. Holland contrasts the objectifying, reifying view of animals with the empathic, emotional attitude of Duszejko, who demands the protection of non-human beings from the authorities. In the society, against which the main heroine rebels, animals are reduced to the role of gadgets, emblems, trophies.

Playing with discourses in literature and film. Comparative analysis of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and its adaptation Spoor by Agnieszka Holland
Robert Birkholc (University of Warsaw)
Figure 3. Reification of animals in the official discourse.

Holland not only depicts the oppressiveness of discourses, but also questions their assumptions, the meaning of the spoken words. Significantly, the aforementioned scene of Father Rustle’s visit to Duszejko begins with a long shot of the priest, who goes down a snowy mountain path to the woman’s house with an altar boy. Showing the man as a very small point in the background of the monumental landscape, the director stresses the inferiority of the clergyman to the power of nature, which seems to ironically contrast his teachings. A moment later, during a conversation with Duszejko in which Father Rustle categorically separates men from animals, we see a mouth of the priest in an extreme close-up. This naturalistic shot exposes the corporeality of the man – shown from such a close perspective, his moustache and beard may resemble animal hair (see Figure 4). Stylistic devices undermine the assumptions of the Church on the ontic difference between man and animals and suggest that religious “truths” are justified only within the framework of the discourse which constructs them. One of the most important rhetorical means of questioning the binary opposition of human and non-human is also the figure of comparison, which in the audiovisual medium is much more intensified than in the novel. The associative montage juxtaposes, on the one hand, shots showing lovers (Duszejko and entomologist Boros) with beetle mating, and, on the other, images of human corpses with images of dead deer or foxes. Such editing corresponds with specific literary devices from the novel, in which both people and animals are called simply “Beings.”

Playing with discourses in literature and film. Comparative analysis of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and its adaptation Spoor by Agnieszka Holland
Robert Birkholc (University of Warsaw)
Figure 4. Counterpoint relationship between word and image. Father Rustle’s mouth shown in extreme close-up.

The film, like the novel, is not limited to presenting the point of view of people excluded from dominant discourses – it also shows resistance strategies. In the scene taking place in the shoe store where Good News (Polish: Dobra Nowina) works, Duszejko puts on a jester’s hat, which seems to emphasize her trickster character. In addition to the protagonist, it can be said that the director of the movie also adopts a trickster strategy. As a result, entire conventions are in various ways “infected” by collision with discourses such as feminist, ecological and posthumanist, which seem completely alien to them. Like Tokarczuk, Holland plays with crime fiction, but the adaptation is closer to the formula of a thriller. The filmmakers take advantage of film techniques often used in thrillers to build suspense and create a mysterious atmosphere,13 such as quasi-subjective camera and disturbing music, but they enrich them with additional meanings. An example may be the images of deer that appear at the crime scene and the quasi-subjective, mysterious shots which may suggest that the murderer is an animal watching the characters from hiding. Of course, this may be interpreted as only a conventional attempt to confuse the viewer – after all, it becomes clear in the finale of the story that the killer was Duszejko herself. However, the mysterious points of view may also suggest an “alternative solution” (Browarny 129-130).14 Enigmatic, quasi-subjective shots make the viewer think of animals as focalizers (subjects of gaze), if not as potential agents of action.

Using specific techniques and conventions, Holland evokes various genres, but at the same time she breaks their rules. As for the revenge story, both the protagonist (an elderly woman),15 and her motives (harm done to animals) are rather unusual. The absence of such heroines as active agents in revenge movies can be considered a symptom of social discourse which marginalizes people like Duszejko. Moreover, while Tokarczuk violates the structure of a murder mystery, constantly interrupting a story with the narrator’s digressions, Holland undermines the principles of realism and probability, which are usually respected in crime fiction.

Although the murder mystery turns out to have a rational explanation, the structure of a crime story based on logical inferences is abandoned in the finale in favor of magical thinking. When the protagonists encounter a police barricade, Dizzie (Polish: Dyzio) makes all the lights around go out, which cannot be rationally explained even by the fact that the man works as a city lighting control system specialist. The screen fades to black and remains as such for 30 seconds, until Duszejko says in a voice-over commentary that she grew up at a time when “there was great readiness for changes, the ability to develop new revolutionary visions,” while nowadays “it is believed that it will always be the same.” This statement serves as the introduction for the epilogue, in which all the positive characters of the film – Duszejko, Oddball (Polish: Matoga), Dizzie, Boros, Good News, and her brother – live together in a house located in the mountains. This vision, however, remains a pure fantasy, which becomes obvious when the main character’s dogs, previously shot by hunters, appear on the screen. In defiance of the convention of crime fiction, Holland rejects rationality in favor of empathy, and abandons realism in favor of a fairy tale utopia. By showing a utopia, the director expresses the need for change instead of reproducing existing social relations.

In Spoor, genres are not only criticized as conventionalized formal frameworks of stories, but above all as symptoms of socio-cultural discourses: rationalist, anthropocentric, patriarchal. By references to crime fiction, Tokarczuk and Holland can also initiate a dialogue with culturally established notions of guilt and punishment.16 In the light of posthumanist ideas, the notions of a murderer and a victim take on new meanings and are redefined. The way of showing dead people and animals is very important in this context. When Duszejko states in the novel that “the human body is most definitely inhuman” (Drive your Plow over the Bones of Dead 8), she makes a metalinguistic critique, pointing to the fact that the common connotation of the term “human” does not include the carnality of man, which brings us close to other beings. In Spoor, an ontic difference between a human and an animal is questioned in a different way. Human corpses are presented in the film in a very naturalistic way, and their images are juxtaposed with images of dead animals. Such juxtapositions, although controversial themselves, become even more ambivalent because of the used conventions. While the killed people are only a part of a fictional world in Spoor (they are inscribed in the poetics of a revenge thriller), images of dead animals have a different status, partly because the director decided to include real recordings of hunting in the movie: “avoiding the physicality of what is happening (…) would be a betrayal of the matter of the book and film” – said Holland (qtd. in: „Pokot” trafia w swój czas…). The filmmaker emphasizes the reality of the suffering of animals and inverts the hierarchy, encouraging viewers to empathize with them rather than with the human murder victims.

When analyzing Spoor, one more aspect of genre is worth taking into account – its status as an interpretative framework. The strategy of mixing various genres, conventions and styles serves not only to criticize social discourses, but also to confuse the viewer by introducing many contradictory “viewing instructions” into the work. This is elaborated upon in a fragment of the analysis of the film’s screenplay, made by a script doctor Artur Wyrzykowski:

It is difficult to define a genre of the movie in which there is no conflict, and the protagonist has no objectives. (…) What does it mean for the viewer? If the viewer is unable to recognize the genre, then he cannot decode, interpret presented events. He does not know whether Duszejko, obsessed with murder, is funny, grotesque, or terrifying in the intention of the authors. I do not know. (Wyrzykowski)

However, what Wyrzykowski considered a flaw of the script, seems, in fact, to be the basic rule of the film, which intentionally deviates from the principles of genre cinema. References to popular conventions, the black and white division of the world, exaggerated characters and a utopian epilogue may suggest that the film by Holland is a contemporary fairy tale or a pop culture fantasy about the revenge of the oppressed, reminiscent of the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. On the other hand, the realism of many scenes, the presence of shots resembling nature documentaries, and the inclusion of real hunting videos, force the viewer to watch Spoor as a mimetic work which tries to describe non-textual reality. Depending on whether we are watching the adaptation as a postmodern thriller, a drama, or an ecological manifesto, the actions performed by the heroine will be assessed differently. As Polish scholar Katarzyna Kantner noted, by reversing the meanings of the notions of a murderer and a victim, Tokarczuk demonstrates that everything is a matter of adopted terminology and definitions, and that a discourse always shapes our way of perceiving reality (93). If Holland achieves a similar effect, she does it in a slightly different way. The director persuades the viewer that the ethical qualification of actions depends largely on assumed perspective, not through the metalinguistic reflection, but by the multiplication of interpretative frameworks. Undermining the conventions may ultimately lead to the questioning of ethical norms, often regarded as axioms. How to judge the character of Duszejko? Should we consider her an incarnation of an archetypal witch, a pop culture avenger, or a dangerous eco-terrorist? The answer would depend on the convention of the movie, but the film sends contradictory signals to the viewer in this regard. If the heroine is a blameworthy killer, then shouldn’t hunting animals be considered a murder as well? The confused spectator of this “moral thriller” has to answer these questions themselves.

The reception of Spoor shows that such a practice may cause confusion in viewers. Not only Polish right-wing journalists,17 but also some environmentalists18 have argued that the film can be socially harmful because it promotes eco-terrorism. However, it is worth recalling that Spoor is not a simple illustration of social discourse, but above all – a representative of an artistic film discourse, which is governed by its own rules. The movie is neither a fairy tale, nor a realistic portrait of a social community; neither a purely entertainment-oriented movie, nor an ecological treatise; in a way, it is all of that at once. The gesture of blurring the boundaries is as anarchistic as ethical, especially in the context of posthumanist themes raised in both works. There is a clear correspondence between the genre hybridity of the film and Holland’s critique of the arbitrary, socially sanctioned divisions, for example between humans and animals, bios and zoe.19 As noted by Ivo Ritzer and Peter W. Schulze, hybridization can be “a liberating force challenging notions of homogeneity, purity or essence” (17).

To sum up, Plow and Spoor exemplify numerous ways through which literature and film may perform a critique of social discourses. As this case study demonstrates, novels and films can:

1) mimetically reflect non-artistic social discourses (for example religious discourse) and affirm or criticize them with the help of distinctive rhetorical devices (such as irony, hyperbole, comparison, etc.).

2) criticize social discourses by playing with literary and film discourses themselves:

a. by playing with genres and conventions treated as indexes of social discourses (for example with revenge story as an index of patriarchal discourse);

b. by creating a specific communicative situation, which prompts viewers to question binary oppositions and truths regarded as axiomatic.

Because of the nature of socially engaged, self-reflexive contemporary novels and films, the category of discourse, which prompts one to perceive an artistic work as a space for imitating and criticizing sanctioned practices, may serve as an interesting tertium comparationis in Adaptation Studies. It can be a useful tool for analyzing both the ideological dynamics and the medium-related differences between the two texts. Although the ideology of literature and film might be studied in many other ways, the concept of discourse allows scholars to focus on particular aspects of artistic works. With which social discourses is the novel connected, and with which is its adaptation? What are the ideological implications of style in novels and films? Finally, which social – verbal and (audio)visual – practices and representations do they refer to?

To begin with, filmmakers can add elements of critical discourses analysis to stories which were originally devoid of it. This is the case for example in Lady Macbeth (2016) by William Oldroyd, a film based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865). While the Russian writer subscribes to the patriarchal discourse and morally condemns the main heroine through extradiegetic comments, Oldroyd adapts the story in a feminist way. The filmmaker criticizes the patriarchal representations, inter alia, by playing with the visual discourse of Western painting which for centuries has objectified women (cf. Berger). By presenting the main heroine in static, unnaturally symmetrical, over-aestheticized frames, the director emphasizes her imprisonment in her husband’s house. Because of this visual representation, the story of a woman acquires different meanings than its counterpart in the novella – the protagonist causes her husband’s death because she desperately wants to liberate herself from the oppressive patriarchal rules.

On the other hand, the critical discourse analysis carried out in a novel can be eliminated from the film adaptation. An example of this can be found in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel under the same title. Walker mimics the style of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but at the same time introduces certain subversive elements and “infects” the racist discourse of Stowe’s novel with feminist and postcolonial ideas. According to Bal, Steven Spielberg failed to achieve similar effects in the 1985 film adaptation – the director uses iconography characteristic of sentimental depictions of the American South and Africa and does not visually mock racist and sexist representations (167-170).

In the case of Plow and Spoor,the situation is different than in Lady Macbeth and The Color Purple because the director, in cooperation with the author herself, tries to consciously adapt the critical discourse analysis from the novel. However, the strategy used by Tokarczuk and Holland – the so-called “infecting” of discourses – finds varied expression in the novel and the film. Literary procedures, like imitation of speech acts, juxtaposition of contrasting speaking styles and metalinguistic reflection cannot be straightforwardly recreated in a film adaptation. The methods of “infecting” discourses in Holland’s work include, among others, the ironic, contrapuntal relationship between word and image and the visual accentuation of inequality inherent in social practices. Moreover, the conflict of languages expressing diverse points of view in Plow, is in a way replaced in Spoor by confrontation of genres, styles and techniques, which introduce various, often contradictory interpretative frameworks into the adaptation in a much stronger manner than in the novel20. The category of discourse allows to focus on rhetorical devices common in literature and film, and the media-specific forms of their functioning.

The crucial differences between the rhetorical forms in Plow and Spoor are caused by the character of the semiotic material itself. Thanks to the photographic properties of the medium, shots depicting the environment of Kłodzko Valley – landscapes, plants and animals – are essential elements of the rhetoric of the movie. Spoor not only affirms the idea that the visualization of a literary text can strongly affect the viewer, but it also shows how the cinematic image can be used to “infect” discourses. Holland plays with the ontic status of the image – she multiplies intertextual references, but at the same time, she highlights the fact that the story is rooted in pro-filmic reality, which is the reality of a viewer. The strategy of oscillating between realism and intertextual artificiality is critical when it comes to expressing ecological ideas. This is because it allows the film to transcend naïve mimeticism while still emphasizing the relationship between the film and the extratextual world. The possibilities of cinematic discourse become more visible when it is confronted with literary discourse. The comparative perspective seems to be very useful in studies on the potential of particular media (their “mediativity,” as André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion might say21) in expressing social criticism.

The category of discourse helps to describe the political function of works of art which challenge power and oppose the dominant ideologies. The direction of research proposed here, which relates formal analysis to social meanings, could help overcome the formal-cultural and textual-contextual divisions in Adaptation Studies (Elliott). While formalists are usually less interested in cultural and political questions, researchers with a cultural approach do not focus on the form of the works. However, it seems that the combination of research of social context with in-depth textual analysis may yield valuable recognitions on how novels and films can “work” in a social space. As the examples above show, literature and film can construct space for contaminating, transforming and “infecting” dominant discourses and therefore are able to influence our perception on particular issues. A research project outlined in this way could fulfill the postulate of Bal, who assumes that comparison of literature and film should help to “articulate what they each, through their own narratological make-up, have to say to their audiences” (170). Comparative studies can not only broaden the knowledge of the aforementioned “narratological make-up” of both arts, but also of the social discourses themselves22, which affect various media and therefore require interdisciplinary research.


1  The author would like to thank the reviewer for her/his comments that helped to improve the article.

2  Researchers working within the framework of CDA see discourse as “language use in speech and writing – as a form of ‘social practice.’ Describing discourse as social practice implies a dialectical relationship between a particular discursive event and the situation(s), institution(s) and socialstructure(s), which frame it”. See Fairclough, Wodak 258.

3  An attempt at adapting Critical Discourse Analysis to the field of film studies was undertaken, among others, by John A. Bateman and Karl-Heinrich Schmidt, who were inspired by socio-functional linguistic orientation and define discourse as a “specific level of semiotic patterning.” See Bateman and Schmidt 27. However, my purpose is not to describe general patterns of generating meanings in cinema, but to show how a novel and a film can play with social discourses with the help of specific rhetorical devices.

4  I use the category of „transfer” following Brian McFarlane’s concept. See McFarlane 12.

5  Colin MacCabe also drew attention to the subversive function of clashing different discourses in films. MacCabe, however, defines the discourse in a structuralist manner (and rather vaguely) as „a set of significant oppositions” (59).

6  About the figure of the trickster in contemporary culture see Tannen.

7  Some ideas about genre hybridity of Plow and Spoor were originally published by me in Birkholc 102-106.

8  The concept of genre can be studied also from different points of view. See Altman 14.

9  The relationship between film genres (e.g. western) and ideology has repeatedly been the subject of academic research. A brief summary of this issue can be found in Bateman 614-623. See also Moine 71-79.

10 About architextuality as one of the five forms of transtextuality see Genette 4.

11 The third aspect of genre is examined in the last part of the article.

12 The director said this during a meeting with the audience, which took place on February 8, 2017, at the Warsaw headquarters of  “Gazeta Wyborcza” at 8/10 Czerska.

13 About the main features of thrillers see  Rubin 5-8.

14 Polish literary critic and scholar Wojciech Browarny used this expression in the review of the novel: “Tokarczuk doesn’t neglect these rules [of crime fiction – R.B], the ultimate explanation of the killings is realistic and rational. However, a reader gets some alternative solutions, which are proposed by the main heroine. Is her aim only to confuse troops, or maybe – as [she – R.B.] repeats after Blake – “everything possible to be believed is a sort of truth”?

15 Of course there are many films about female avengers, but their protagonists are usually young, attractive women. The exceptions may be the movies like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), which, however, are most often serious social dramas, not crime stories.

16 In relation to the novel, it was also noticed by Katarzyna Kantner. See Kantner 92-93.

17 Cezary Gmyz, a correspondent of Polish Public Television (TVP), called Spoor „deeply antichristian, actually pagan” and an „apotheosis of eco-terrorism” on his Twitter account. See Strehlau.

18 See Kulik.

19 About the division on bios and zoe, see Agamben 1-12.

20 Another significant difference between film and literary discourse is that in movies, the entire audiovisual narration is almost never subordinate to the character-narrator. Controversial ideas promoted by the first-person narrator of Plow are expressed in its adaptation on an extradiegetic level (in editing, in characteristic music accompanying the appearance of villain characters, etc.). This change of attribution, however, entails serious consequences – the spectator may get the impression that the filmmakers present their own (and not Duszejko’s), very radical point of view. Although it can be assumed that the narration of Spoor is focalized by the main character, a viewer is not sure to what extent the vision of the world is filtered through her perception.

21 Cf. Gaudreault and Marion 66-67.

22 Agnieszka Holland proves that the mechanisms of discursive violence against animals occur not only in verbal practices, but also within visual discourse. For example, Holland critiques a ritual of capturing photos of hunted, dead animals, which, according to anthropologists, serves to strengthen the feeling that the human remains the king of animals. This allows the issues raised by Tokarczuk to be extended.

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