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The Price of Adaptation: Context, Pedagogy, and the Personal

At the 2022 Literature/Film Association conference, we celebrated 50 years of LFQ with a retrospective roundtable. Choosing one article to respond to from 50 years of great content in LFQ was a daunting task. Overwhelmed by possibilities, Amanda decided to focus on how adaptation studies remains relevant today. Amanda’s scholarship often considers resonances of the ghosts of the 1950s, so perhaps it is unsurprising that Amanda ultimately chose to focus on how adaptations transform the past for a new political context, as exemplified by James Brunton’s analysis of Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) and its use of a 1950s setting to comment on the biopolitics of the 2010s. Brunton’s essay on Carol also resonated with John, for both scholarly reasons (he’s been very interested in on-screen performances of gender, and Todd Haynes has long been a favorite director of his) and the happenstance that he lives in Cincinnati and Hayne’s movie was shot there and employed some of his university’s students as part of the production staff. Subsequent Zoom discussions led to our focus on the pedagogical and the ways the academic and the personal are always and inevitably intertwined. 

Just ahead of Pride 2023, the NBC Nightly News explained that Target moved its Pride display of rainbow-adorned clothing from the entryway of some of its stores due to the complaints of conservative Christian groups who accused the store of “grooming” via the display (“Target”). In a related development, states with full or partial bans on gender-affirming care for transgender minors have increased exponentially in the first few months of 2023, expanding from two states to sixteen by June 2023, with additional bills under consideration elsewhere in the nation (Paris). And on the final day of Pride month 2023, the Supreme Court decided in 303 Creative v. Elenis that it was within a web designer’s rights to refuse to work with a same-sex couple for their wedding website, blurring the line between protected free speech and discrimination, a decision likely to have ramifications for queer individuals seeking equal access and equal dignity in a variety of service and sales situations. Despite the more than 70 years that have passed since the initial publication of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt in 1952 (under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), the climate of suspicion and constant surveillance of their private, bedroom moments faced by the novel’s same-gender-loving protagonists, Therese and Carol, unfortunately hasn’t changed all that much. And when the story remains relevant no matter the number of years that have passed since its initial publication, the story remains ripe for adaptation.

Charged with locating an article in LFQ’s archives that was meaningful to our own work as part of the celebration of LFQ’s first fifty years, we (John Alberti and Amanda Konkle) were drawn to James Brunton’s 2020 article, “Representing Queer Identity after Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol.” Thinking through the article together led us to speculate about what Brunton, and the adaptation pairing he studies, The Price of Salt and Carol, might tell us about hauntings from the 1950s, our contemporary context, and what we study when we study adaptation.

Brunton’s article, incidentally, raises issues that are part and parcel of the contemporary conversation about homophobia, transphobia, and other ghosts of the 1950s, as this period in American history is frequently represented in the present via a kind of trauma porn, or, as Brunton suggests occurs in Haynes’s film, a melodramatic masochism. What Haynes adds to Highsmith’s novel, via original scenes, is, Brunton states, “Carol['s] [Cate Blanchett] attempts to fulfill the role of the self-punishing maternal martyr in order to gain sympathy from and be embraced by the very institutions of patriarchal heterosexuality that threaten her in the first place.” Brunton calls attention to the cultural context surrounding the film’s release, particularly the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in the Obergfell v. Hodges case that guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. In contrast to how Carol is depicted in the novel, Brunton writes, the film’s “Carol is at pains here to make her sexuality subordinate to her identity as a mother, since, by her logic, the expression of identity is crucial to her functioning as a good mother (and a good ex-wife)” (see Figure 1). But Carol’s declaration of her lesbian identity as essential to her ability to be a good mother, even if this means she becomes a part-time mother with visitation rights, is how Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy imagined Carol in 2015, not how Highsmith envisioned her in the 1950s. Another adapter would likely think of her differently today, in the context of pervasive anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns. So, we must ask ourselves, what about post-Obergfell America inspires a vision of a same-gender-loving individual as desiring of sympathy, of craving the embrace of patriarchal institutions, in short, of being masochistic? What follows are some thoughts we developed in conversation as we considered Brunton’s article within the history of the pages of LFQ and within adaptation studies and pedagogy more broadly.

The Price of Adaptation: Context, Pedagogy, and the Personal, 
John Alberti and Amanda Konkle, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Carol: the “good mother.”

Teaching Context

Adaptation studies provides an ideal and fruitful repository of texts for helping students see the importance of context. Considering The Price of Salt and Carol in their own contexts, as well as in ours, proves particularly rich. Highsmith’s novel concludes with Therese learning that she was mistaken when she thought her lover had chosen mothering her daughter over continuing their romantic relationship. Although the women are relentlessly persecuted throughout the novel because of that relationship, Highsmith writes them a somewhat optimistic ending. Highsmith imagines them blending into the New York bustle and living happily ever after in a shared apartment. In the film, Carol gives up custody of her child and pursues a renewed relationship with a reluctant Therese. Viewers see the women hesitantly reconnecting, without the happily-ever-after fantasy envisioned at the novel’s end. Brunton’s article highlights the changes Haynes makes to Highsmith’s novel for a post-Obergfell America, arguing that the filmed  version recasts Carol to make the story more mainstream, using a sympathetic mother figure to gain acceptance for same-sex relationships, just as sentimental rhetoric drove the same-sex marriage debates in the United States to make same-sex marriage mainstream and acceptable.

The contemporary context gives this seemingly evergreen story yet another inflection. During summer 2022, Twitter was flooded with posts about politicians arguing for the Supreme Court to roll back rights, including one about the Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, arguing that, while the Supreme Court was overturning long-held precedents, they should overturn Lawrence v. Texas, a ruling that declared so-called “sodomy laws” unconstitutional. Such calls for dismantling legal rights related to gender and sexuality are more than empty talk. In 2023, parents seeking gender-affirming care for their children risk criminal charges in many states, and the Supreme Court has decided that some services can be refused to same-sex couples under the protection of the first amendment. When rights pertaining to gender and sexuality are threatened, Carol’s desire to be integrated into the system to, as Brunton argues, have her “true identity” “recorded by and recognized by the law” takes on an additional context, and an additional masochism. Not hiding from the government in 2015 meant something different than it means in post-Trump America. And the government’s refusal to hide itself and its true intentions from many citizens means something different too. The private detective chasing Therese and Carol across the country in Haynes’s film seems anachronous in his secret persecution of the women; in the 1950s, as in post-Trump America, the pursued, not the pursuers, must hide to ensure their equal rights and equal dignity.

Teasing out the impacts of these various contexts alongside students is one of the joys of teaching adaptation studies.  Working through the contexts of the 1950s Lavender Scare and Highsmith’s novel, as well as how that is recast in the 2010s via the Obergfell ruling in Haynes’s film, gives students an avenue for thinking about the history of disciplinary ideology regarding sexuality. The film’s somewhat regressive desire to embrace the limited acceptance offered by the arms of the law takes on a different cast in 2022 and 2023, when the heteronormative patriarchy has stopped trying to hide and instead proudly declares its intentions. This would give our current generation of savvy students, many of whom are invested in critiquing systemic injustices, an avenue to consider the one-step-forward-two-steps-back rhythm of many social justice movements and to identify the continued relevance of texts from the past adapted into new historical and cultural contexts. Brunton’s article speaks to one of the key outcomes of adaptation pedagogy: getting students to not only be able to say that context matters, but to be able to synthesize context and text and explain the ways that context matters.

What Isn’t an Adaptation?

As we have continued to bat about how Brunton’s essay underlines the importance of context—and specifically, his use of Foucault’s idea of “biopolitical” context—which Brunton defines as “a reliance on the law and its corollary biopolitical functions of recording and manipulating life trajectories on a large scale,” our discussion has grown increasingly meta. Inspired by Elsie Walker’s editorial encouragement to approach our discussion with “an emphasis on playfulness and spirited engagement,” we began talking about how the idea of “adaptation” can quickly morph from referring to a specific relationship between two distinct texts to thinking of any reading, any viewing, really any encounter with a text as adaptation.

From this radical focus on the particular and individual, the idea of pinning down “historical context”—whether we mean the 1950s, or 2020, when Brunton’s essay appeared, or our own scary and regressive political moment—becomes slippery and elusive. From the America of 1952 when The Price of Salt was published, to the 2015 premiere of Todd Haynes’s Carol, to Brunton’s wonderfully provocative essay at the start of the pandemic, to Amanda’s summer 2022 social media doom scrolling, to John’s rereading The Price of Salt and rewatching Carol that summer for the first time since 2015, to our fall 2022 Literature/Film Association conference presentation (our first in-person conference in three years), and now to our summer 2023 reflection and revision of our fall comments (as well as Amanda’s continuing media doom watching): it’s all context, and all “adaptation,” biopolitical and otherwise.

As we have continued to reflect on these changing biopolitical moments involving gender, sexuality, and state-sponsored surveillance and repression of bodily autonomy from 2015 to today, John has reflected back to 2010, when he began writing about performances of masculinity in the romantic comedy and how changes in those performances suggested a shift in the biopolitics of that time towards more expansive understandings of masculine performance. In 2010, the Obergfell decision and the potential hope that, finally, queer identities could be “recorded by and recognized by the law” was still five years in the future, but 2010 was also only two years after another landmark judicial decision, this time from Judge Vaughn R. Walker of the US District Court for the Northern District of California.

The case involved the constitutionality of Proposition Eight, which said that gay marriage could never be legalized in the state (a proposition which passed, by the way, in California, in 2008, on the day of Barack Obama’s election). In the case, wonderfully named City and County of San Francisco v. Schwarzenegger, Judge Walker struck down the proposition, arguing:

The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. . . . Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.

Compare Walker’s optimistic ruling that the biopolitical “time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and marriage. . . . has passed,” with this language from Montana’s recently passed Senate Bill 458, which unequivocally states,

In human beings, there are exactly two sexes, male and female, with two corresponding types of gametes. The sexes are determined by the biological and genetic indication of male or female, including sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex chromosomes, gonads, and nonambiguous internal and external genitalia present at birth, without regard to an individual's psychological, behavioral, social, chosen, or subjective experience of gender.

The bill was pushed for—and largely written by—a group called the Montana Family Foundation, continuing a trend to rationalize attacks on LGBTQ+ rights on the basis of—a la the catchphrase of The Simpsons’s Helen Lovejoy, "Won't somebody please think of the children?"—protecting America’s young people from the kind of ideas expressed in Judge Walker’s ruling. And of course, the exploitation of the idea of “thinking of the children” is also at the heart of Carol’s personal crisis in both the novel and movie.

Montana’s new law perfectly exemplifies what Brunton means by biopolitics: “a reliance on the law and its corollary biopolitical functions of recording and manipulating life trajectories on a large scale.” By creating legislation that defines what is supposed to be immutable biological reality, the Montana senate inadvertently underlines just how mutable that reality actually is. By saying that our “psychological, behavioral, social, chosen, or subjective” (a pretty complete list!) experiences of gender are irrelevant to our gender identity, gender identity becomes a phantom, and the question of just what conventions of gender identity we are all expected to conform to so ambiguous that any individual expression of gender and sexuality can be seen as suspect and vulnerable to state sanction and violence.

This is our unsettled and unsettling biopolitical context, and it further underscores what is so valuable about Brunton’s contribution to adaptation pedagogy. Brunton’s critique of Haynes’s movie is all about adaptation and performance, both the performances the main characters of Carol and Therese use to survive in their fictive world and how the actors Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara performed those performances in 2015 (see Figure 2). In asking questions about the rhetorical dimensions of Todd Haynes’s 2015 adaptation, Brunton encourages us to think about how Carol also prompts us to reflect on how our own responses, our own individual “adaptations” of the movie, speak to how we navigate the complicated biopolitical contexts of 2023. The performative choices we make, or are forced to make, to “adapt” to the chaotic and contradictory social environment we find ourselves in have everything to do with how we respond to texts like Carol or The Price of Salt, and conversely our discussions of the interplay of text and context raise our critical awareness of our own cultural contexts.

The Price of Adaptation: Context, Pedagogy, and the Personal, 
John Alberti and Amanda Konkle, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Performing Carol and Therese.

As we experience in our classrooms every day, never have the concepts of gender fluidity and freedom been more embraced by young people, while at the same time a reactionary biopolitics that is trying to legislate “life trajectories on a large scale,” including limits on how these issues can be discussed in the classroom, has been accelerating at greater and more alarming speed, particularly in the states in which John and Amanda teach. As Amanda points out, in 2023 our context seems less “post-gay marriage” and more “return to 1952” in terms of the status of LGBTQ+ rights.

But which of these different and contradictory biopolitical contexts define our historical moment? And given how differently these politics play out depending on our individual “psychological, behavioral, social, chosen, or subjective experiences of gender,” who’s included in “our”? As our reflections above make clear, our project has led us to think about our own personal connections to Brunton’s essay and our reactions to it, and what both say about personal context and our personal investment in our research and teaching, and how that personal context is both idiosyncratic and a part of the larger biopolitical moment, one that is constantly shifting. So, here’s another teachable moment, inspired by our own reactions/adaptations to and of an essay focused on what it means to be free within any “framework of biopolitics.” Rather than the pretense of any kind of scholarly objectivity or magisterial distance, it can be liberating for students to know that scholarship is equally personal and subjective, especially as we consider how we, and the texts we study, have adapted over time. The questions that stick with us, those scenes and passages we just can’t forget, and our hopes and fears for the world we all share, these are what motivate us to explore, analyze, discuss, and write as we continue our dialogues with contexts and audiences.

Works Cited

Brunton, James. “Representing Queer Identity After Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol.” LFQ 48.3 (2020), https://lfq.salisbury.edu/_issues/48_3/representing_queer_identity_after_same_sex_marriage_todd_haynes.html

Paris, Francesca. “See the States that have Passed Laws Directed at Young Trans People.” The New York Times, June 5, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/05/upshot/trans-laws-republicans-states.html?smtyp=cur&smid=tw-nytimes

Montana State Senate. SB 458, An Act Generally Revising The Laws To Provide A Common Definition For The Word Sex When Referring To A Human. Montana Legislative Services,2023. https://leg.mt.gov/bills/2023/billhtml/SB0458.htm.

“Target Pulls some Pride Month Merchandise off Shelves After Threats to Employees.” NBC Nightly News, May 24, 2023. https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/target-pulls-some-pride-month-merchandise-off-shelves-after-threats-to-employees-176595525776

Walker, Judge Vaughn R. City and County of San Francisco v. Schwarzenegger. No. C 09-2292. August 4, 2010. https://web.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Perry_v_Schwarzenegger_US_2010.pdf.