Impure Cinema, Formalism and Relating to Other Scholars

One of my weaknesses as a supposed academic researcher – my most important weakness, I would say – is that I don’t sufficiently engage with academic research in my field, mainly because I don’t see my research as being oriented by a field inhabited by a select number of interconnected academics. I dutifully acknowledge the field, but it doesn’t interest me to engage strongly with the internecine disputes of academics, and I strongly believe that research in the humanities is incommensurably more valuable when it engages on a more general level. Such an attitude, however, does somewhat create a rod for my own back, as it were, because it means that I am never at the level of methodological sophistication that more committed disciplinarians are. My work, therefore, interesting and insightful as it may or may not be, is always problematic. A great problem for me would be if it wasn’t problematic, because this would mean that I had been subsumed by the field, losing any pretence to individuality. Aaargh!

Nevertheless, I am making a concerted effort to engage in a more sustained way with respected figures in the fields I flit around in. To this end, I have been looking into Cartmell and Whelehan’s Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema (2010) [I always think of this book with title and subtitle reversed. The official title is too generic to be remembered. Hence the title of this post referring to the subtitle]. I read parts of this before, but only retained the Venn diagram of methods of adaptation studies, and referred to it in my thesis, approvingly, as a move towards pluralistic methodologies, of which I, following (as I claimed) Paul Feyerabend, approved. But, of course, there’s more to the book than this. Cartmell and Whelehan centralize the notion of “process”, following Thomas Leitch. This is announced pretty explicitly as an anti-formalist move (p. 1) – so much, then, for some of my more formalist efforts, such as my post on narrative functions in Doyle’s “Charles Augustus Milverton”. Of course, I knew this already: formalism is not “in” in adaptation studies. But a truly pluralistic methodology would not a priori subordinate formalism to analysis of process. If we abstract the process from the empirical form that results, are we not being too, well, abstract; too theoretical, and Cartmell and Whelehan’s own point is that adaptation study and teaching need to be brought into closer communion. Teaching adaptations will require formal adaptations, not just abstract processes. So theoretical advance, not for the first time in the history of human thought, is at the cost of wider engagement.

At the heart of much recent debate is the established centrality to the field of the literature-to-film adaptation. Cartmell and Whelehan write that “the further one moves from locating the heart of adaptation as residing on the literary/screen nexus, the more boundless and indefinable the area becomes” (12). This distances them from the more radical progressivism of some other scholars. It is a common sense approach, certainly: the field has been built on the literature/film nexus, and there is no guarantee that divorced from this nexus the field will have any coherent existence. But does it not argue also for the centrality of narrative (i.e. formalism) in that the centrality of sophisticated and sequential narrative is the thing that separates film and literature from almost any other art and links them to each other?

Cartmell and Whelehan also claim that “studying adaptations produces something new that neither belongs to film nor literature” (14). I have said similar things but – silly me – I have henceforth not cited these more established scholars as ballast for my opinions. I have tended to rely on Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the Past (1989) for these arguments, a rather left-field choice as she’s not an adaptation scholar and has not, I think, ever been used in the field. But she says some good things about how reading literature of the past challenges our preconceptions, and I add that this tension between past and presents mindsets is embodied in adaptation, where authorship belongs to both past and present, and to neither. So here I am on the same page as Cartmell and Whelehan, albeit unwittingly.

Finally, Cartmell and Whelehan note the possibility of adaptation as an act of criticism. Andrew Davies’ screenplay for the 2005 BBC series Bleak House served for them (being openly anecdotal here) as an effective criticism of Dickens’ novel, such that on rereading the novel, they found the narrative voice of Esther unbearable. I found Esther unbearable from first reading, I must say, before Davies wrote his adaptation. But in any case the idea of the critical adaptation is one I have paid attention to – again, without noting the proximity of my view to that of Cartmell and Whelehan. I am currently engaged in rewriting an article on the BBC Oliver Twist (2007), which is I think a much starker example of a critical adaptation than Davies’. This Twist convicts Dickens of anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, class, bias; it redeems Sikes, heroizes Fagin, displaces all the evil onto the upper-class Monks, gives us a black Nancy to atone for Dickens’ lack of black representation (to which I would make the point – what about Irish representation? There were many more Irish than blacks in Dickens’ London, but there is no serious Irish representation in his novels). So here, too, I think there are parallels between my approach and that of Cartmell and Whelehan. But, again,  I would question how such a reading as mine of Twist could be made without formalism. I would hope to demonstrate that to lose formalism in the shake-up in adaptations studies would represent a retrograde step, or a step into on-man’s-land. It is on the issue of formalism that I am at the greatest distance from contemporary scholars in adaptation.