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Adaptation Today

It is now a decade since I published my first book on adaptation studies—Adapting Henry James: Gender, Fiction, and Film (2006). In the intervening time I have been fortunate enough to have published in the three major adaptation journals, including Literature/Film Quarterly, and exchanged insights with scholars and learners from all parts of the globe. Adaptation studies even led to my changing jobs, as I left the Department of American Culture and Literature at Başkent University after an irreparable disagreement with the then Head of Department about what the purpose of adaptation studies might be, and why I wanted to continue pursuing my researches in a certain way.

Looking to the future, I have now discovered through my work in the Department of English in the Faculty of Education at Başkent that there are myriad opportunities for pursuing further work in adaptation, none of which have much to do with literature, film, and media studies. Looking at the work of Jerome Bruner in (Making Stories [2002]) and Jean Piaget helps us to understand the psychological aspects of “adaptation” (understood as a process of adjusting to new material and new experiences), and how it is a fundamental process affecting all our lives. Much good work has been done in Fan Studies in this area (Duffett), concentrating in particular on the ways in which individuals adapt their experiences of cult films to reshape their lives. We can learn a lot from their insights. In Central Europe there is a movement, spearheaded by Pascal Nicklas and Dan Hassler-Forest, to look in more depth at the cognitive aspects of adaptation studies, concentrating especially on the question of whether we respond differently to “literary” texts as opposed to other types of text. I might not necessarily agree with that distinction, but I think there is a lot to be learned from the quantitative and qualitative research being pioneered in that area.

Personally I’ve always embraced a view that transcends the literature-film-paradigm into areas of psychological development, based on the Piagetian view that adaptation involves some degree of self-discovery through encounters with external phenomena. The psychologist Jerome Bruner expands this notion based on the belief that we organize our lives in terms of narratives that are continually shaped and reshaped through our encounters with people and/or experience. The experience of watching films and television offers the chance for us to reshape our narratives by watching narratives shaped by filmmakers and other creative workers. This explains why I admit to a degree of frustration with theoretical work restricting its focus of issues of source/target textual congruence (or lack thereof). Rather distressingly I see that there have been some papers returning to that old chestnut of fidelity studies, almost as if some scholars are reluctant to escape from the tyranny of the text. I believe that adaptation studies scholars have to grasp the intellectual nettle a little and venture out of their comfort zones. They need to take more heed of work being done in excellent journals such as the online publication PARTICIPATIONS, which for several years has shifted the focus of attention away from textual on to audience studies, concentrating in particular on how individual spectators have utilized their experiences of texts to shape their personalities past and present.

I also think that adaptation studies have moved beyond the confines of interdisciplinarity into more transdisciplinary areas. The distinction between the two has been disputed; for me, interdisciplinarity denotes a crossover between one or two disciplines (e.g., literature and film) while transdisciplinarity allows for communication between representatives of different subject areas. At Mainz in December 2015 I was privileged to attend a gathering of scholars from media, literature, anthropology, politics, art history, and architecture; if their insights could be brought together in written as well as oral form, then I think we could establish a framework for sound transdisciplinary negotiation. Henry Jenkins made this point in his seminal Convergence Culture (2006), and found expression in initiatives such as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which reached its hundredth episode in 2013 and won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement in an Interactive Media-Original Interactive Program. BBC Television’s The Art of Gothic (2014), presented by art historian Andrew Graham Dixon, offered a suggestively transmedial combination of art history, literature, and film. There is a need for further initiatives like this: “adaptation” as a concept has been defined in manifold ways, according to different disciplines, and it is incumbent on us all to look at ways of using one another’s insights to see how “adaptation studies” can help to create more comprehensive research projects.

However much some scholars from both disciplines might resist it, there has to be some kind of (re-) negotiation between adaptation and translation studies. Patrick Cattrysse’s 2014 book on Descriptive Adaptation Studies provides useful material for discussion, but he is still inclined to view adaptation as a subaltern discipline to translation, a viewpoint shared by many established translation studies scholars. Nonetheless there are encouraging signs that such entrenched positions are being challenged by translation studies scholars such as Luc van Doorslaer from KU Leuven in Belgium, whose co-edited book on new readings in translation studies (John Benjamins, 2016) contains a dialogue between himself and other adaptation scholars (myself included). We also need to take more note of the work done by translation studies scholars with an interest in adaptation such as John Milton. One of the main issues perpetually subject to discussion is the distinction between the two disciplines; my own view has been shaped by long residence in the Republic of Turkey where adaptation has been historically constructed as a free form of expression as opposed to the more “scientific” translation studies, the theories of which have been shaped by notions of textual congruence.

This recollection brings me to another important point about adaptation studies: we have to study it transnationally as well as transdisciplinarily. Having spent the last year or so looking at Turkish cinema and how local audiences respond to it (for a book on Six Turkish Filmmakers, to appear from the University of Wisconsin Press in 2017), I’ve now discovered that we have to understand completely different ways of thinking and feeling in order to appreciate how local filmgoers adapt to the texts they witness on screen. I have had to find out more about religion, politics, and social studies; the task has not been easy, but I feel that as a result I can empathize more with my learners and understand what they are really saying when they are talking about films and media texts.

Such experiences lead me to make another point about adaptation studies’ potential. To a large extent our academic cultures prioritize research over teaching: senior scholars are entrusted with the responsibility of producing indexed articles designed for maximum impact while research assistants and junior academics have to give lower-level courses to large classes. I am not saying that this is the case everywhere; but we only have to look at the comments made on social media by academics young and old to understand the transnationality of this problem. With an emphasis on psychological development through textual as well as personal encounters, adaptation studies has the potential to transcend that distinction; if we start analyzing the ways in which our learners respond to texts, as well as ourselves, then we can perhaps work toward achieving the kind of “active literacy” that Thomas Leitch talks about in his seminal work Film Adaptation and its Discontents (2006).

Yet I would also argue that this goal can only be achieved if we adapt our pedagogic techniques; instead of relying on the information-loaded lecture and/or PowerPoint presentation, we have to be prepared to engage with our learners both inside and outside the classroom. Tony Gurr and I wrote about this in Adaptation Studies and Learning (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013); since then I have discovered the paramount importance not only of grading learners’ work but talking and (most importantly) listening to them. Maybe we will have to become more active users of social media to achieve this, as some learners feel more confident with the relative anonymity of the smartphone rather than the pressure wrought by face-to-face communications. Through such strategies we can greatly enhance our research into adaptation studies, especially if we approach it through the theories of Piaget and Bruner.

Adaptation studies have the potential to expand our research agenda into areas that unite the personal, the academic, and the quotidian. The only quality we need to cultivate in order to achieve our aims is openness; a willingness to countenance—if not necessarily agree with—alternative approaches and research agendas. As far as I am concerned, the movement away from that paradigm is inexorable; it is up to everyone us to recognize that fact and to reshape our agendas accordingly.

Works Cited

The Art of Gothic. Dir. Ian Leese. Perf. Andrew Graham-Dixon. BBC, 2014. Television.

Bruner, Jerome. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.

Cattrysse, Patrick. Descriptive Adaptation Studies: Epistemological and Methodological Issues. Antwerp: Garant, 2014. Print.

Doorslaer, Luc Van, and Yves Gambier, eds.. Border Crossings, Translation Studies, and Other Disciplines. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2016. Print.

Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Hassler-Forest, Dan, and Pascal Nicklas. The Politics of Adaptation: Media Convergence and Ideology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.

Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptation and its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Dir. Hank Green and Bernie Su. pemberleydigital.com, 2010-. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Milton, John, Şehnaz Tahir Gürçağlar, and Saliha Paker, eds. Tradition, Tension, and Translation in Turkey. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015. Print.

Participations: International Journal of Audience Research. Participations.org. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Piaget, Jean. Six Psychological Studies. New York: Vintage, 1964. Print.

Raw, Laurence. Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction, and Film. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2006. Print.

— — —. Six Turkish Filmmakers. Madison: U. of Wisconsin P, forthcoming.

Raw, Laurence, and Tony Gurr. Adaptation Studies and Learning: New Frontiers. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2013. Print.

Van Doorslaer, Luc, Peter Flynn, and Joep Leerssen. Interconnecting Translation Studies and Imagology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2016. Print.