Adaptation Has Been the Bad Boy of Interart Criticism…

Kamilla Elliott (133): “Adaptation has been the bad boy of interart criticism” . . . because:

1) it blurs categorizations of the arts

2) commits two central heresies:

  • it suggests that words and images may be translatable after all.
  • it suggests that form separates from content.

“Six mostly unofficial concepts of adaptation that split form from content in various ways to account for the process of adaptation. . . . They overlap as frequently as they conflict and are by no means presented here as ideal, prescriptive, or even empirically ‘true,’ but rather as concepts operative in practice and criticism, where novel/film rivalries bristle in the cracks . . . between form and content” (135).

The Psychic Concept (136)
  • understands what passes from book to film as “the spirit of the text”
  • “spirit of the text” commonly equated with the spirit or personality of the author, or with “authorial intent,” or “authorial style”
  • does not simply advance an infusion of filmic form with authorial literary spirit: it posits a process of psychic connection in which the spirit of a text passes from author to novel to reader-filmmaker to film to viewer
  • The Novel’s Spirit –> (The Novel’s Form) –> (Reader-Filmmaker Response) –> (Film) –> Viewer Response
The Ventriloquist Concept (143)
  • differs from Psychic Concept in that it pays no lip service to authorial spirit: rather, it blatantly empties out the novel’s signs and fills them with filmic spirits
  • The Novel’s Signs – The Novel’s Signifieds = The Novel’s Signifiers
  • the adaptation here is a composite of novel and film, rather than pure film
  • while the ventriloquist concept appears diametrically opposed to the psychic view, its idea of residual meaning lingering in s0-called empty forms does not differ essentially from the idea that a spirit passes from a novel to a film in adaptation
  • both concepts grapple with the idea that meaning is a “nebulous spirit” that can enter and leave forms. (inseparable sides of the same coin)
The Genetic Concept (150)
  • the genetic concept is well established in narratological approaches
  • narratologists figure what transfers between literature and film as an underlying “deep” narrative structure akin to genetic structure, awaiting Chatman’s “manifesting substance” in much the same way that genetic material awaits manifesting substance in the cells and tissues of the body
  • narratological approaches thus allow a separation of form and content at the higher categorical level of narrative (a category that contains both novels and films) while precluding heretical form and content splits at the basic level of categorization (level of individual signs)
The De(Re)composing Concept (157)
  • under the de(re)composing concept of adaptation, novel and film decompose, merge, and form a new composition at “underground” levels of reading
  • the adaptation is a composite of textual and filmic sings merging in audience consciousness together with other cultural narratives and often leads to confusion as to which is novel and which is film
  • many so-called “unfaithful” adaptations are operating under a de(re)composing model
  • but if one reads in both directions one often finds the alleged infidelities clearly in the text
The Incarnational Concept (161)
  • predicated on the Christian theology of the word made flesh, wherein the word is only a partial expression of a more total representation that requires incarnation for its fulfillment
  • the incarnational concept of adaptation differs from the psychic view in that it does not posit the novel as a transcendental signified to which the film must attach appropriate signifiers, but rather as a transcendental signifier 
  • the incarnational concept of adaptation maintains that the word seeks incarnation as ardently as it is sought by incarnating forms
  • just as psychic and ventriloquist concepts of adaptation represent two sides of the same coin, so too do genetic and incarnational concepts
The Trumping Concept (173)
  • addresses which medium represents better
  • under the trumping concept, the novel’s signs lose representational authority in the name of a signified that the novel “meant to” or “tried to” or “should have” represented
  • splits the novel’s form from its content to assert that the one has betrayed the other: that the novel’s signifiers have been false to and have betrayed their own signifieds, their own heart
  • many adaptations faulted as faithless are, in fact, engaging in trumping activities–in outrepresenting rather in misrepresenting the novels they adapt

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About Kevin L. Ferguson

Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing at Queens
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