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The Place of “Literature and Film” Today

The shift of Literature/Film Quarterly from nearly half a century of hard-copy issues to open-access online publication provides an especially apt moment to raise questions concerning how we think about adaptation studies today. The word I’d like to look at most closely in that question is we. What’s the relation between the ways readers and contributors to LFQ think about adaptation studies and the way all those other we’s think about it?

The short answer is that most citizens outside the LFQ fold don’t think much about adaptation at all, and when they do, they think along eminently predictable lines: the book was better; they never should have made the movie; it’s nothing but commercial exploitation of (take your pick) either a work of literary art too inimitably fine to adapt or a piece of sub-literary trash that should have been left to die unadapted.

These propositions, as adaptation scholars know, already provide a straw man for George Bluestone’s 1957 Novels into Film, whose highly influential case studies, as Kamilla Elliott reminds us, were written specifically to demonstrate the impossibility of adaptation, a position already well established as early as 1926, when Virginia Woolf, in “The Cinema,” adverts to the folly of attempting to adapt classics like Anna Karenina to the screen in order to buttress a series of categorical assertions about the differences between literature and film—cinema is purely perceptual and visual, it cannot give audiences direct access to the minds of characters, its adaptations depend on strategic omission and condensation—that Bluestone had no reservations about adopting thirty years later.

Robert A. Ray’s 2000 attack on “literature and film” studies casts LFQ, which he names and characterizes in unflattering detail, precisely as the defender of such studies, the journal that assumes the value of comparing, not literature and film as such, but particular literary texts and their cinematic adaptations. Ever since its debut, in other words, LFQ has set itself more or less explicitly against the assumption equally prevalent among scholars of literary and cinema studies and a much wider public that there’s nothing very interesting to say about adaptation, a practice profitable only to investors in Romeo+Juliet and Deadpool.

Since Ray’s polemic, adaptation studies has expanded its range beyond the field of literature and film to sequels, prequels, remakes, franchises, novelizations, unacknowledged adaptations, films and plays and novels and musicals and operas based on memoirs and histories and comic books, and adaptations that often consider texts far beyond the purview of literature and film. What is LFQ’s place in this brave new world?

As its title continues to assert, LFQ positions literature and film at the heart of debates about adaptation. This apparently arbitrary mapping of adaptation studies around literature-and-film studies as its capital is shared by the other leading adaptation journals, Adaptation (originally conceived as The Journal of Literature on Screen) and The Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance. In Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema, Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan have noted that novel-to-film studies still provide “the prime focus of [adaptation] collections even today”; (19). Instead of defending this model, let me briefly indicate three other potential models for adaptation studies, based not on filmed novels but on three technologies equally dependent on adaptation that have more recently arisen: television, video games, and the Internet.

A model of adaptation based on the practices of television rather than those of novels-into-films would emphasize not questions about fidelity but each series’ potential for endless replication and mutation through renewals, spinoffs, and syndication. In this more forthrightly Darwinian model, each text would seek to reproduce infinite versions of itself, and each text that failed to achieve the survival of the fittest would be mourned as deeply as the passenger pigeon or As the World Turns.

A model of adaptation based on video games would assume that every generation of adaptation, far from being a weak echo of its predecessors, was an obvious improvement, whether the predecessors were graphic novels, Choose Your Own Adventure books, or earlier generations of the video game. As the technologies that enable interactive experiences become more powerful, affordable, and widely available, the demand for precise simulations of real-seeming experiences is bound to increase, though those experiences are more likely to be selected and tailored to the measure of desire than of memory. The probable result will be a crisis in both the representation and the experience of reality that will usher in a new era of what Walter Benjamin might call a newly imagined aura that derives its power from looking forward rather than back.

A model of adaptation based on the Internet, that contemporary version of Jorge Luis Borges’s "Library of Babel", would take as its goal the inclusion of every possible version of every possible text as Web surfers seize the opportunity to produce their own content. Because no one could possibly catalogue or patrol this boundless library, the crisis in aura would be replaced by a crisis in authority, as different blogs, search engines, and ISP’s strove for dominance by seeking to increase their traffic, tracking hits, and linking to other sites with exactly the same goals.

My point is not to ask which future readers of LFQ prefer but to urge that we prepare for futures that may be remote from what the persistence of the novel-to-film model would predict. The current ferment of work in adaptation studies may well be providing us a sneak preview of the third future I’ve sketched out even as that future threatens to overtake and bury adaptation studies by superseding, for example, the notions of copyright, licensing, and rights of authors that laid the groundwork for adaptations in the first place. Is it really possible, for instance, that adaptation in the way it has been conceived and practiced over the past century is heading into eclipse by other intermedial modes that represent both cutting-edge technology and deeply atavistic notions of authorship and authority? As the announcers for those non-cinematic modes of adaptation exhort us: Stay tuned, particularly to LFQ, for the latest dispatches in what look increasingly like adaptation wars whose consequences will resonate far beyond the field.

Works Cited

Cartmell, Deborah, and Imelda Whelehan. Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.