Materializing Adaptation Theory: The Adaptation Industry

By Murray, Simone | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Materializing Adaptation Theory: The Adaptation Industry

Murray, Simone, Literature/Film Quarterly

[T]he great innovators of the twentieth century, in film and novel both, have had so little to do with each other, have gone their ways alone, always keeping a firm but respectful distance.

George Bluestone, Novels into Film (63)

I would suggest that what we need instead is a broader definition of adaptation and a sociology that takes into account the commercial apparatus, the audience, and the academic culture industry.

James Naremore, "Introduction: Film and the Reign of Adaptation" (10)

Even a casual observer of the field of adaptation studies would perceive that the discipline is clearly suffering from intellectual dolours. Long regarded as the bastard offspring of literary studies and film theory, adaptation studies has struggled to achieve academic respectability since its inception in the 1950s. The field's insistence on studying screen culture was perceived as threatening by English departments predicated on the superiority of literary studies. Simultaneously, adaptation studies' residual attachment to print culture alienated it from the burgeoning discipline of film theory, whose adherents proposed jettisoning an indelibly hostile literary studies paradigm in favor of valorizing film as an art form in its own right. But more worryingly, adaptation studies is currently experiencing a welter of criticism not only from outside its own ranks, but also from within. Adaptation scholar James Naremore laments the "jejune" and "moribund" nature of contemporary adaptation studies ("Introduction" 1, 11). According to Robert B. Ray, the bulk of adaptations criticism constitutes a "dead end," "useless" in its stale models and trite suppositions (39,46). Similarly, Robert Stam-prolific scholar behind a recent three-volume series on adaptation for publisher Blackwell-asserts that adaptation studies as it currently stands is "inchoate," hamstrung by the "inadequate trope" of fidelity criticism, whereby screen adaptations are judged accordingly to their relative "faithfulness" to print originals ("Beyond Fidelity" 76, 62). For Thomas Leitch, "adaptation theory has remained tangential to the thrust of film study," resulting in a discipline that "has been marginalized because it wishes to be" ("Twelve Fallacies" 149, 168).1 Kamilla Elliott, another recent addition to this chorus of disciplinary lament, regrets "the pervasive sense that adaptation scholars lag behind the critical times" (4).2 Viewed in an optimistic light, such comments together suggest that adaptation studies as a field is currently bubbling with intellectual ferment, and is ripe for a sea-change in theoretical and methodological paradigms. Surveyed more pessimistically, remarks such as these suggest a field flailing to find some cohesion and to revivify its academic prospects. Regardless of which perspective is adopted, there is a substantial irony evident: as adaptation increasingly comes to comprise the structural logic of contemporary media and cultural industries, leading adaptation scholars publicly question the adequacy of the field's established paradigms to comprehend what is taking place. Adaptation studies appears deeply internally conflicted: the right discipline, at the right time, lumbered with an obsolete methodology.

Insider critics of adaptation studies base their disparaging verdicts on the discipline's production of a seemingly endless stream of comparative case-studies of print and screen versions of individual texts (Ray 39). This methodology of comparative textual analysis underpinned adaptation studies' founding critical text-George Bluestone's Novels into Film-and has since ossified into an almost unquestioned methodological orthodoxy within the field. Adaptation critics seek similarities and contrasts in book-film pairings in order to understand the specific characteristics of the respective book and film mediums, in what Naremore has termed an obsessive "literary formalism" ("Introduction" 9). Frustratingly, such studies routinely produce conclusions that provide in fact no conclusion at all: comparative case-studies overwhelmingly give rise to the frankly unilluminating finding that there are similarities between the two mediums, but also differences, before moving on to the next book-film pairing to repeat the exercise. …

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