Adaptation Study: Some Basic Notes towards a Personal Approach

by Mark Wallace

The good people at the OED define adaptation thusly:

—An altered or amended version of a text, musical composition, etc., (now esp.) one adapted for filming, broadcasting, or production on the stage from a novel or similar literary source. –In recent use freq. modified to specify the medium, as radio, screen adaptation.

There are other definitions of the word in the OED, but none relevant to me, as this is my particular field of interest, and most particularly the type mentioned at the end of the definition: screen adaptation (though this can also be further subdivided into two main categories: TV adaptation and film ditto). The adaptation defined above would appear to invite two types of analysis:

1) The formalist analysis which finds how elements of a narrative can be rendered in a different media. How words can become image/words/sounds. Or how image/words/sounds/ music/ theatrical performance (see Stam on literature as a single-track medium v. film as a multi-track medium, “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation”, in Naremore, Film Adaptation, Rutgers UP, 2000) can be traced back to the words of the source text. When I say “words”, I’m assuming that the source text is literary – and it usually is. The classical adaptation studies approach, from Bluestone (Novels Into Film, 1957) onwards takes literary source texts, and, despite many theorists calling for a broadening of the field, most studies still proceed along the literature-to-screen path.

2) The second type would be (very broadly speaking) a cultural analysis: what are the general external factors which make such an adaptation possible, and make it so that it is as it is. This analysis still needs to include the source text, I would argue (this may seem self-evident, but much recent theorizing on the matter seems to leave little room for any exploration of the specific source-adaptation relationship), but it has several other questions to ask, or from which to choose:

2.1) Firstly, it may ask why now and why here? Is there something in the situation in which the adaptation is produced that invited a revisitation of the source text? A cultural movement, a political happening; or more narrowly, generic developments in film, or even technological developments. Did one or more of these potential factors create a climate within which it became relevant to revisit and reconsider the source text? For example, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was loosely based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: the reason this book was revisited at this time is evidently related to the Vietnam War, in which themes relating to morality, leadership and conduct in foreign conflict with a technologically less-developed people became once again relevant – admittedly, this example is too easy, as Apocalypse Now is updated to Vietnam War times, rather than directly adapting Conrad’s milieu in late 19th-century Congo. This question is still largely focussed on the source text: why is the source text being revisited/ reconsidered now? However, a proper consideration will require much contextual knowledge relating to the chosen sphere, whether it be cultural, political, etc.

2.2) Next the how must be considered. This involves, in the first place, a comparative analysis of source and adaptation. Here I believe Brian McFarlane’s use of Barthesian terminology (Novel to Film [1996]) remains useful. McFarlane differentiates between functions (actions; things that happen; linear combination; chronological; “functionality of doing” ) and indices (concepts; non-linear; “functionality of being”). The former can be reproduced directly in an adaptation in another medium; the latter must be subdivided into informants (pieces of concrete physical information, “ready-made knowledge”), which can be directly transposed; and indices proper (traits of character; psychological traits; atmospherics), which usually are not directly transposable. For example, Bulwer Lytton’s classic opening line “It was a dark and stormy night” performs as an informant, and  provides a specific material description that can be directly rendered in adaptation. But Dickens’ opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is rather an indice proper, for the state it designates is not one so clearly material as that of the weather. There is no immediately apparent correlative image for this statement. An alternative in this case is to render the line in voiceover, and this is sometimes done with adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities (certainly the 1980 BBC series), but generally this is impractical (opening lines lend themselves to being voiced over, but very few films make the voiceover central to the mode of storytelling). Sometimes indices can be rendered by having characters giving voice to them, for example. a psychological state can be disclosed. This, too, however, can be awkward and clumsy. It can affect the integrity of a character –  if, for example, the character isn’t the sort who would disclose his/ her psychological state in that way, or, if the state is given with an eloquence or articulacy that the character doesn’t have, or if the disclosure is simply inappropriate to the situation.

So an objective correlative (Stam) may be sought. Stam thought that it would be possible to map out objective correlatives in an adaptation for each element of the source’s narrative. This is, obviously, overstating it, as adapters won’t take everything, or even try to, as that would be impossible. Or let’s take it that it is possible to provide total adaptation using objective correlatives: but now say a film was too long, and the studio cut it down: would the edited version still have objective correlative total coverage, or would the original cut be the real adaptation? And if the director had cut down the script before filming – would the original script be the only real adaptation? And if the writer himself had done some mental editing before even writing down the script – where then is the adaptation that would give us our objective correlatives? It’s not practical to study adaptations on the assumptions they’ll yield up full objective correlation. Put in Stam’s terms, it’s an impossibility.

But on an individualized, local basis, I would still like to keep the concept of the objective correlative. Some elements of an adaptation may indeed be objective correlatives, or a reasonable material facsimile of that rather metaphysical term. For example, Dickens’ reference at the opening of Oliver Twist to the unnamed woman’s (Oliver’s mother) physical distress is objectively correlated in spectacular fashion in David Lean’ 1948 adaptation with the shots of jagged branches accompanied by the staccato screeching of violins in the storm. This gets Dickens’ point across without words, though to see this scene merely as adaptation is rather an impoverished view. As adaptation, it is surely excessive, taking an unremarkable observation and making it sublime, with all of the elements being called in to portray the woman’s pains. To try and do justice to the scope and vision of the scene we might postulate that it is a metaphor for Dickens’ tale as a whole: for innocence afflicted by the cruelty of nature, especially human nature, before eventually finding a port in the storm, as the eponymous character does with Mr. Brownlow. But, further, we must see the scene as an expression of the power of cinema, the power to call upon the sublime in a fashion unavailable to Dickens. We must analyse the technical virtuosity that allows Lean and his cinematographers to create such a scene. We must ultimately conclude, I feel, that adaptation study doesn’t cover this scene, though it can illuminate aspects of it, and, certainly, there is a correlation between Lean’s opening and Dickens’. In terms of its narrative functions, the scene is just Dickens, but magnified, both in effect and in simple terms of the duration relative to the whole given to it – I mean simply that Lean gives it 3 out of 90 minutes; Dickens half a page out of 500 page. This magnification makes it an appropriate and interesting locus of study, a prime candidate for a spot of close reading. I think this is a simple rule that can profitably be borne in mind: where there is magnification, there we have an appropriate locus for close reading – and, in this analyst’s opinion, all attempts at adaptation study should include diligent close readings of at least one or two scenes.

2.3) The there but not adapted: But we will almost always find areas where the idea of objective correlative will not be applicable: it’s just different; something not in the source. Again, scenes not in the source need to be paid special attention to. We may look at these from an authorial point of view: what is the author of the adaptation trying to do here? Is he marking himself out as different from the source-author? Is he critiquing that author? Is he in any way displaying a Bloomian Anxiety of Influence towards the source-author? Or is it simply an expression of his own aesthetic without reference to the source-author? As an example of the latter, Hitchcock once said of his own adaptation technique, “What I do is I read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.” Or again we may look at it from a cultural point of view: what prevalent social discourses go into the making of a scene not in the source? For example, recent adaptations of Oliver Twist tone down either the villanousness or the Jewishness of Fagin – Lean’s film was criticized for perpetuating Jewish stereotypes (see account in Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture); think, then, of the musical Oliver! which had for the first-time a rather genial and benevolent Fagin, who did “pick a pocket or two” but ends up dancing down the street arm-in-arm with the Dodger – almost the hero of the film. Evidently this needs to be looked at in the context of our increased sensitivity to ethnic stereotyping, as well as the Holocaust. Authorial and cultural considerations, then, but also generic: a film is constituted by its genre, too. Recall the 2008 motion-capture version of A Christmas Carol starring Jim Carrey. This was intended to be  a blockbuster, having the special effects, the budget ( estimated: $200M [IMDB]), the all-star cast, and the technological USP (unique selling point – [perhaps outdated] business jargon) for the role (though its box office was ultimately disappointing). Accordingly, it included a long, climactic scene in which Scrooge (Carrey) is chased around London by a giant snowball – this narrative non-sequitur allowed for an appropriately visually spectacular scene with sweeping panoramas of a snowbound London. I cannot resist intruding my own opinion that this narratively pointless scene detracted greatly from my enjoyment and investment in the film, taking me out of the sequence of events, which in this story is basically psychological (a simple psychology, perhaps, but that is what it is, all the same), and insisting I admire the pure visuality of the scene. I was reminded of Peter Biskind’s account of how Star Wars changed cinema:

Star Wars pioneered the cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story. (Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, Bloomsbury, 2007, p. 343)

The blockbuster is the cinema of moments, and this does not mesh well with the narrative of A Christmas Carol, but it is another factor that constitutes an adaptation. Source-author, adaptation-author, culture, genre: these, then, are the four principal contributing factors that make up an adaptation. This is stated simply, for convenience, but any one of the four can be complicated greatly. What about the source-author’s own sources and his own generic and cultural influences, for one? Here we are getting into questions of adaptation in the second-degree. A further influence on adaptation, hidden, unspoken and unknown. This is a complicated issue which I will get into later. For now, I have reduced my way of reading adaptations – my methodology, if you insist (but it is a word I dislike for its scientism, which I think a poor fit for literary and film criticism)- to its bare bones, for my own future use.

I am by no means a sophisticated theorist of criticism, nor do I mean to be. If I can work out some basic rules of thumb for myself, focussed on workability, avoidance of preconceptions, and openness to individual cases, with little thought for sophistication, I will be happy with that,  and consider it a thesis well spent.