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Three Key Questions for Adaptation Studies in the Digital Age

Simone Murray, Three Key Questions for Adaptation Studies in the Digital Age, Literature/Film Quarterly
Vince Gilligan and interviewer Adam Spencer at Sydney Town Hall for the 2014 Sydney Writers' Festival

In May 2014 Breaking Bad series creator Vince Gilligan appeared in conversation at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in the wake of the acclaimed series’ final episode airing internationally. Asked by a member of the positively worshipful audience whether protagonist Walter White actually dies at the series’ close, or if the finale is in fact an elaborate fantasy sequence, Gilligan replied, “if that is your opinion you’re free to possess it …. My personal opinion is that he died on the floor of that meth lab … but I think it’s an interesting theory. … This belongs to you guys as much, if not more, than it does to me, so it’s open to your interpretation if you choose to let it be.”1

Several points of interest are apparent here: the screenwriter/showrunner elevated to “author” status and invited to headline a leading international writers’ festival; the interpretative significance for screen studies scholars of Gilligan’s off-the-cuff remarks about this much-analyzed series; the relative power of fan and creator to interpret the series’ controversial conclusion; and the concentrically expanding audience for this discussion, whether those present at the event, those listening to its later broadcast on national radio, or those accessing it in perpetuity via YouTube.

Paratextual as they are, Gilligan’s remarks need not necessarily have been encountered in digital form. But those present at the Sydney Town Hall for the event, and the national-scale audience encountering the audio recording subsequently on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National network, are dwarfed by the international reach and user popularity of YouTube, where the clip has already been played over 12,000 times. For a cult television series with the critical plaudits of Breaking Bad, the internet is indisputably the main locus for its discussion, and city- or nationally generated paratexts relating to it will have their longest life and greatest impact in this digital environment.

Clearly, however, Breaking Bad (2008-13) is not an adaptation. We might admit its spin-off prequel Better Call Saul (2015- ), about to go into production at the time of Gilligan’s talk, to the newly capacious definition of “adaptation” given its intertextual relationship with the earlier series. But my interest here is in whether Gilligan’s writers’ festival talk can itself be considered an adaptation—in the sense of being a paratext positioned at the permeable boundary between text and non-text and which determines, mediates, or otherwise subtly influences an audience-member’s encounter with a text. The ambit of what’s considered adaptation has been rapidly expanding since “new-wave” adaptation studies gained energy in the early years of the millennium (Stam and Raengo, A Companion; Stam, Literature through Film; Stam and Raengo, Literature and Film; Hutcheon; Sanders; Leitch; Geraghty; refer Murray 2-4). Given this, and given that neither literary studies nor media studies has a handy extant term to classify these proliferating, virally circulated paratextual forms, the time seems ripe to pose the question: Are these, also, adaptations?

In a legal sense the answer is no, because their production does not require licensing nor sale of subsidiary rights. There is a fair argument that author/screenwriter readings or recorded talks posted online, book trailers, author blogs, podcasts, Twitter feeds, Facebook and Instagram posts are just the stuff of public authorship in the twenty-first century (Skains; Dietz; Murray, “ ‘Selling’ ”). Are they more marketing and publicity paraphernalia than texts in their own right? In an era of self-promoting authors, shrinking publisher publicity budgets and digital publishing, where can the boundary be drawn between artistic creation and commercial apparatus?

But the significance of digital paratexts clearly extends beyond the purely commercial with their potential to profoundly mediate reader interpretations of a text. This can occur in advance of the first encounter (much as do book covers, film trailers, TV promotions) or once an audience-member has already engaged passionately with a text (effectively consecrating or denying certain textual interpretations authorial approval for fannish disputation)2. In this sense they meet French literary theorist Gérard Genette’s definition of paratext as simultaneously inside and outside a text—veritable “thresholds of interpretation” (Paratexts [1987]). Genette’s principal focus was on the “peritext” (the wrappings of the codex such as publisher series, cover design, author name, prefaces, notes) as well as the broader public and private discussion of a text (through author interviews, book reviews, correspondence) he termed “epitext” (5). But his late-twentieth-century-devised concepts bear—even beg—extension into the digital environment.

Traditionally, scholars have declined to dignify such paratexts with the term “adaptations,” preferring to reserve the label for allegedly more substantial, stand-alone repackagings of a creative work such as a feature film or stage play. This overlooks, however, the way in which all paratexts are necessarily selective in their representation of a source text: publisher marketing committees agonizing over the appropriate cover design for each national territory; editorial assistants reworking blurb and catalogue copy; and, certainly, directors of book trailers seeking to entice potential book purchasers with atmospheric choices of image, music and even font are all involved in highlighting (saleable) aspects of a creative work and downplaying others.

We might think of such paratextual phenomena as constituting the far outer edge of adaptation as it radiates out from a source text, generating an array of textual phenomena. Adaptation studies has, since around 2005, been steadily expanding its academic bailiwick across less familiar media (opera, computer gaming, theme-park rides) and into adjacent academic areas (theater and performance, new media studies, cultural studies). Why not also stake a claim for including digital paratexts in what we define as adaptation studies’ object of inquiry? Lest my frontier metaphor begins to sound uncomfortably “manifest destiny”-like, let us reverse the question: Is adaptation studies the imperializing discipline here, or are several fields coming simultaneously to the realization that adaptation is at the core of twenty-first-century culture and therefore unites what they all study? In this case, is not adaptation the lingua franca of the twenty-first-century humanities (and to some extent the social sciences also)?

What issues are raised by such paratexts’ digital form?

If we admit digital paratexts to the ill-policed ambit of adaptation studies, we confront several key questions about their nature, which in turn shine light on some procedural assumptions hardwired into adaptation studies but previously invisible. Problems of ephemerality and loss amid the cacophony of online conversation make digital paratexts hard for scholars to interpret and cite because they lack the (relative) longevity and cultural weight of published books and released films. We may also experience a lingering dis-ease that these paratexts are too trivial, too mundane, or too commercially tainted to count as academically worthwhile. There is, of course, abundant irony here, as studying film adaptations was long considered the slummy, if necessarily bums-on-seats, income-generating sector of traditional English departments. Is it an inverse sign of adaptation’s admission to academic respectability that we now wince at some other object of study as improperly déclassé?

What is the significance of their (often) amateur creation?

Unauthorized adaptations by audiences (fan fiction, fan art, fan films, fan edits of films and film trailers) raise intriguing questions about the limits of authorial control over texts. Even in cases where a digital paratext purports to emanate from an author, questions of authenticity abound given the disembodied nature of much digital communication (e.g., myriad Twitter parody accounts exist for confirmed technophobe Jonathan Franzen, and PR flacks are known to tweet “up-close-and-personal” messages on behalf of celebrity creators). More generally, Web 2.0’s characteristic mass-amateur content creation is fundamentally at odds with literary studies’ (and to a large extent also film studies’) lingering concept of canon—modified perhaps over recent decades to be plural, fuzzy at the edges, and implicitly contestable but nevertheless, by the term’s very definition, selective. Acknowledging the existence and academic validity of amateur-created content pushes literary studies uncomfortably away from a rubric of expert aesthetic evaluation toward a social sciences one of demographic representativeness, which may give even populist-minded cultural studies adherents pause.

What are the challenges in using digital paratexts to teach adaptation studies?

Pedagogical upsides to such paratexts include their contemporaneity and familiarity to students who typically have no qualms regarding literary discussion in digital environments, and who frequently already introduce snippets gleaned from author vlogs and Twitter feeds into tutorial discussions of contemporary literature (presumably to the mystification of their more hoary professors). It is a generational characteristic of digital natives that they do not regard print and screen media as antithetical platforms (a stance adaptation studies has itself long championed, at least in principle).

Yet, how can a protean, constantly evolving text such as collaboratively-written and -edited fan fiction be taught? Adaptation studies has been comfortable since the 1980s with the idea of textual mutation (implicit in adaptation’s favored evolutionary metaphor) but, in practical terms, how can a mutating text be set on a curriculum and assessed? Is the staff member encountering the same text as the student—in which year or unit iteration? Could a conscientious student be in a position to know more about an author’s opinions regarding a text than the presumably “expert” academic staff-member (Is this a problem? Does the author’s opinion matter anyhow?). Is literary studies’ traditional view of the printed text as stable (pace book history) an insuperable impediment to conceiving of text as process? Such a shift requires fundamental rethinking of what it is we are doing as teachers—less handing on a relatively stable cultural patrimony than skills-training for participation in a lively, open-ended process of culture-making (Liu). As Cathy N. Davidson states: “that’s the point of Humanities 2.0. It’s a process, not a product. There is a latest version but never a final one” (713).

And do even the ephemera of literary discussion have their out-group?: Are word-based digital literary paratexts (blogposts, tweets) more academically and pedagogically respectable than visually based ones (Instagram and Pinterest accounts)? Does any such distinction risk reifying Protestant Christianity’s—and thus hermeneutic literary studies’—long valorization of the Word over the image? It would seem to risk replaying literary studies’ old stigmatization of the visual vocabulary of film studies, thus unproductively recreating the split between the two disciplines which long relegated adaptation studies to the institutional periphery. Surely that is a losing proposition at precisely the time we want to lobby for trans-disciplinary centrality.

Digital paratexts are proliferating on the internet, discussions surrounding them are vibrant and at times strikingly well-informed, and they represent an increasingly important public face of literary culture in the digital age. As electronic literature practitioner and theorist Robert Coover remarked as long ago as 1999, the internet is where “the new literary mainstream is being carved.” It behooves adaptation studies to pioneer this territory for academic analysis, relatively unburdened as the discipline has always been with rusted-on loyalty to one specific medium. We can take advantage of our long-dolorous academic outlier status to seize the phenomenon of digital paratexts for interdisciplinary analysis, drawing on our established facility with reading multiple mediums, and our new-found openness to the significance of both texts and context.

I have posed a lot of questions in this piece, so it is appropriate to close with another: Really, what’s stopping us?


1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_-aniHJ6g0 at 57:13.

2 There is an obvious affinity here with Jonathan Gray’s stimulating work on film trailers, television promos, licensed merchandise and spoilers in "Show Sold Separately" (2010), which makes a compelling argument for screen studies to expand its remit to factor in these crucially mediating, but heretofore irredeemably commercially tainted, “off-screen” phenomena (4). They are, Gray summarizes, “not simply add-ons, spinoffs, and also-rans: they create texts, they manage them, and they fill them with many of the meanings that we associate with them” (6).

Works Cited

Coover, Robert. (1999) “Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age.” Keynote address, Digital Arts and Culture conference, Atlanta, GA. Web. http://nickm.com/vox/golden_age.html.

Davidson, Cathy N. (2008) “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions.” PMLA 123:3: 707-17. Print.

Dietz, Laura. “Who Are You Calling an Author? Changing Definitions of Career Legitimacy for Novelists in the Digital Era.” Literary Careers in the Modern Era. Eds Guy Davidson and Nicola Evans. London: Palgrave, 2015. 196-214. Print.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. [1987] Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Literature, Culture, Theory series. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Geraghty, Christine. Now a Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.

Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.

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

Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.

Liu, Alan. (2008) “Literature+ —Re-doing Literary Interpretation: A Pedagogy.” Currents in Electronic Literacy. 2008. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. http://currents.dwrl.utexas.edu/2008/literature-plus.

Murray, Simone. The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation. Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

— — —. (2016) “ ‘Selling’ Literature: The Cultivation of Book Buzz in the Digital Literary Sphere.” Logos Independent Publishing Conference special issue 27.1: 11-21. Print.

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. New Critical Idiom. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Skains, R. Lyle. “The Shifting Author-Reader Dynamic: Online Novel Communities as a Bridge from Print to Digital Literature.” Convergence 16:1 (2010): 95-111. Print.

Stam, Robert. Literature through Film: Realism, Magic, and the Art of Adaptation. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Stam, Robert and Alessandra Raengo, eds. A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

— — —, and Alessandra Raengo, eds. Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Adaptation. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.