Transfer and Adaptation

For all of the criticism over the overuse of ‘fidelity’ in criticism of film adaptations, I wonder: does it play a larger role than McFarlane allows when discussing what constitutes a ‘true’ adaptation? He introduces the concept of ‘transfer’ into the mix to differentiate narrative elements in a text that are independent of the text’s form from those that are dependent.  The former can be transferred from novel to film, while the latter can not.  The base elements of a story seem to be transferrable…if in a novel boy meets then loses girl, these events can be transferred to a film as is.  He looks to Barthes in defining such elements as ‘cardinal functions’.  This concept seems quite similar to one brought up in Andrew’s essay, specifically that of fidelity of physical transformation, where the skeleton of the story is seen regardless of format.  Or rather, it is preserved when adapting from one to the other.  McFarlane notes, somewhat derisively  that the “film-maker bent on ‘faithful’ adaptation must, as a basis for such an enterprise, seek to preserve the major cardinal functions” (14).  Cardinal functions serve on the axis of syntagm–the horizontal axis of positioning–where the rules of the story are structured.

The vertical, paradigmatic, axis–that of substitution (or metaphor)–is evidenced by integrational functions called ‘indices’, are concerned with physical and psychological identifiers for elements of a story.  Per McFarlane they influence pervasively rather than linearly and refer not “to operations but to a functionality of being” (13).  While some of these indices are transferable to film (such as physical descriptions) those that “relate to concepts such as character and atmosphere” (14) are better suited for adaptation.  Adaptation then seems to be the reformulation of a paradigm appropriate only for one mode into one appropriate for the mode of the adaptation.  A concept which again seems to echo Andrew, especially in his discussion of the fidelity of spiritual adaptation, where the ‘essence’ of a text is adapted from one medium to another.

Besides McFarlane’s Barthesian concepts seeming to be reformulated versions of the fidelity of physical and spiritual adaptations as described by Andrew, there may be another role that highlights the importance of fidelity.  As stated by McFarlane differences in cardinal functions are easy to detect and cause great distress when a film adaptation is compared to the novel on which it was based.  Differences in indices can similarly evoke derision or possibly even praise for the director for, say, translating verbal metaphor to film.  Regardless of whether or not fidelity to the ‘source’ text is a good/bad thing, attention to fidelity serves to form/frame a dialogue between the adaptation and the adapted…the differences in the texts (the degree to which fidelity is maintained) are what bring to light the issues presented in McFarlane’s subsequent intertextual criticism of adaptation.

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One Response to Transfer and Adaptation

  1. I didn’t see much difference between what McFarlane is saying and what Andrew is saying. I feel he is still talking about fidelity, no matter what name he gives it. I felt as if he was just giving names to “new” concepts, which at first seem different, but on closer inspection looks just like fidelity.

    I had this sneaky feeling that there is a concerted effort to — I don’t know — put film on equal footing with the novel. I feel as if, everything we’ve read serves to — ultimately — give film a more concrete function that’s separate from the novel. But I ask myself: Ok, so if film is so great, why does it have to keep borrowing from the novel. Why not just churn out original ideas all the time. He discusses some reasons (the one that’s interesting is the word into flesh comparison). But why is film so dependent on the novel? He might say that it’s not that film is dependent on the novel, but that there is a richness of art that adapts each other. Books also adapt. But in 2012, it doesn’t “seem” to me that films are dependent on narratives already formed, it is exactly so. I’m not asking for an entirely new genre or category; I want a new narrative even if it’s part of a preexisting genre or category.

    So, after reading all this “stuff” (is that mean?), I’m left with the feeling that film is completely dependent on books — or at least already formed, written down, preexisting narratives. The creativity of a film shouldn’t just lie in the camera angles you use or your use of montage or the amount of explosions and gore there is, but in the originality of the narrative. If the film is a commentary on the book, then have they read the critical theory on the book? In researching a book, do they (the director or screenwriter) read the critical theory? If their commentary is coming from a dip into critical theory, then they’re still dependent on “the word.”

    BUT, adaptations are different in certain ways: one I feel is because of music and the other are those unutterable phrases that we don’t hear in novels. Books don’t have music. When I read *Jane Eyre*, there’s no music. But in movies there is music. So what role does music play? Is music a kind of fidelity? Secondly, in a novel like *Wuthering Heights* there are moments where we see, and he yelled curses at her then stormed out or that he yelled curses of which were unutterable. In the movie we — I think — must hear what those curses are. Is that fidelity? Or is the film producing something new — rewriting the novel in a way — through the actual representation of the movie? *smiles* Or am I giving these curses more credence that they deserve?

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