A Theory of Adaptation
If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and films alone, you’re wrong. The Victorians had a habit of adapting just about everything—and in just about every possible direction; the stories of poems, novels, plays, operas, paintings, songs, dances, and tableaux vivants were constantly being adapted from one medium to another and then back again. We postmoderns have clearly inherited this same habit, but we have even more new materials at our disposal—not only film, television, radio, and the various electronic media, of course, but also theme parks, historical enactments, and virtual reality experiments. The result? Adaptation has run amok. That’s why we can’t understand its appeal and even its nature if we only consider novels and films. Anyone who has ever experienced an adaptation (and who hasn’t?) has a theory of adaptation, conscious or not. I am no exception. A Theory of Adaptation is one attempt to think through not only this continuing popularity but also the constant critical denigration of the general phenomenon of adaptation—in all its various media incarnations. xii Preface
Whether it be in the form of a videogame or a musical, an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary and certainly never as good as the “original.” This critical abuse is one of the provocations of this study; the other is the sheer number and kinds of adaptations both across genres and media and also within the same ones. Most of the work done on adaptation has been carried out on cinematic transpositions of literature, but a broader theorizing seems warranted in the face of the phenomenon’s variety and ubiquity. Adaptations seem so common, so “natural,” so obvious—but are they?
On a more personal note, I have learned that obsessions (intellectual and other) rarely disappear, even if they do mutate. There have been common threads in my past critical work that reappear in this book. First, I have always had a strong interest in what has come to be called “intertextuality” or the dialogic relations among texts, but I have never felt that this was only a formal issue. Works in any medium are both created and received by people, and it is this human, experiential context that allows for the study of the politics of intertextuality. This has also always been my concern, and it continues to be so in this book. A second constant has been a perhaps perverse de-hierarchizing impulse, a desire to challenge the explicitly and implicitly negative cultural evaluation of things like postmodernism, parody, and now, adaptation, which are seen as secondary and inferior.
Once again, I have tried to derive theory from practice—as wide a cultural practice as possible. I have used many different examples here in order to make it easier for readers to “hook onto” some familiar work and thus onto my theorizing from it. My method has been to identify a text-based issue that extends across a variety of media, find ways to study it comparatively, and then tease out the theoretical implications from multiple textual examples. At various times, therefore, I take on the roles of formalist semiotician, poststructuralist deconstructor, or feminist and postcolonial demythifier; but at no time do I (at least consciously) try to impose any of these theories on my examination of the texts or the general issues surrounding adaptation. All these perspectives and others, however, do inevitably inform my theoretical frame of reference. So, too, does the very fact that, as Robert Stam has noted (2005b: 8–12), all the various manifestations of “theory” over the last decades Preface xiii
should logically have changed this negative view of adaptation. There are many shared lessons taught by Kristevan intertextuality theory and Derridean deconstruction and by Foucauldian challenges to unified subjectivity and the often radically egalitarian approach to stories (in all media) by both narratology and...
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