On Žižek, Adaptation and Fragments of the Whole

by Mark Wallace

[T]he goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original but to supplement it, to treat it as a fragment of the broken vessel and produce another fragment that, rather than imitating the original, will fit it as one fragment of a broken Whole may fit with another. A good translation will thus destroy the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness, rendering this Wholeness visible as a fake. One can even say that, far from being an attempt to restore the broken vessel, translation is the very act of breaking. (Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, Verso, 2014, p. 143-144)

Žižek’s view of translation as a fragment to fit together with the equally fragmented original is one he owes to Walter Benjamin (as he acknowledges in the passage quoted above), and is also one he applies to adaptations. Indeed, the one substantial piece of analysis he give apropos this passage is of an adaptation, not a translation, focusing on different versions of the play Antigone. Žižek leaves aside the possibility that adaptation and translation may be theoretically distinct concepts, but certainly there is a school of thought that sees them as analogous. So, provisionally admitting this point, how productive is Zizek’s approach? Can we conceive of an adaptation which operates by destroying the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness? An adaptation which is a fragment and which exposes the fragmentary nature of the source?

These (imagined) variations should not be read as distortions  some lost primordial original, but as fragments of a totality which would have consisted of the matrix of all possible permutations (in the sense in which Levi-Strauss claimed that all interpretations of the Oedipus myth, inclusive of Freud’s, are part of the myth). Should we then endeavour to reconstruct the full matrix? What we should rather do is locate the traumatic point, the antagonism, that remains untold and around which all the variations and fragments circulate. (p. 146)

It is an idealistic view of adaptation, one that posits a unity behind each avatar, a unity that cannot be found in any individual work, but only uncovered by the scholar. It is the scholar who communicates the traumatic point untold in the fragments.

My own approach is in some ways the opposite to Žižek’s. When you track versions of the same story across time, what you find is not one single traumatic kernel underpinning the narrative, but a predominantly unchanging narrative line that is used as support for reflection on themes that do not predominantly come from the source, but from cultural influences. Adaptations prove that the ideology of a text is not dependent on the story being told. The source provides a narrative framework more than a philosophical or ideological framework.

It may perhaps seem counter-intuitive to think that the same storyline can be used for substantially different ideological purposes. One clear example can be seen in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, and the 2007 BBC series Oliver Twist (adapted by Sarah Phelps, latterly better known for her Agatha Christie adaptations, And Then There Were None (2015), etc.). In my essay “Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)” (available in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Brigitte Le Juez, Nina Shiel, Mark Wallace, Common Ground, 2018), I discuss the ideological shift in the story between the two versions in question, even though at the level of narrative structure there are only minor differences.

By going through the main characters in the narrative (Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Rose, Monks – I don’t go into Oliver himself in detail, as there was only space to study the most relevant characters to my argument), I demonstrate (at least to my own satisfaction) that through changes in presentation of characters rather than in narrative functions, Phelps manages to invert much of Dickens’ embedded worldview in Oliver Twist.  To take a brief excerpt from my essay, I discuss the character of Fagin, who emerges in Phelps’ version as a victim in ways Dickens never envisaged:

This is most striking with regard to the character of Fagin. John notes in a brief overview of the series that Fagin is placed as a “victim of discriminatory social circumstances” throughout.* This climaxes in the trial scene, in which Fagin (played by Timothy Spall) is sentenced to death by Judge Fang, who further makes him the offer of a reprieve if he will convert to Christianity: “Fall to your knees before this assembly and take Christ as your saviour” (5; 22:15). Fagin refuses and becomes a martyr for the Jewish religion. The exchange is not found in Dickens, and Fagin’s principled refusal to forsake his religion contrasts with the greedy opportunism of Dickens’ villainous character. The offer made by Fang cannot be explained with reference to nineteenth-century legal practices, either.

Rather, Fagin’s trial scene constitutes an argument directed against the ideology of the source text from a presentist perspective, from which perspective ideologies of religious tolerance and idealization of the socially or politically marginalized or oppressed provides a basis from which the narrative is re-constructed, said re-construction incorporating a dialectic between source and adaptation.

* The quoted phrase is from Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 223.

Tim Spall

Timothy Spall as Fagin in Oliver Twist (2007)

So there’s a whole different problematic about the character of Fagin. Fagin is the most obviously troublesome character in the novel, as the anti-semitic element of the depiction has long been noted (I go into the history of the character in the essay), but other characters like Sikes, Nancy and Monks are also altered in revealing ways. Sikes is still brutal, but tortured and sensitive; Nancy is much more kindly and maternal towards Oliver; Monks is fleshed out: he wants to marry Rose, but goes about securing this match in a particularly evil way.  They all still behave in ways that move the plot along the same lines as Dickens, but we feel very differently about them. Each character has inscribed into them not only the source material, but also other features which are often in tension with the source, and which in analysis often prove to be traceable to ideological issues of wider significance. It’s in the spaces between Dickens’ Nancy and Phelps’ Nancy that we can find out something significant about how we constructs narratives of human life. We don’t write stories or understand people as Dickens did: even if an adaptor tried to, there would be tension there. With Phelps, the tension is upfront: she wants to challenge Dickens, particularly with regard to Fagin:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye. [“Behind the Scenes” feature on Oliver Twist, BBCDVD2572, 2008]

Thus, I’m unconvinced by Žižek’s emphasis on a traumatic core common to source and adaptation. Trauma is evidently personal and contextual. The trauma in Phelps’ retelling is precisely the absence of trauma in Dickens. It is Dickens’ perceived callousness which provokes Phelps into attributing trauma to Fagin.  And if one was to follow Oliver Twist around the world and find other adaptations, you would find other sources of trauma. Many would engage in arguments with other elements of Dickens’ text, aside from the anti-Semitism. Or, if not engage in arguments, instead maintain silence over the elements which provide an ideological jolt. So in difference we can find those elements which demand analysis. It does not necessarily follow that these differences point to a commonality at a deeper level, a shared trauma. Analysis does not have to lead to a higher-level synthesis. The idea that it does is the Hegelian coming out in Žižek .