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Gender, Adaptation, and Justice

“Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films...all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all founders of religion, and the very religions... await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.”

— Abel Gance 1

Anticipating Barthes’s giddy proclamation of “the Death of the Author” by two decades, Andre Bazin argued in 1948 that “it is possible to imagine that we are moving toward a reign of the adaptation in which the notion of the unity of the work of art, if not the very notion of the author himself, will be destroyed” (49). Seeking to eliminate the role of chronological precedence and, to a certain extent, medium specificity, Bazin envisions a time—the year 2050—wherein critics “would find not a novel out of which a play and a film had been ‘made,’ but rather a single work reflected through three art forms, an artistic pyramid with three sides, all equal in the eyes of the critic” (50). Although Bazin’s claim about aesthetic “equality” is still subject to debate, there can be little doubt that, in the digital age, the sanctified boundaries of medium, space, and time have all but disappeared. Hence, in her widely quoted book, A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon refers to the adaptation process as “palimpsestuous”—a word with deliberately erotic overtones, to characterize adaptation as something of a fortuitous aberration, or, in Hutcheon’s phrasing: “a derivation that is not derivative—a work that is second without being secondary. It is its own palimpsestic thing” (9).2

There is a troubling relativism that inheres in this assertion, as is the case with other recent theories of adaptation. Mark Fortier, in his essay “Beyond Adaptation,” adopts a similarly open-ended definition, observing that there is no “compelling reason not to understand adaptation, at least in one of its meanings, in this unlimited sense” (374). “Suffice it to say,” he adds, that “change” is the only certainty, “with origin and constancy adrift and always at risk on a sea of primal variation” (375). Given the ascendancy of intermedial art, this desultory, primordial soup approach to theorizing adaptation has gained currency—a development that is concerning because it tends to occlude the political dimensions of this process. Although Hutcheon gives some consideration to the politics of “indigenization” (an anthropological term she borrows from Susan Stanford Friedman), noting that “[a]dapters across cultures probably cannot avoid thinking about power” (152), her subsequent conclusion is surprisingly naïve: “the advantage of the more general anthropological usage in thinking about adaptation is that it implies agency: people pick and choose what they want to transplant to their own soil” (150).

“A director must sway his actors just as an orator sways his audience. There have been a few great women orators. There will be a few women directors.”

— Cecil B. DeMille 3

Rather than thinking about adaptation as a semi-random, semi-autonomous act of repetition without replication, I prefer to think of it as a mechanism of reclamation and recovery. Quite unlike “pick[ing] and choos[ing]” what to “transplant” to “indigenous soil” (Hutcheon 150), the adaptation process—at least for women directors of Shakespeare films—involves the experience of internal exile, of non-indigeneity, in an industry that has always been more disposed to validate women who remain in front of the camera. In this respect, the adaptation process is more akin to the harrowing ontological journey that Adrienne Rich undertakes in “Diving into the Wreck.” In this poem, Rich descends to the ocean floor in search of an originary feminist discourse, imagining a shipwreck as a primal scene of historical trauma and epistemic violence:

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail. (52-56)

Sifting through the ruins in search of her own voice—“the thing itself and not the myth” —Rich encounters, in the final stanza, only the specter of her own erasure in “a book of myths in which our names do not appear” (62-63). Women directors experience similar alienation when adapting Shakespeare, whose “words are maps” (Rich 54) that lead to an origin story from which they find themselves missing in action. Eclipsed by auteurs such as Olivier, Welles, Kurosawa, Kozintsev, Zeffirelli, and Branagh, women filmmakers from Lois Weber to Julie Taymor have been subject to heightened critical scrutiny, admonished for their hubris in approaching Shakespeare from a uniquely female perspective, as well as for contesting the exclusively male domain of the Shakespeare film.4 It is little wonder that Jane Smiley, in rewriting King Lear as the novel A Thousand Acres, identifies the process of adapting Shakespeare with nothing less than the “courage” to “fall at last into total darkness” (171).

We might think of “Diving into the Wreck” as a conceptual framework for a feminist politics of adaptation that embraces the arduous task of counter-memory—a project that rejects patriarchal genealogies as well as the very idea of fixed or stable origins. Counter-memory, Foucault writes, “is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself” (147). With respect to Shakespeare, as Peter Widdowson contends, canonical texts can “be revised and re-visioned as part of the process of restoring a voice, a history and an identity to those hitherto exploited, marginalized and silenced by dominant interests and ideologies” (505-506). This is the point at which adaptation ceases to become a negotiation with the past and instead becomes a broker of possible futures—as “the articulation,” in Derrida’s terms, of “what is no longer and what is not yet” (24-25).

“[G]ive name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

— Audre Lorde 5

Nominated in 2007 for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Deepa Mehta’s Water (2006) is a perilous act of counter-memory with a Shakespearean twist. Water’s main plot revolves around the struggles of Chuyia, an eight year-old child-bride who is sent to an ashram, or widows’ home, where she is doomed to a life of near-total deprivation. The film’s subplot features a Romeo and Juliet-style love story between Narayan, a member of the elite Brahmin caste, and Kalyani, the beautiful young widow forced into prostitution to support the ashram. Though Kalyani eventually escapes her confines to elope with Narayan, she ultimately returns to the ashram, where she wades into the Ganges until the water folds over her, drowning herself in shame. Using Shakespeare to critique the ideology of romantic love, Mehta highlights the horrific paternalism—and exploitation—to which India’s substantial widow population is still subject. In the process, she gives expression to the repressed histories of a female underclass that has been silenced for more than two thousand years by religious fundamentalism, State-sanctioned gender oppression, catastrophic neglect and rampant sexual abuse.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when shooting began in 1999, Water was sabotaged only two takes into the film by supporters of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), India’s ruling party, who advocate a return to a Hindu theocracy (Hinduvta) that condones aggression against Muslims, restores scriptural law, and replaces scientific education with Hindu mythology. When the enraged mob destroyed the sets and burned Mehta in effigy, death threats ensued and the government withdrew its protection, forcing her to leave India, where she was accused of “polluting the Ganges” with her alternative history of India’s widows. It was not until five years later that Mehta mustered the resources to move the production to Sri Lanka, where Water was shot under the false title Full Moon and finally released in 2006.

According to Hindu scripture, widows can achieve moksha, or freedom from the karmic cycle of suffering they inherit, in three ways: they can burn to death on the husband’s funeral pyre in a ritual called sati (the Sanskrit word for “good wife”), they can marry the husband’s younger brother, or they can live as pariahs in an ashram. Subverting audience expectations, Water associates the achievement of moksha not with the glory of martyrdom, or “the intoxicating ideology of self-sacrifice” (Spivak 98), but with the further mortification of the female body, as the widows become victims of neglect, suicide, sex trafficking—and, in the case of Chuyia—child rape. Indeed, women directors often localize the adaptation process in brutal representations of the female body-in-pain, the privileged site for ongoing battles over agency, East and West. The film’s closing title card etches its politics in bold relief:

There are over 34 million widows in India according to the 2001 census. Many continue to live in conditions of social, economic and cultural deprivation as prescribed 2000 years ago by the Sacred Texts of Manu.

Counter-memory is, ultimately, a mechanism for intervening in the present and a methodology of the oppressed—a practice that reflects Mehta’s insistence that “Art is political and should be political.” 6

“We should bear in mind that the opposite of existence is not nonexistence, but insistence.”

—Slavoj Zizek

When the actors John Heminge and Henry Condell wrote their preface to Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623, they bequeathed to “the great Variety of Readers” neither Shakespeare’s book nor his body but, rather, his “remaines.” For Derrida, the collective work of mourning—as a mode of political redress—“consists always in attempting to ontologize remains, to make them present” (9). Adaptation is, on some level, always an act of mourning: a quest to ontologize what is not there, what is no longer there, or what never was in the first place. This desire to materialize absence invokes a politics of adaptation that revolves around “diving into the wreck” (Rich) of the dominant interests of history to expose “a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body” (Foucault 148). By challenging sedimented mythologies and inserting itself in the gap between a contested past and a provisional future, counter-memory induces a crisis of legibility. But Derrida reminds us that “[a]n inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself. . . . If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it” (16). Adaptation is about inheriting—and inhabiting—the “remaines” of history with a difference; an act of insistence in the face of non-existence, it is, finally, the very condition of justice.


1 Abel Gance, “Le Temps de l’image est venu’, L’Art cinematographique, vol. 2, Paris 1927: (94).

2 Hutcheon borrows the term “palimpsestuous” from Michael Alexander, cited in Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth’s essay “Agency in the discursive condition.”

3 DeMille, quoted in Dunning (1927): 33.

4 Jocelyn Moorhouse (A Thousand Acres, 1997), Christine Edzard (As You Like It, 1992; The Children’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2001), and Julie Taymor (Titus, 2000; The Tempest 2010), have been unduly criticized for their Shakespeare films, while others, like Weber, Mary Pickford, and Liz White, found their initial forays into adaptation highly discouraging. White died with a copy of her adaptation of Othello tucked under her mattress, and Pickford went so far as to claim that her work on Taming of the Shrew was her “finish.”

5 See Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” 36.

6 See Yuen-Carrucan, Jasmine, “The Politics of Deepa Mehta’s Water” http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/28/water.php#.VGPy2F4wy2x. See also Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed.

Works Cited

Bazin, Andre. Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

Dunning, Charles S. (1927). “The Gate Women Don’t Crash.” Liberty 4.2: 33.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. “Agency in the Discursive Dondition.” History and Theory 20 (2001): 34-58.

Fortier, Mark. “Beyond Adaptation.” Outerspeares: Shakespeare, Intermedia, and the Limits of Adaptation. Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 372-86.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected essays and interviews by Michel Foucault. Edited by Donald G. Bouchard. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Gance, Abel. “Le Temps de l’image est venu’. L’Art cinematographique. Volume 2 (1927): 94.

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. New York: Random House, 1984. 36-39.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

Rich, Adrienne. “Diving into the Wreck.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Second edition. Edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996. 1960-62.

Salesman, Devyani. Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family, and Filmmaking. New York: Newmarket Press, 2006.

Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Smiley, Jane. “Shakespeare in Iceland.” Edited by Marianne Novy. Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women’s Re-Visions in Literature and Performance. New York: St. Martin’s Press: 1999. 159-79.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post- Colonial Theory: A Reader. Edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 66-111.

Widdowson, Peter. “‘Writing back’: Contemporary Re-Visionary Fiction.” Textual Practice 20.3 (2006): 491-507.

Yuen-Carrucan, Jasmine, “The Politics of Deepa Mehta’s Water” Bright Lights Film Journal. 1 Apr 2000. Web. 5 July 2016. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/28/water.php#.VGPy2F4wy2x.

Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso, 2002.