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Adaptation as Exploitation

What is to be gained through comparing texts with films, and does this practice still hold meaning?

The short answer to the question is that comparing a text with a film still does not go much further than declaring one to be better than the other. I find that I am no longer able to approach a single text and its many film iterations with anything other than anxiety, as I’m concerned that I am covertly championing my “original” subject, English, over Film Studies, or more generally adopting a logo-centric method with the aim to celebrate the survival of the written text over its many pretenders. In organizing Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text in 1999, Imelda Whelehan and I were concerned about the privileging of the literary and canonical text but paradoxically chose a historical order based on the time of production of the literary rather than the film text, so that Shakespeare is followed by Austen, progressing to contemporary literary productions, an order that implicitly privileges fidelity to a literary text in the assumption that adaptations belong to a literary history. Seventeen years later, it is apparent to me that the time of the adaptation is what we are interested in and that the context in which we place the adaptation should be within other adaptations (and other works) produced within that same period. The most exciting work in adaptations studies, I believe, is taking a historical turn, looking at how adaptations are shaped by the period in which they are produced and how they define their audiences, through production, marketing, and other commercial pressures. Greg M. Colón Semenza and Bob Hasenfratz’s The History of British Literature on Film: 1895-2015, published in 2015, opens up a new way of looking at adaptations but simultaneously raises the problem that the field has been dogged by: a will to talk about one type of adaptation (literature to film) and a will, always persistent in the field, with its numerous taxonomies, to pigeonhole adaptations into categories, such as “British.”

How does adaptation studies highlight the permeable boundaries between disciplines?

Alas, the majority of submissions to the journal Adaptation are still on film adaptations, often discussions of several adaptations of the same literary text, looking even more conservative than our 1999 effort (Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text). But the most exciting submissions break that mold and it has become increasingly apparent that Adaptation Studies is not just about literature and film; it now involves a multiplicity of adaptations, among them games, radio, theater, television, dance, music, history, and other media. When researching my last book, Adaptations in the Sound Era: 1927-37, it became clear to me that in the first half of the 20th century, what we think of as adaptations of novels were regarded as theatrical adaptations, as they were mediated by theatrical adaptations of novels, such as Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) and Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940), hence the first book dedicated to the subject of “novel adaptations” is not George Bluestone’s 1957 monograph, Novels into Film, but Allardyce Nicoll’s Film and Theatre, published in 1937. Nicoll discusses films, such as Jack Conway’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935), as dramatic rather than as novel adaptations. Strangely, there was a tendency within the field to not mention theater (with the exception of Shakespeare who becomes an honorary novelist) and focus seemingly exclusively on the novel: hence titles such as Screening the Novel (Robert Giddings, Keith Selby, and Chris Wensley, 1990), Novel Images (ed. Peter Reynolds, 1993), Novel to Film (Brian McFarlane, 1996) and Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Kamilla Elliott, 2003). It has taken us a long time to get shot of the novel as the form that has falsely underpinned the field for so long.

My recent research also led me into thinking about the origins of adaptation studies in early 20th century marketing materials surrounding film adaptations of literary texts. The pressbook for Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland (Norman Z. McLeod, 1933) adopted a two-fold strategy typical of this vintage of film adaptation marketing. The first is proclaiming closeness to the books (it is “an exact reproduction of the two famous fantasies ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’”) and the second is to exploit its bookishness in every possible way, such as “Hire a young girl, dress her in an Alice costume and place her in the book.” The Alice figure comes out at regular intervals to hand circulars to patrons, then goes back into the book closing the door behind her (8). Preaching fidelity to a text was stock and barrel of the pressbooks and other advertising campaigns surrounding these films of the late 1920s and 1930s and it strikes me now that adaptation studies owes much to the marketing of these films, in a bad way (their invocation of fidelity to the literary sources) and in a good way, in their shameless embracing of all things commercial. Indeed the marketing or advertising of film adaptations, the turning to account of these films, was significantly and unashamedly labeled “exploitation.”

How might new scholars define themselves within adaptation studies?

New scholars need to resist the temptation to produce case studies of adaptations of classic novels across generations and to question why it is that we still want to do precisely this. They should relish the idea of adaptation studies as “exploitation,” reflecting on the commercial and material conditions (rather than a single literary text) as what really underpins the field.

Works Cited

Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1957. Print.

Cartmell, Deborah. Adaptations in the Sound Era: 1927-37. Fischlin and Fortier, eds. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 2-3. Print.

MacCabe, Colin. “Introduction: Bazinian Adaptation.” Colin MacCabe, Kathleen Murray, and Rick Warner, eds. True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 8. Print.

Jameson, Fredric, “Afterword: Adaptation as a Philosophical Problem.” Colin MacCabe, Kathleen Murray, and Rick Warner, eds. True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 232.