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The Changing Pedagogies of Adaptation Studies

The following essay responds to some of the intriguing questions posed by the Literature/Film Association, specifically two questions that I see as very much interrelated: 1) “What does adaptation studies teach us about the possibilities of and connections among different forms of media and intertextuality?” and 2) “What forms of adaptation endure today, and why?” Both questions have in the background a prior question: “What is to be gained by comparing texts to films, and does this practice still hold meaning?” The “still” in that question embeds multiple subtexts and anxieties that many of us in adaptation studies feel, including: 1) Does comparative analysis of novel and film still hold meaning at a moment of crisis in the humanities in general? and 2) Does it still hold meaning in a media-saturated and internet-dominated age when students purportedly “no longer read?” Does it still hold meaning in an age of declining enrollments, when students are concerned about more pressing issues like educational debt and the search for jobs in an unfriendly economy?

I have been teaching courses on literature and film for decades, and like many scholars in the field, I have had to wrestle with these questions. The experience has allowed me to reflect on a series of historical shifts, in theory and methodologies, in the nature of adaptations themselves, and in the expectations of students. In terms of theory, adaptation studies has moved—to put it crudely and schematically—from a discourse of “fidelity” that compared novel to film in terms of the gaps between the two texts, toward a discourse of “intertextuality” as part of a more multidirectional approach that emphasizes the multiple interlocutors of both source novel and adaptation.

The idea of intertextuality—the multidirectional relations between texts—has gone through myriad transformations over the centuries, going back to and including: Michel de Montaigne’s 16th century conceit that more books are written about other books than about any other subject; the 19th century historicist tracing of literary “influences”; T. S. Eliot’s 20th century “Tradition and the Individual Talent”; the penchant of the historical avant-gardes for Cubist “collage”; Bertolt Brecht’s “refunctioning”; and the Situationists’ detournement, or the subversive hijacking of pre-existing texts. The “transtextual turn” gained momentum with the advent of structuralism and semiotics in literary and film studies and later with the dissemination of Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about “dialogism”; Julia Kristeva’s about “intertextuality”; Gerard Genette’s “Transtextuality”; Henry Louis Gates’s “Signifying; and André Gaudreault’s “intermediality.” The Internet Age, meanwhile, proliferates in related terms, such as “sampling,” “remix,” and “mash-up.” Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin propose the term “remediation” as part of their argument that the so-called “new digital media” actually gain their cultural significance by absorbing and refashioning earlier media and artistic practices. All of these terms shed a distinct light on the broad concept of a transformative and recombinant relation to pre-existing texts.

Adaptation is of course a paradigmatic form of transtextuality, defined broadly by Genette in Palimpsestes as “relations between texts,” and more specifically in an instance of Genette’s “hyper-textuality” as a case of transtextual variations on pre-existing texts (hypotexts). A single hypotext, for example, The Odyssey, can be seen as spawning a series of hypertextual spin-offs ranging from Virgil’s Aeneid and James Joyce’s Ulysses to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) to Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), on to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Guy Madden’s Keyhole (2011), which compresses Odysseus’s journeys across the wine-red seas into the narrow confines of a single domicile. Filmic adaptations of novels inherit and reconfigure a double constellation of transtexts, first the literary legacies that inform the source novel and second the cinematic and artistic legacies embedded in or mobilized by the filmic adaptation. The highly praised adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones by Tony Richardson incorporates many of the genres and techniques already present in the novel (epic, pastoral, history, direct-address to the reader, and so forth) but superimposes them on the genres and techniques available to film. The opening sequence, for example, alludes to silent cinema through archaic iris-in techniques, melodramatic intertitles, and hyperbolic acting, all combined with procedures such as the hand-held camera techniques drawn from contemporaneous film movements such as the French New Wave.

Since the time of the Richardson’s Tom Jones in 1963, we have moved away from one-off adaptations into Hollywood practices of franchising and multi-platform launching of literary “content.” What interests me especially is the process of transformation whereby a celebrated novel (Paulo Lins’s City of God, 1997) becomes a noteworthy film (Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, 2002), which then generates a TV-series (City of Men, 2002-2005), wherein the characters featured in both novel and film grow and develop and interact with newly invented characters and situations, without ever completely losing touch with the source text, partially because the author (Lins) continues his involvement by participating as a consultant in all the subsequent films and series generated by his novel. These kinds of transformations are sometimes encapsulated in awkward yet useful “ization” words, which evoke the process whereby Indian director Ketan Mehta “indianizes” Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in his film Maya Memsaab (1993), which features Bollywood-style song-and-dance numbers, or whereby Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha “transnationalizes” Pride and Prejudice in her own Bride and Prejudice (2004) by sending the Bennet sisters to the US and India along with the UK, or whereby Mexican director Alfonso Cuarȯn, in his 1998 film, actualizes and translocalizes Charles Dickens by setting Great Expectations in contemporary Miami. Television in Brazil, meanwhile, practices “telenovelization” by turning canonical Brazilian novels like The Slave Isaura (1875) into a Globo Network TV series and telenovelas.

In order to connect the literary past with the mass-mediated present I supplement the close readings of the source novels and the screenings of films with what might be called “second-degree” and “third-degree” adaptations, such as music videos with literary resonances, most of them available on the Internet: the music video of Bruce Springsteen’s “Ballad of Tom Joad,” for example, which cites images from the John Ford adaptation as well as the famous depression-era photographs (for example, those of Dorothea Lang) that inspired both John Steinbeck and Ford; the music video of Coldplay’s “Don Quixote” with its images of Spain and windmills; Celine Dion’s ode to January-May romance in her “Lolita,” which defends her right to love the older man whom she eventually married. Not only do I personally enjoy these videos, they are my way of reminding my students that very old literary texts can still resonate in the internetted world in which we all live. Of course, that raises the question of whether the text itself gets lost in the swirl of contemporary media, which is why I also insist on close readings of the source texts to get them a vivid sense of the stylistics, which I then compare to the stylistics of the adapting film, often comparing a single literary passage to the various ways in which it had been adapted in a wide spectrum of media.

In the final class of my 2015 “Film ad Novel” course, I offered a whirlwind tour of the History of World Literature through a series of remediations of chronologically sequenced canonical texts in the form of parodic trailers and sketches, which included: an animated internet version of the Ramayana (Sita Sings the Blues); the trailer for the recent Spike Lee revisionist version of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata set in the Chicago inner-city; a remixed trailer presenting Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments as a Grease-style high school film; clips from various transcultural remediations of Shakespeare’s plays including the Bollywood Othello (Omkara); the Brazilian Romeo and Juliet (Mare); the Maori Merchant of Venice; the translocalized version of Pierre de Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance in the Parisian banlieu in Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’Esquive; the Bollywoodianization of Jane Austen in Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice; the cartoonization of Heart of Darkness via Apocalypse Now; and Winnie the Pooh in the mashup Apocalypse Pooh. The web series version of Pride and Prejudice, takes the form of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, whose episodes are filmed as video blogs from Lizzie to her followers, and whose producers maintained social media accounts for the characters, where they interacted and produced Facebook posts about their lives. In his book If Hemingway Wrote JavaScript, finally, Angus Croll envisions twenty-five celebrated novelists, playwrights, and poets, including Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Tupac Shakur translating their works into codes.1 In the age of the internet, in sum, Adaptation Studies itself has to “adapt,” if what we teach is to “still have meaning” for our students.


1 A current capstone project by one of my senior students at NYU-Abu Dhabi (Luis Felipe Morales Navarro), titled “Material Fictions: A Borgesian Approach to Digital Access to Information,” explores how Borges’s “speculative fictions” about libraries, memories, archives, and encyclopedias help us understand archival research, critical analysis, and the programming of media objects in the post-digital world.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. Print.

Bakhtin, M. M., and P. N. Medvedev. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics. Trans. Albert J. Wehrle. Revised ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985. Print.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT P, 1999. Print.

Bride and Prejudice. Dir. Gurinder Chadha. Perf. Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson. Pathé, 2004. Film.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. London: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

Genette, Gerard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Trans. of Palimpsestes: La literature au second degree. Paris: Seuil, 1982. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

L’esquive [Games of Love and Chance]. Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche. Perf. Osman Elkharraz and Sara Forestier. Lola/Noé, 2004. Film.

Leviathan. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. Perf. Brian Janelleand Adrian Guillette. Arrête Ton Cinéma, 2012. Film.

The Maori Merchant of Venice. Dir. Don Selwyn. Perf. Waihoroi Shortland, and Ngarimu Daniels. He Taonga, 2002. Film.

Maré, Nossa História de Amor [Mare, Another Love Story]. Dir. Lúcia Murat. Perf. Vinícius D’Black and Monique Soares. Taiga, 2008. Film.

Maya Memsaab. Dir. Ketan Mehta. Perf. Deepa Sahiand Farooq Shaikh. Forum, 1993. Film. Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Sita Sings the Blues. By Nina Paley. Perf. Annette Hanshaw and Debargo Sanyal. Nina Paley, 2008. Film.

Voodoo Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Canada Lee, Maurice Ellis. Lafayette Theatre, 1936. Play.