Adaptation Study: A Very Basic Schema

by Mark Wallace

This blog hereby posits that the content of any adaptation can be conveniently seen to be drawn from four sources: source text, direct author, generic influences, cultural influences. I will now briefly delineate them in relation to screen adaptation (film and TV).

Source text: This is the category which has traditionally received most attention. The classic approach, since George Bluestone’s pioneering monograph Novels Into Film (1957) has been the source-adaptation comparison. More recently, this approach has been very heavily criticized, seen to be productive of a narrowly fidelity-based analysis, in which the adaptation is overtly or tacitly condemned for any failure to be exactly the same as the book. Yet this remains a privileged category in adaptation study, because it is the category which is unique to adaptation. An adaptation is defined by the proximity of its relationship to a specific anterior text. Therefore, criticisms of fidelity-based analysis should not be broadened out to include all source-adaptation comparison.

Direct author: In this and the subsequent categories, adaptation does not differ fundamentally from other works of film and TV. Authorship is a complex question in film: is the author to be identified with the director ( a la French auteur theory), the writer, the actor of the part if a specific character is in question; what amount of authorial independence can be ascribed to other contributors, such as composer or costume designer? No decision can be made independently of the specific adaptation to be studied. Perhaps director, co-screenwriter and initiator of the project David Lean is an auteur, and the author of the 1948 Oliver Twist; but what of the 2007 BBC Oliver Twist, where the project was initiated at boardroom level, then assigned a director and a screenwriter, who worked separately?

Generic influences: A category that has tended to be downplayed in adaptation studies, but one of exceptional importance in almost any artwork. The generic status of a film or TV program is often a complicated question, but all may be presumed to be placing themselves within certain prevailing paradigms of screen narratives. These paradigms change over time, and are in any case somewhat different to those of literary narrative. Let us take for example the paradigm of the Hollywood blockbuster: an explosive physical climax is necessary – action and violence, explosions and car chases. This has odd results in the 2009 motion-capture adaptation of A Christmas Carol (dir. Robert Zemeckis, perf. Jim Carrey). Dickens’ narrative, of course, has no such development, being concerned with the moral awakening of the central character, achieved through ghostly visions of the future (his lonely death, the Cratchits’ tribulations, etc.). But the film involves a protracted and frenetic chase scene in which Scrooge is chased through the streets of London by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who rides a carriage. There is no narrative element suggesting such an episode in the novella, so it seems it is a purely generic addition – genre as constitutive of narrative, at the expense of the source text.

The Wild Card:

One could parse this point a little more, pointing out that A Christmas Carol was made using motion-capture, and was at the cutting-edge of expensive technological developments – the narratively incongruous chase scene was not wholly necessitated by genre, but even more so by the obligation to show what the technology can do. Not just everyday action such as that signified by Dickens’ narrative, but Hollywood action. This goes to show how complex is any judgement on the origins of content in any work, and the need to follow the path suggested by the individual case. Technology is not widely influential enough to warrant a separate entry in my schema, but there’s always a wild card somewhere or other.

Cultural Influences: The last is a rather wide catch-all, designed to allow for inclusion of material that references, overtly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously, events, trends, ideas, and structures of feeling (to use Raymond Williams’ term) particular to the spatial or temporal locus within which the adaptation is being made – or the locus within which it was made to be distributed, if there is a distinction. This is a tricky category: to take the above example from A Christmas Carol; one may decide to go beyond the generic explanation, and suggest that the reason for such a dominant pattern of filmic narrative structure is cultural: people nowadays have short attention spans/ no appreciation for narrative or human interest/ propensity for violent spectacle. These are generalizations that are easy to make, but will rely either on a large body of research empirically demonstrating the tendency alleged, or, more simply, citing a pre-existing reference work that establishes such a point in a reasonably convincing manner – but by “convincing”, I really mean that you will use a text that has good cultural capital within the academic world (assuming this is the world you’re writing for).


These are the points, I argue, that need to be kept in mind when performing an analysis of a screen adaptation. The schema aims to ensure that the source text is not used as an ur-text to which the adaptation is ceaselessly compared and against which it is judged. The source text is retained as an important point of reference, but a further framework is provided to enable a broader view of the adaptation and to allow for wider interpretations to be given to the adaptation in toto or any relevant part thereof.  All in all, it’s a mighty piece of work.  I will apply the schema to a specific case in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned!