Adaptation, Intermediality and Narrative

by Mark Wallace

Academic investigation into culture and the arts is characterized by a proliferation of terms which seem, to the untheoretical eye, to mean and do much the same thing. Yet each term has its strict adherents and schools, and often two more or less synonymous terms are studied independently. Such is generally the situation with “adaptation” and “intermediality”.

Adaptation deals for the most part with issues of intermediality. In theory, an adaptation can be of a work from the same medium, as is the position in Hutcheon’s influential book. One can see Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as an adaptation of Jane Eyre, for example. In practice, adaptations as studied are almost always  intermedial, moving from one medium to another, most commonly novel to film.

Intermediality itself is to a large extent a continuation of the longer-established Interart Studies, as Irina Rajewsky notes in “Intermediality, Interetextuality, and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality”. For Rajwesky, intermediality is distinguished not by having new subjects of study (digital media, etc.) but by providing “new ways of solving problems”. These “new ways” are too heterogeneous and broad for Rajewsky’s taste, and she favours a narrow definition of the term:

In literary studies as well as in such fields as art history, music, theater, and film
studies, there is a repeated focus on an entire range of phenomena qualifying
as intermedial. Examples include those phenomena which for a long time have
been designated by terms such as transposition d’art, filmic writing, ekphrasis,
musicalization of literature, as well as such phenomena as film adaptations of literary works, “novelizations,” visual poetry, illuminated manuscripts, Sound Art,
opera, comics, multimedia shows, hyperfiction, multimedial computer “texts” or
installations, etc. Without a doubt, all of these phenomena have to do in some
way with a crossing of borders between media and are in so far characterized by a
quality of intermediality in the broad sense.

Rajewsky attempts to differentiate between different kinds of intermediality, rather than accept the diffuse concept employed by others.

1. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of medial transposition (as for example
film adaptations, novelizations, and so forth): here the intermedial quality has to
do with the way in which a media product comes into being, i.e., with the transformation of a given media product (a text, a film, etc.) or of its substratum into
another medium. This category is a production-oriented, “genetic” conception of
intermediality; the “original” text, film, etc., is the “source” of the newly formed
media product, whose formation is based on a media-specific and obligatory intermedial transformation process.

2. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of media combination, which includes
phenomena such as opera, film, theater, performances, illuminated manuscripts,
computer or Sound Art installations, comics, and so on, or, to use another terminology, so-called multimedia, mixed media, and intermedia. The intermedial quality of this category is determined by the medial constellation constituting a given media product, which is to say the result or the very process of combining at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation.

3. Intermediality in the narrow sense of intermedial references, for example references in a literary text to a film through, for instance, the evocation or imitation of certain filmic techniques such as zoom shots, fades, dissolves, and montage editing. Other examples include the so-called musicalization of literature, transposition d’art, ekphrasis, references in film to painting, or in painting to photography, and so forth.

Category one equates roughly to adaptation, while category three could be considered to be a form of allusion. Thus adaptation is contained within intermediality (in theory). Rajewsky in this article is really only interested in drawing out the third category, wherein a work in one medium evokes at a certain point another medium. This category is more or less by definition, not relevant to adaptation study, as adaptation is, according to Hutcheon again, always an “extended, deliberate, announced revisitation of a particular work”. The extended is key here, as it excludes any form of brief allusion, transmedial or no.

Reading Rajewsky, one is struck by the though that the central difference between adaptation and intermediality as fields of study has been the centrality of narrative to the former. Adaptation has a long history of engaging deeply with narrative. The irony is that many of the more recent scholars of adaptation have decried this very engagement. The centrality of narrative to adaptations studies is at once its unique selling point and  a symptom of a field that has failed to move on. The question is how to move on without losing the identity of the field and falling into an already existing field. The other question is whether theoretical advancement is really a desideratum in any case. We could develop more complex theories, or we could use old-fashioned narrative theories to reach new insights and build an identity for adaptation.