Why Adapt?

By Hutcheon, Linda | Post Script, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Why Adapt?


Hutcheon, Linda, Post Script


Witnessing the immense number of adaptations--in all media--today, it would seem that many artists have chosen to take on what is in effect a dual responsibility: to adapt another's work and to make of it an autonomous creation. Giacomo Puccini was expected to do so in his operas; Marius Petitpas was lauded for doing so in his ballets. However, when filmmakers and their scriptwriters adapt literary works, in particular, a profoundly moralistic rhetoric often greets their endeavors. In Robert Stam's vivid terms:

   Infidelity resonates with overtones of
   Victorian prudishness; betrayal
   evokes ethical perfidy; deformation
   implies aesthetic disgust; violation
   calls to mind sexual violence; vulgarization
   conjures up class degradation;
   and desecration intimates a kind of
   religious sacrilege toward the 'sacred
   word'. (54)

Given the ubiquity of adaptations, the time has clearly come to move away from this kind of evaluation, but there is another question that his description poses: why would anyone willingly enter this moralistic fray and agree to become an adapter? Should a prospective adapter be a masochist as well as having all the other qualities said to be ideal: humility, respect, compassion, wit, and a sharp razor?

Over twenty years ago Donald Larsson called for a "theory of adaptation based on an accurate history of the motivations and techniques of adaptations" (69), but few seem to have shared his interest in motivations, except to dismiss them as mercenary and opportunistic. It is obvious that videogame adaptations (on any platform) are attempts to cash in on the popularity of certain films (and vice-versa, as Lara Croft has shown). It is also true that films are often made of Pulitzer Prize-winning books like Alice Walker's The Color Purple or Toni Morrison's Beloved. Expensive art forms like operas, musicals, and films are often on the lookout for safe financial bets. They too, in a sense, seek ways to expand the audience for their "franchise."

There are still other motives besides the economic implied here, however. Television adaptations of British eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels may intend to benefit from their adapted works' cultural respectability. Similarly, in a sort of reverse form of cultural accreditation, classical music performers sometimes aspire to become popular entertainers: Joshua Rifkin's Baroque Beatles Book rearranges the famous group's songs for baroque orchestra, including a cantata version of "Help" (see Gendron 172-73). Related to this desire to shift cultural "level" is the pedagogical impulse behind much literary adaptation to both film and TV. One of the largest markets for these works includes students of literature and their teachers, the latter keen to appeal to the cinematic imaginations of those they teach.

It is also obvious that adapters must have their own personal reasons for deciding, first, to do an adaptation, and then which adapted work to choose. They not only interpret that work, but in so doing they also take a position on it. For instance, David Edgar's stage adaptation of Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickelby for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980 has been called "a play about Dickens that critiqued his form of social morality, rather than a straight dramatization of the novel" (Innis 71). Some critics even take the stand that a "truly artistic" adaptation must "subvert its original, perform a double and paradoxical job of masking and unveiling its source" (Cohen 255). But Merchant/Ivory films of the novels of E.M. Forster, for example, are intended (and received) as almost reverential treatments. Some song covers are openly meant as tributes: Holly Colt's Temptation is a homage to Tom Waits. Others are meant to critique: when Tori Amos covers male misogynist songs, the new vocal angle subverts the adapted work's ideology.

An adaptation can also be used to engage in (or avoid) a larger social or cultural critique. …

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