Original versus Adaptation. The Problematic Notion of Faithfulness

Term Paper 2014 15 Pages

Didactics - English - Miscellaneous




1. Adaptation: Challenges and Possibilities
1.1 Adaptation as Ever-Changing Delineation
1.2 Transferring Content

2. Faithfulness: Criteria and Problems
2.1 Faithfulness as Authoritative Restriction
2.2 Novelizing Movies

3. Conclusion



The reuse of ideas already in existence – be it in parts, as a whole or as a basis for further development – seems to be a creative practice as old as art itself and is most commonly referred to as ‘adaptation’ (c.f. e.g. Naremore 2000, Hutcheon 2004, Scholz 2009). Yet, the exact properties denoted by this term often remain unclear, resulting in either an almost extreme narrowing or broadening of its qualities and leading to an ongoing discussion of its social and cultural value, authority and purpose (c.f. Neher 2014, Bazin 2000, Ray 2000). However, since the emergence of cinema, one facet of adaptation theory appears to dominate the topic’s recent discussion in both popular and academic writing, namely movie adaptations based on literary originals, offering rather striking examples for the practice’s challenges and problems, but also illustrating the numerous possibilities it provides (c.f. e.g. Fried 1987, Hutcheon 2004, Naremore 2000, Scholz 2009).

This paper primarily deals with a special aspect of these discussions: the faithfulness of movie adaptations. Seemingly, the degree of loyalty which cinematic adaptations display towards their literary originals functions as the bone of contention in many, presumably even most of the often heated debates centered around this part of a generally broad discourse – as, interestingly, non-scholarly audiences and academic writers alike tend to judge an adaptation’s quality on the basis of its, however generated, faithfulness to an original (c.f. e.g. Bazin 2000, Andrew 2000, Ray 2000, Stam 2000). In preparation for this paper’s evaluation, tackling questions such as what faithfulness denotes, how it is culturally and philosophically valued and how it is achieved in the first place, the term ‘adaptation’ will be examined by briefly retracing its historic origin and pointing out its many forms and varieties through some practical examples. Additionally, the challenges of transferring content from one mode of presentation into another will be analyzed, as well as the difficulties and advantages a screenwriter is faced with, including a discussion about the rather problematic notion of authorship and featuring statements by some writers whose works were adapted (c.f. Neher 2014). It will be illustrated, why notions of faithfulness and fidelity to an original do not serve as ideal starting points for a utile, critical and socio-cultural discussion and how these parameters both inhibit and, yet, shape the creation of adaptations and the overall manner of their perception (c.f. e.g. Stam 2000: 54-57, Naremore 2000: 2f. a. Ray 2000: 44f.). Finally, the paper’s conclusions will be wrapped up by shortly approaching the argument from its opposite point of view, namely the novelization of movies, critically evaluating the rather debased cultural status of this particular kind of literature (c.f. Mahlknecht 2012).

1. Adaptation: Challenges and Possibilities

When considering the term ‘adaptation’ in its broadest sense, it can very well be stated that it describes a practice which is “neither new nor rare in Western culture” (Hutcheon 2004: 108). In fact, presenting similar or even identical ideas and topics by varying means appears to be humanity’s most commonly used tool of artistic creation over the course of history, including for example biblically inspired artworks and literature crafted during the Middle Ages, but also more secular outcomes such as Shakespeare’s plays, many aspects of architecture, and, in modern days, film (c.f. ibid.: 108f. a. 110, Ray 2000: 42 a. Andrew 2000: 29f.). Due to the almost traditional character of this practice, a sheer untraceable chain of relations built up, accumulating “cross-references [and] borrowings from movies, books, and every other form of representation” (Naremore 2000: 12) – every object that can serve as an original for an adaptation, which, in turn, might actually be anything, is very likely to be an adaptation in itself already, a phenomenon which is often referred to as ‘intertextuality’ (c.f. e.g. ibid.: 12-14, Neher 2014: 119f. a. Stam 2000: 64f.). Considering the aspect of movie adaptations, Neher impressively illustrates this notion by giving examples of choices made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stating that

the distinction between an original and adapted work is [not] always clear. In 2000, Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay thanks to a credit on the film that cheekily stated it was based on Homer’s Odyssey. [...] The Coens were perhaps prompting the age-old debate as to whether any artwork, especially a narratively driven artwork, is ever truly original (Neher 2014: 119).

Neher further illustrates the difficulties of identifying an original source with the Academy’s reception of Before Midnight, a movie which is part of a trilogy and was therefore “placed [...] in the Adapted category because its characters had appeared in the two previous films” (ibid.: 120). Similarly, the movie Lincoln was also considered an adaptation, even though only small parts of it were taken from a distinct book, while some were based on historic documents and most were completely fictitious (c.f. ibid.).

Consequently, it can be stated that there is usually more involved in adapting previously used notions than simply repeating them – and furthermore, as many authors point out, adaptations can serve as overwhelmingly more than mere copies of a however natured original (c.f. ibid.: 29-36, Hutcheon 2004: 109, Scholz 2009: 658 a. Stam 2000: 62f.). As this observation, which will be examined in the following chapter, seems to offer an almost innumerable amount of possibilities with regard to form and content of adaptations, it also brings along such questions as of how to transfer an original’s character to another medium, how to culturally evaluate and value it, but also how to pinpoint a clear source of origin in the first place, as mentioned above already (c.f. Andrew 2000: 29, Scholz 2009: 679 a. Neher 2014: 119f. a. 124). While this is true for all adaptations, this paper’s analysis is mostly concerned with movie adaptations based on literary originals in order to offer comparable results, but also due to the importance which popular as well as academic writing ascribes to this specific aspect of adaptation theory, especially regarding the problem of faithfulness which will be examined further down (c.f. e.g. Bazin 2000, Andrew 2000, Ray 2000, Stam 2000).

1.1 Adaptation as Ever-Changing Delineation

While Hutcheon argues that “adaptation joins imitation, allusion, parody, travesty, pastiche, and quotation as popular creative ways of deriving art from art” (Hutcheon 2004: 109), Stam’s observation stating that “adaptation theory has available a whole constellation of tropes – translation, reading, dialogization, cannibalization, transmutation, transfiguration, and signifying – each of which sheds light on a different dimension of adaptation” (Stam 2000: 62) seems to propose that all of the other creative tools listed by Hutcheon are in fact themselves forms of adaptation. Furthermore, it also indicates that each and every source is capable of providing material for an endless amount of adaptations in the course of time, offering new approaches and interpretations (c.f. ibid.: 62f. a. 68). When considering one text an original source, its adaptations may thus acquire various forms, often differing with regard to details such as a shift of focus, introducing a new point of view, changing the story’s temporal setting or other creative means (c.f. ibid.: 62f. a. 68f., Scholz 2009: 657f. a. Hutcheon 2004: 109). To varying degrees, the narratives derived by an original might even confront it in a critical manner, thereby challenging what is culturally considered to be its very basis or essence – the latter one being an especially difficult term which will be discussed in the following chapter (c.f. Stam 2000: 61 a. 63, Hutcheon 2004: 109f. a. Andrew 2000: 32f.).

In terms of movie adaptations, an example for an adaptation’s explicitly critical approach is given by Stam, who illustrates how a film version was “inspired by hostility to the source novel” (Stam 2000: 63): by means of satire, parody and sarcasm, it effectively visualizes aspects of the historical narrative which the original neglects or even conceals, thereby almost completely reversing the book’s intent, including an utterly different ending (c.f. ibid.: 63f.). Scholz gives an example of an original’s alteration which apparently was not as much motivated by overt critique as by an adjustment to a modern, especially female audience: in 1995, the movie version of Sense and Sensibility featured, in addition to the two sister who are the novel’s main characters, a third sister, “reveal[ing] a function that goes beyond a mere aesthetic modification for purposes of narrative interest [but rather] provide[s] a third dimension of female identity” (Scholz 2009: 664). It can thus be stated that adaptations also function on a social, occasionally socio-critical level and, as they apparently serve as a means to “actualize or concretize ideas” (Hutcheon 2004: 109), they offer insights into societies, their sense of self and their culture as well (c.f. Scholz 2009: 657f. a. 679 a. Naremore 2000: 14). However, Scholz argues that monetary and other rather practical needs and goals are involved in the making of many adaptations as well, concluding that such interests “mold the ways texts are transformed into other media and received by audiences in very concrete, very materialistic ways” (Scholz 2009: 679).[1] The creation of adaptations may thus be rooted in artistic or cultural needs, but their actual performance is capable of affecting an audience’s consideration of social realities as well, regarding, for example, “power relations based upon such variables as gender, nationality, and class” (ibid.).

Apart from their powerful artistic, cultural, social and materialistic status, adaptations can also work as a pedagogical device, due to their often simplified structure; as Bazin points out, the filmed version of The Idiot might not be a rewarding cinematic experience on its own, but, nevertheless, able to introduce its audience to Dostoyevsky’s complicated body of thought as expressed in the original novel (c.f. Bazin 2000: 22). This is not necessarily a very recent idea – in fact, academic writing of 1940 already acknowledged the importance of teaching students how to critically watch and select movies, especially, but not exclusively, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the literature these movies were based on (c.f. Reid 1940). However, as Naremore recognizes, such handling of adaptations and adaptation theories is then used as a way of teaching celebrated literature by other means [and, thus,] it tends to be narrow in range, inherently respectful of the ‘precursor text’ and constitutive of a series of binary oppositions that poststructuralist theory has taught us to deconstruct: literature versus cinema, high culture versus mass culture, original versus copy (Naremore 2000: 1f.).



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original adaptation problematic notion faithfulness



Title: Original versus Adaptation. The Problematic Notion of Faithfulness