The failure of fidelity

Now that we’re fairly removed from the criticism based on fidelity, perhaps it’s time to ask: why do we as readers/moviegoers/consumers invest so much in whether or not an adaptation is faithful? Why are we so beholden to the original?

Through Robert Ray’s “Film and Literature,” we finally – finally – have an articulation of the futility of fidelity, of holding literature next to and above film.

“Without benefit of a presiding poetics, Literature and Film scholars could only persist in asking about individual movies the same unproductive layman’s question (How does the film compare to the book?), getting the same unproductive answer (The book is better). Each article seemed isolated from all the others, its insights apparently stopped at the borders of the specific film or novel selected for analysis” (126). This limited approach to adaptations, this propensity for close readings (which Ray aptly notes is a result of Literature scholars’ allegiance and training in their literary fields), fails to create a philosophy or methodology with which to analyze adaptations in general by passing off downright subjective (“impressionistic”) opinion about film as serious analysis and objective criticism. It’s fine enough to say that one prefers the novel over the adaptation, but the reasoning behind such a judgment often demeans the work of an industry that has defined a whole century, leaving half of the adaptation equation (film) to flounder in a murky critical abyss. We are too entrenched in the medium, in images and film, to dismiss its unique mechanisms and cultural value without serious examination. By holding film alongside literature, by insisting on fidelity, we fail to involve ourselves in a better and more productive view of film that does justice to its nature and its place in our lives. “[T]he cinema’s very different determinations (commercial exposure, collaborative production, public consumption) made irrelevant methods of analysis developed for ‘serious literature’” (128).

Regarding the veneration of the literary source over the cinematic reproduction, a premise on which fidelity is predicated, Ray continues, “Philosophically, it rests on a hierarchy/opposition of original and copy, which Jacques Derrida has repeatedly deconstructed. Practically, it rests on a notion of original ‘aura’ dissipated by what Walter Benjamin first described as modernity’s rapidly accumulating tools for mechanical reproduction” (127). Coincidentally, this is the starting point to the thesis of my investigative proposal: fidelity is based on an assumption of authority that doesn’t exist and would be ludicrous to presume to exist in our (post) postmodern world where no one and everyone is a cultural authority (see also: Nietzsche’s authenticity; Benjamin’s democratization of art through reproducibility). That is, there can be no notion of “high art,” of a hierarchal understanding of cultural value, when anyone and anything can be – and is, according to a broad sense of creation – an artist, an original, a copy, a participant in the discourse. As such, value is not inherent but conferred – art no longer has meaning in and of itself but one gained through a system of relations, through discourse. “Instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice – politics” (Benjamin qtd in Ray 128). Films’ “very different determinations,” the political aspects and associations informing its creation, inform part of the basis for which it must be analyzed and valued (also the basis for the method of my investigative proposal). Given this democratization, this broadening of what art and culture means and includes, why does the notion of fidelity still persist?

Despite this shift towards a “sociology of adaptation” and my reluctance to accept the concept of fidelity, does this mean that we can or should throw away fidelity altogether? Is there still value to it, one amenable to a construction of film as equal to or – dare I say it – better to literature? Can we reconcile fidelity with a more productive model of films?

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