Monday, 13 September 2010

On Adaptation

In March, I wrote about what constitutes a medium. At the time, I fully intended to follow up (quite shortly) with a post on adaptation, but (as so often happens) other topics of interest popped up, and the post was delayed and postponed. Until now, that is.

Later this week, I will be speaking on the topic of adaptation at the City Library here in Göteborg as an introduction to a screening of the animated film How To Train Your Dragon aimed at school teachers. As the film (as oh so many others, including the three others that are screened this autumn) is an adaptation (of Cressida Cowell's book How to Train Your Dragon), this subject will be the topic of my introduction. And needless to say, perhaps, I figured I would put some words down on the subject in here as well, while I have it fresh in my mind anyway.

In my March post, I differentiated between material and non-material mediation, and counted media like music, literature, comics and film as non-material in that they function more like languages (with a particular sort of grammar, which definitely serves to create medium specific boundaries of possibilities for these categories) while nevertheless depending on other, material media to express themselves. In short, the argument was, and is, that it is often possible to mediate non-material media through more than one material medium (e.g. the medium of film can be expressed or accessed via celluloid film, video tape, digital video, etc; the medium of music can be expressed or accessed via vinyl discs, cassette tapes, CDs, etc). This is, of course, not to suggest that the move from one material medium to another cannot affect the content at any given time, or even that it cannot affect a non-material medium itself. Clearly developments of new material media have had huge impacts on the medium of film, but these impacts and effects differ from whatever happens when content moves between non-material media.

For the sake of clarity, I suggested that we apply the term re-mediation (which I am sure we will talk more about at some point in the future) to the transfer of content or material between material media, and that we use the term adaptation to address the transfer or translation between non-material media.

In a much earlier post from last year (while discussing the fact that comics are a medium and not a genre), I briefly brought up adaptation theorist Brian McFarlane, and it would seem appropriate to return to him here, albeit a bit more in-depth than last time. McFarlane makes a useful distinction between what he calls transfer and adaptation proper. Transfer refers to all elements in a narrative that are medium non-specific. In simple narratological terms (something which we will definitely be returning to in the future), this would be elements of story. Here we could place things like character, plot, setting, other rather basic information; in other words, the raw components of any narrative. For instance, there is nothing about the character of a blue-eyed man in shorts, who is always angry, that cannot be captured equally well in film, comics or literature (which is of course not to say that such perfect transfer always happens – and we will return to that shortly). However, as soon as these elements get told and consequently embedded in any given narrative, there will arise new elements that are medium specific. These more often than not have to with how a story is told; not just the structural organisation of it but, for instance, the difference between how a film can show the audience an entire landscape in a single shot while a novel requires extended narration with specific focus given to details at any given time (or, vice versa: how a novel through verbal narration can bring story time to a complete halt and discuss a single detail in the tapestry in-depth while a film will more or less have to resort to freeze frames and metafictional devices to emulate the same, or perhaps more aptly a similar, effect).

The narrative elements that are medium specific cannot be transferred in McFarlane's terminology; they require to be somehow translated from one language to another. This act of translation is what he means by adaptation proper.

Now, it is not unimportant in this context to note that adaptation theory and theorists have moved away from questions of fidelity (questions that admittedly are still ever of interest, e.g., whenever someone watches the film version of a beloved book). The argument here is that any film (or any type of adaptation, really) has more than one intertext. That is, like any other text, an adaptation is tied to a number of cultural texts and stories, with which it interacts on a variety of levels. This is an interesting and useful argument (no doubt about it), especially since it allows us to look more deeply into processes of multiple adaptations of the same text (i.e. how such an adaptation often ends up not only referencing the source text but also commenting the preceding sequence of adaptations) or how an adaptation often ends up referencing its own contextual (historical and cultural) time frame while relating to the source text. In short, I find that this idea definitely has its merits.

But— (there is always a but is there not?) the argument also has a weak spot, in my humble opinion. The fact is that while an adaptation has several intertexts (just as any other text), it is equally true that one of these intertexts has been put in the spotlight and given an added focus. It is a truism that there is no necessary equality between intertexts in an text, but in an adaptation there is a given notion that the source text has a privileged position. If it did not, if the source text was in fact merely one of many intertexts, why would we single it out and call the adaptation an adaptation in the first place?

This is where McFarlane's distinction becomes of the essence. After all, it is an undeniable fact that there are (more often than not) changes and differences between a source text and an adaptation. While questions of fidelity in themselves are not necessarily of (at the very least) academic interest, I would argue that the reasons for why things change are of interest both for academics and the general public. Using McFarlane's distinction we can consider which of the differences between any given source text and its adaptation(s) have been susceptible to transfer and which have required adaptation proper. With this knowledge in hand, we can then consider matters of translation inherent in adaptation proper – have these acts of translation been successful, artistic, inventive, clumsy, brilliant, missed the mark, hit the spot, etc.? At the same time, we can note differences in material that could have been transferred (because let us face it, far from all the differences in adaptations stem from adaptation proper) and consider what has caused these changes.

For instance, film is a notoriously expensive artistic medium (most likely the most expensive one we have around – thus far at least). Therefore financial factors will at least affect any adaptation into film. Then we have the question of cultural context. If a source text is produced in one culture and adapted into another, this too will mark the adaptation and quite likely be responsible for at least some of the differences. The passage of time (as in the adaptation of a historical source text) will also be a possible, and quite likely, factor to consider. Then we have issues of format (which includes length) and intended audience. The list goes on, of course, but I would like to add artistic ego as a last but not least category.

Needless to say, artistic endeavours do entail a fair amount of artistic ego, but in adaptations this is a factor which is a very double-edged sword. It can be the difference between an adapter wanting to use his or her creative energies to transfer as much as can possibly be transferred from the source text and properly adapt in as faithful a manner possible that which cannot be transferred and an adapter wanting to "fix" things in the source text, to be more artistic than the original artist or put his or her fingerprints all over the place. Do not get me wrong, there are great adapters out there, many of whom have made their marks on the finished product while remaining very true to their source text; but mostly I think the ones who manage that are those who aim to do a good job. Few if any people (in whatever medium) have ever made a mark by aiming to make a mark. But in all honesty, this point seems to be heading into a completely different area, which we may well return to on a different occasion.

To wrap things up today, I would just like to say that there are many valid reasons for changes in an adaptation to occur. Some changes are necessitated by the shift between media; as McFarlane points out, some medium specific elements require to be translated. Other changes come about from other types of necessities (e.g. getting an 800 pages novel into a 2–3 hours film will, most likely, require subplots being cut, some supporting or minor characters being cut or in some cases amalgamated, etc., in order to get a watchable film), and some will come out of no necessity at all. Surely it is not unreasonable to discuss and delineate such categories of change? If nothing else than to determine which factors alters (if only ever so subtly) the contents of any given story in an adaptation.

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