Harvard Outline of Connor

“The Persistence of Fidelity”

I. The Fidelity Reflex

A. Stam’s principal objection is the covert moralising of fidelity discourse.

B. For Robert B. Ray and Dudley Andrew, the problem with fidelity is that it makes for boring criticism.

C. What [Hutcheon] has to gain is the ability to talk about what interests her: “there appears to be little need to engage directly in the constant debate over degrees of proximity to the ‘original’” (7).

D. Andrew, by contrast, hoped his attacks on fidelity discourse would change the discipline.

E. For adaptation theory to have any chance of success, it must do two things.

1. First, it must account for the persistence of fidelity discourse despite decades of resourceful argument against it.

2. Second, it must account for its own blind spot: What has the campaign against fidelity failed to get at?

II. The Conversation of Judgment

A. How could adaptation studies have resisted such an onslaught; Ray’s answer is that the field of film and literature has remained in a “pre-paradigmatic state.”

B. As total an explanation as this is, indeed, as damning as Ray’s indictment of the field may seem, even he finds the origin of the fidelity discourse outside the academy.

C. “But Compared to the Original” is the title of an article by William Fadiman from 1965 that attempted to nip fidelity discourse in the bud.

D. They not only blur the mutational process; these statements make a terrible category error.

E. But whether they are partisans of a modernist medium specificity or a postmodern intertextuality (or intermediality), such critics are all dedicated to the proposition that there can be no hierarchy between textual instances.

F. For fidelity to seem a compelling standard, there would necessarily be an antecedent evaluation of the merits of the version the commenter had first encountered.

G. I am saying that fidelity debates provide a way of avoiding questions of quality.

III. Induction, Authority, and the Case Study

A. If we see fidelity discourse as an avoidance of judgment, then, the repeated critical injunction against fidelity because it is surreptitiously judgmental is not an antidote to, but a reiteration of, the fundamental move.

B. For Ray, again, the problem with comparisons is not that they are inattentive but that they import precisely the evaluative stance Bluestone is attempting to rule out through a belief in medium specificity.

C. Yet neither Ray nor Bluestone nor any of the other adaptation theorists has recognised the role fidelity discourse plays in the layman’s discussion, a role that is less the surreptitious evaluation of an adaptation than an attempt at an objective justification of the prior evaluation.

D. Adaptations put the options on the table; they suggest particular alternatives, and (despite Ray’s despair) over time they may provide cumulative support for notions of adaptive success and failure at various levels of generality.

E. If comparisons are the first steps toward theorisation, fidelity discussions are the stalking horses for questions of authority, questions that might be (and are) answered sociologically or anthropologically or economically.

IV. Fidelity without Borders

A. Where the New Critic might demonstrate the systematicity of a particular work of art, the adaptation critic would displace that systematicity to the relationships between works.

B. Pragmatic questions of mode, process, or sociology frequently appear as pacifications of skeptical questions of knowledge and being.

C. Ray’s answer is that commercial filmmaking turned to realistic storytelling to appeal to a middle-class audience, to hide its operations, and to solidify its self-regulating industrial oligopoly.

D. Kamilla Elliott…finds a productive “tension” in criticism between adherence to the theory that the content of a story cannot be separated from its form (hence cannot be carried from novel to film) and heretical arguments that show how it is that content peels off and finds new forms.

E. But for Elliott, the fidelity debate is misguided not because fidelity asks the impossible but because at bottom critics of fidelity seek to purge cinema of its literariness.

F. Fidelity may be gone, but its “endless” parade of case studies remains, yet not because the skeptical question went unasked.

G. If laymen have persisted in judging adaptations and in raising fidelity questions when those judgments slip away, critics have persisted in their attempts to silence that conversation of judgment.

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About Kevin L. Ferguson

Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing at Queens
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