× Current About Archive Submit Editorial Board Salisbury University

From Despair to Hope, or Becoming Adaptation

R. Thomas Simone’s article, “The Mythos of ‘The Sickness unto Death’: Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych,” has long appealed to me. Part of that appeal arises from the three texts Simone sets at the center of his piece, Tolstoy’s novella, Kurosawa’s film, and Kierkegaard’s theological treatise. All three texts play a critical role in my intellectual development. I often credit a discussion of The Death Ivan Ilych (1886) in an undergraduate class as one of the three class discussions that piqued my interest in graduate school. As an undergraduate student caught between two majors, Theology and English, or what one of my undergraduate English professors would describe as practical theology and impractical theology, I was relieved to see Tolstoy’s representation of inner-religious wrangling. I found the space the classroom provided to play in this plight rather than to suffer in it, or to gain sympathy for the human condition rather than to set judgment against it entirely invigorating. One plank in the foundation of my intellectual life was set.

An introduction to Ikiru provided another plank in my scholarly development. In truth, two Kurosawa films should be recognized in this regard, both mentioned by Simone, Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952). I was immediately struck by the overt play with subjective story-telling and meaning in both films and entirely taken by the final actions and images of both films. Both final moments push toward an ethical responsibility that exceeds subjectivity that I find satisfying. Over time, these films gained even greater relevancy for me. Both perform the kinds of spectatorial activity the most meaningful cinematic image often occasions, a subject I have been considering for the last decade or more. As it relates to Ikiru and Simone’s discussion of it, the film seems especially willing to stage the interpretative acts spectators perform. The second half of the film, in fact, becomes an extended argument about what their boss, Watanabe, knew about his terminal condition and when, and how that knowledge might explain his otherwise inexplicable behavior. Their debate and discussion, their sudden outbursts of emotion and insight, all set on searching out some reality that was just beyond their grasp or comprehension has become one of the topics that most interests me. Simone’s discussion helps make apparent the benefits of such discussions.

Simone’s discussion of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death (1849) works similarly for me. His focus on the moment in Kierkegaard where despair turns to hope captures one of the reasons Kierkegaard has long appealed to me. Kierkegaard was one of the first theologians whose work was more than an assigned reading for me. His ideas often helped me keep the questions that most interested me open for longer than they might have remained open on their own. Kierkegaard’s concept of a sickness unto death has certainly been one such idea. There is a kind of despair that emerges in a world without play and possibility. Kierkegaard’s concept of a sickness unto death details that despair, but it also paves a way through it, something I will discuss more in a moment. Simone illustrates this possibility quite well using the transformation the heroes of Tolstoy’s novella and Kurosawa’s films make, Ivan and Watanabe, respectively. The result is just as Simone declares it: the two characters give interlocutors “genuine images of human dignity and heroic actions […that…] are central to a positive understanding of contemporary humanism” (12). Simone’s optimism is refreshing to me.

Simone’s piece has considerable personal value for me, but it has just as much professional value (if such a split can be made). I very much appreciate the scholarly argument Simone provides and the second life that argument might hold for those of us in this specific cultural moment. As it relates to the arguments Simone makes, the piece does two things especially well. On the one hand, the article does a wonderful job showcasing some reasons to consider medium specificity even as contemporary practice so often crosses the boundaries between what might otherwise operate as distinct mediums. The world is certainly further now than it was then from following what Noel Carroll (2008) identifies as the medium specific doctrine. This doctrine asserts that artists should “exploit the distinctive possibilities of the medium in which they ply their trade and they should abjure the effects that are discharged better or equally well by the media of other artforms” (36). One finds with the DOGMA 95 group of directors a clear example of this doctrine in motion, something discussed across Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie’s (2003) anthology, Purity and Provocation: Dogme ’95.

Simone provides a case study that gives readers a reason to entertain such purisms. He quickly establishes how similar the moment Watanabe realizes the certainty of his death is to the moment Ivan comprehends his pending death. Simone even suggests the two moments are “precisely the same” (2). The comment is an overstatement at best and an instance of universalism at worst. Simone’s subsequent comments even start to align the scholar with the worst of these two offenses. Simone imagines Watanabe and Ivan both exist in the same “spiritless and despairing […] modern world,” and they do so as “the faceless officials who dwell neither at the heights nor in the depths of modern bureaucracy” (3). They are, for Simone, mummies of the modern world. Simone justifies what would otherwise by an overly reductive reading of two different people in two different locales and time periods by locating this aspect of each character in the spiritual crises their creators experience. I will say more on this quality in a moment, as it creates an interesting divide between autobiography and adaptation. For the moment, I think it important to note that Simone acknowledges that some differences must exist between the two worlds he equates. In other words, the historical realties matter to Simone, but, admittedly, not as much as the philosophical or artistic reality. Each of these realities are situated within the despair and possibility for hope that that Kierkegaard describes. Moreover, Simone’s primary concern is to highlight the impact medium can have on a story.

Once located in Kierkegaardian despair and hope, Simone begins to highlight the radical differences he sees between literary and cinematic expression. Simone outlines those differences by describing the public and private qualities around Watanabe’s and Ivan’s moment of insight. Watanabe’s realization occurs in public, which matches for Simone the communal qualities of cinema, while Ivan’s comprehension occurs within his psyche, which matches the private qualities of fiction. The moment of insight, in other words, is fit to the form. Simone’s argument unfolds further as the article progresses, but the idea is the same. The two stories differ because they are expressed in different mediums. They are otherwise the same because they both exist within the conditions Kierkegaard describes. As such, Simone uses Kierkegaard to create a minimal pairing between the cinematic and literary expression so that the unique properties of each medium can be brought into focus for closer study. The move permits a sort of precision that allows readers to consider the extent to which medium specific arguments can be useful, especially for those wanting to explore the ways in which subtle and even not so subtle differences emerge when expressions of a story occur across mediums if not times and locales as well.

Simone’s article accomplishes something else, too, as it explores the ways in which one can establish an adaptation where no adaptation is explicitly admitted or even considered by the creators. Simone registers this idea in at least two ways. The first appears when he openly admits that his juxtaposition of Ikiru and The Death of Ivan Ilych is his own doing. The two texts are neither explicitly aware of one another, nor openly engaging with the theological treatise Simone sets between them. Their relationship is, as Simone admits, analogical rather than literal. Simone justifies this looser relation by contending that both texts are landing on the same mediation, one of “death and rebirth in the modern world” (3). Simone turns to Kierkegaard’s concept of a sickness unto death to detail the type of mediation he sees occurring in the novella and film. His point, though, is to establish that Ikiru and The Death of Ivan Ilych operate as unannounced adaptations of the same meditation, one intent on celebrating the life that can come after death, the possibility of hope that can emerge from despair.

Simone isolates a second kind of unannounced adaptation when he links the preferred form for Kurosawa and Tolstoy to details from each creator’s life. Simone begins this part of his article establishing what he calls the “autobiographical link between author and main character” (3). Simone considers Watanabe to be “nothing other than a distillation and transfiguration of Kurosawa’s realization of death;” his reading of Ivan follows similar lines: “the stages of Ivan’s drama are indeed those of the Tolstoyan conversion, a drama that makes common the ethical and spiritual experiences of the creator” (4). The film and novella become for Simone an adaptation of the creator’s life, which seems to be something different to Simone than an autobiography. Simone does not articulate the difference, but his discussion does provide some ways to distinguish between the two expressions. An autobiography will almost certainly reveal the author. The autobiographical adaptation Simone imagines extends beyond the creators. Simone explains, “to an unusual extent both Watanabe and Ivan stand as embodiments of the spiritual search of their creators’ inner lives, but significantly both characters are greatly democratized, each leavened by the form of Everyman […] they are both Kurosawa and Everyman, Tolstoy and us” (ibid.). When set alongside the analogical adaptation Simone sees the two texts making of a theological text, one can see Simone’s article showcasing a surprisingly contemporary approach to adaptation, one that considers unannounced and even unintended adaptations in some of the same ways one considers more explicit instances of adaptation.

These new forms of adaptation are critically important to Simone, too. The connections Simone proposes between texts is the logical link between Kierkegaard and the type of adaptation the scholar champions. A word or two on Kierkegaardian despair can explain the connection. Kierkegaard’s sickness unto death arises when 1) one has no sense of self or 2) when one has no will to be oneself or 3) when trying to be oneself only reveals one’s own being, which is to say when there appears to be no being beyond oneself. All three instances of despair can be of use to adaptation scholars if not textual scholars of all types as soon as one substitutes the word “text” for “self” in the above conditions. Textual scholars are likely to despair when there is no sense of text, when the text has no will to be a text, or when a text, being a text, only reveals itself. These textual despair scenarios are not entirely unfamiliar. They are the very sorts of scenarios Roland Barthes laments in his article “From Work to Text” (1977). Reading these scenarios through Kierkegaard, and especially through the optimism that despair can lead to hope, justifies adaptation studies in an unexpected way.

Adaptation scholars are particularly suited to seeing a text where a work might otherwise exist. Attention to what is being adapted can pull a text through despair. So, too, can the active reading of a work waiting to be seen as a text. Readers imbued with a spirit of adaptation can enliven an otherwise dormant text by bringing that text into conversation with other expressions. This is just what Simone does. He treats each of the texts he considers like a pointer rather than a point, a means to a reality that exceeds the reality on the page or screen rather than a reality unto itself. His treatment opens a dialectic that can lead to various kinds of reclamation, renewal, and even rebirth. Adaptation scholars do the same thing each time they treat a text as an adaptation, and perhaps especially so when they pull a text into a process of adaptation using something like Simone’s analogical approach. Such treatments can imbue a text with a spiritual sense that draws that text into some community beyond itself, which counters the sense of death Simone confronts using Kierkegaard’s concept of a sickness unto death.

This confrontation gains new significance in the particular cultural moment we find ourselves. We live and work in a time when the texts if not the mediums we have known and studied are given to despair if not death. Any number of problem texts have emerged and emerged in such a way that they are now taken to be carriers of toxic ideologies rather than merely symptoms of such things. Texts like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) now find themselves aligned with, among other things, an ever-expanding category of Shakespeare’s problem plays, which includes titles like The Taming of the Shrew (1594), The Merchant of Venice (1600), and The Tempest (1611) to name a few. Each of the above texts become inextricably bound to their own expression as it would be understood in the period of their production. They no longer entertain a dialectic. They fall into despair, and, in so doing, they call for death.

Some of our mediums suffer similarly. Film, for instance, is taken to be a dying or dead medium. Ridely Scott suggests to Morgan Jeffrey (2016) that today’s distributors circulate movies without a story; instead, they market a “thin, gossamer tight-rope of the non-reality of the situation of the superhero.”1 Scott suggests the popularity and prominence of such spectacles without a story leaves cinema in a “pretty bad” place. Scorsese echoes Ridley Scott. Scorsese tells Jake Coyle (2017) that “cinema is gone […] the cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone.” Contemporary cinema, Scorsese argues, lacks the range of experiences the 1950s and 1960s delivered. It fails to overwhelm audiences, in part, because contemporaneous moviemakers rely on a “proliferation of images and [an] overreliance on superficial techniques.” Cinema has become something of a parlor trick.

Even those who offer a more restrained reaction to film’s progression as an art form suggest a good reason to reconsider the seventh art. D. N. Rodowick (2007), for instance, admits that the time of film might have passed, even if cinema remains. Rodowick reasons “the electronic image has not come into being ex nihilo […] but through a series of displacements in the relationship between the formative and constitutive elements of moving-image media: how an image is formed, preserved, placed into movement, expresses time, and is presented on detached displays” (86). These displacements certainly dislocate the image from some “prior existence of things and people” as they are realized in lens-based recordings; they do not necessarily escape the “imaginative intentions” spectators bring to film, whether digital or analog, animated or live-action (ibid.). In each case, spectators practice the “art of synthesizing imaginary worlds,” and this practice might help isolate the cinematic from the non-cinematic, which can, in turn, reveal some of the ways that cinema endures through a transition from analog to digital (87). The moment is quite like the one adaptation theorists have long considered, the one where readers and spectators sit between texts and contemplate the relationship of the set. It is a moment of becoming, of finding new encounters and new expressions. It is the sort of moment of transition that interests Simone.

One sees this moment most clearly in Simone’s article when he recounts how the heroes in Tolstoy’s and Kurosawa’s stories begin to relate to something beyond themselves. Ivan discovers a spiritual reality that supersedes the superficiality of the one particular social expression that would otherwise entrap him. Watanabe escapes his “mummified existence” by becoming enlivened through the community around him (7). Both characters, in other words, begin to relate to something beyond the self, which allows them to enter anew a process of becoming a self that diminishes the despair they would otherwise feel. Simone’s piece does not explicitly work through all this as much as he performs it. He assumes the particulars of Kierkegaard’s idea in most every place but one, toward the end of his article when he registers that Kierkegaard’s concept serves as a means for “death and disease [to become] the signs and the seeds of rebirth,” for “despair to [become] hope” (12). Simone’s attempt to relate Ikiru and The Death of Ivan Ilych exists as one instance of the hope Kierkegaard proposes, a hope that is born in new relationship.

The brightest hope in Simone’s article emerges toward the end of the article when Simone articulates one of the ways that a cinematic expression is always an accumulation of images rather than one static image set on its own. Simone uses the final moment of Ikiru to illustrate this idea. From Simone’s perspective, the film ends with at least two different Watanabes. On the one hand, there is the character who sits on the screen until his passing. On the other, there is the Watanabe that remains with the swing and throughout the park even after his death. Simone argues that Watanabe has been transformed “into the park and the children […into…] the swing” (11), a swing that still moves once the children leave the park (see Figure 1). Such a moment shows us the value of adaptation itself, and, perhaps, most especially, the ways that analogical adaptations born through some intertextual relationship can help us overcome the “complexity of the modern world” if not the sicknesses unto death that would otherwise confronts us (12).

From Despair to Hope, or Becoming Adaptation
Allen H. Redmon, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: With his life’s work complete, Watanabe swings and sings a song, encouraging those who outlast him to live.


1  “Ridley Scott’s turned down ‘several’ superhero films and thinks ‘cinema mainly is pretty bad’,” Digitalspy.com, December 31, 2016 (Morgan, n.pag).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language, Richard Howard (translator),

University of California Press, 49-82, 1989.

Carroll, Noël. “Medium Specificity,” in Noël Carroll, Laura T. Di Summa, and Shawn

Loht (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Film and Motion Pictures, Springer, 29-47, 2008.

Coyle, Jack. “Martin Scorsese: ‘Cinema is Gone’,” Reading Eagle, January 9, 2017, https://www.readingeagle.com/2017/01/09/martin-scorsese-cinema-is-gone/

Hjort, Mette and Scott Mackenzie. Purity and Provocation: Dogme ’95, third edition,

British Film Institute, 2003.

Ikiru. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Performances by Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, and

Shin’ichi Himori, Toho Company Ltd., 1952.

Jeffrey, Morgan. “Ridley Scott’s turned down ‘several’ superhero films and thinks  ‘cinema mainly is pretty bad’,” Digital Spy, December 31, 2016. https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a817817/ridley-scott-turned-down-several-superhero-films-thinks-cinema-pretty-bad/

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, Walter Lowrie (translator), Gordon Marino (introduction), Princeton University Press, 2013.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird, Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

Rashomon. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Performances by Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, and

Masayuki Mori, Janus Films, 1950.

Rodowick, D.N. The Virtual Life of Film, Harvard University Press, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, Folger Shakespeare Library, Barbara A. Mowat (editor), Paul Werstine (editor), Simon & Schuster, 2009.

--. The Tempest, Folger Shakespeare Library, Barbara A. Mowat (editor), Paul Werstine (editor),

Simon & Schuster, 2004.

--. The Taming of the Shrew, Folger Shakespeare Library, Barbara A. Mowat (editor), Paul

Werstine (editor), Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Simone, R. Thomas, “The Mythos of ‘The Sickness unto Death’: Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Literature/Film Quarterly 3:1 (1975), 2-12.

Tolstoy, Leo. Great Works of Leo Tolstoy, Perennial Classics, Louise Maude (translator), Aylmer

Maude (translator), Sam A. Carmack (translator), John Bayley (introduction), Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Penguin Books, 1994.