Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More on Adaptation Studies, Case-Studies and "Theory"

I am encouraged by the level of comments generated by an earlier post on the subject, where I concentrated on the importance of recognizing cultural difference, as well as relating adaptation studies to Jerome Bruner’s notion of story-making.

In re-considering the relationship between the “theoretical” and “practical” aspects of adaptation, I was reminded of a panel, staged in Ankara in 1997, designed to look at the “theoretical” and “practical” aspects of cultural studies.  At that time I was quite vehement in my opposition to postcolonial theory, based on the belief that, as the Republic of Turkey had never actually been colonized, it had little or no significance in the local context.  Those local academics who practiced it might have willingly allowed themselves to be colonized by western-originated theories.  I asserted instead that perhaps we should concentrate on the “real business” of inter- and/or cross-cultural analysis.

Now the intellectual pendulum has changed completely.  Perhaps we need to theorize a little more about what “adaptation studies” actually is, and the effect not only on the texts adapted, but on those who instigate the adaptive process – writers and other creative personnel.  Perhaps this can be accomplished through a profusion of case-studies, or perhaps we need to stand apart slightly from the minutiae of what is “gained” and “lost” through adaptation and consider in more abstract terms questions such as “why adaptation?” 

This may involve a rethink of the way we “do” adaptation studies.  In looking at how source-texts are transformed – in the media, for instance – maybe we need to move away from plot and/or characterization and focus instead on the relationship between psychology and adaptation, and the way in which that relationship influences the ways in which a text is transformed.  The rationale behind this approach is based on the belief that “adaptation” is something unique, different from “translation” or “appropriation” in its emphasis on the ways in which human beings learn how to make sense of the world around them (as Piaget has repeatedly observed).  On this view an adapted text represents something of an intervention, a comment on the world in which it has been produced as well as received.

In this model, the question of equivalence is irrelevant; the adapted text is a text in its own right, produced for quite different purposes to the source-text.  Textual analysis might be significant, but only insofar as it helps us to understand the purposes of those involved in the adaptation.  Authorial intention is fundamental, despite what Patrick Cattrysse tells us.  More importantly, by looking at how the adaptation has been received by audiences, critics and other members of different groups, we can understand the importance of cultural difference; what a screenplay writer intends, and how an audience responds to that intention, are often completely different.

In terms of the debate I engaged with many years ago, the issue of “postcolonialism” retains its significance, based on the belief that different readers and audiences have different views of what the term involves.  By comparing and contrasting such views, through discussion and/or analysis, we learn to “adapt” our views of what postcolonialism actually is.  Through such discussions, we are inevitably conducting inter- and intracultural analysis.  There is no real distinction between “theory” and “practice” in this model; they are simply two sides of the same intellectual coin.

The same process also applies to the case-study.  If that case-study addresses the issue of “adaptation” and what it involves, rather than simply conducting a comparative analysis between source- and target texts for their own sake (i.e. what is “gained” and “lost”), then it has the potential to make a serious contribution to our theoretical understanding.  Likewise a theoretical analysis of adaptation that uses case-studies to make its points helps us to appreciate better the transcultural possibilities of the discipline.  There is no real binarist distinction between “theory” and “practice”; the two are inseparable.

I think I have really come to understand this in a recent graduate course conducted with teachers of English, where they use their classroom experiences of how their learners tried to adapt (or failed to adapt) to a text as a basis for re-evaluating their pedagogic practice.  This kind of reflection helps them to become more “adaptive” in orientation, and thereby appreciate better the link between adaptation studies and psychology.  I wonder if the same happens in the media studies classroom?  I do hope so.   


  1. Interesting stuff!
    I love the question: Why adaptation? It's an under-asked one. Or maybe we can tweak it into a more broad-based reception question: What does the act of adaptation perform in/for the culture that produces/consumes the product?
    One possibility: the act of adaptation can be seen to do direct and interesting work in the culture--work that, as you put it, "helps human beings learn how to make sense of the world around them." At that point, what's "lost" and "gained" in the process of adaptation becomes particularly interesting and potentially productive. Not for what such things tell us about the adapted text, but for what they tell us about the culture that produced the conditions that led to and received the adaptation. We can read adaptations as a sort of cultural track changes, textual re-iterations that allow us to tap into some of the specifics of the fluid and on-going process of the formation of cultural identity. For instance, what elements we choose to emphasize in, say, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Tempest is likely to be radically different for adapters in, say, Restoration-period England, Victorian-era Britain, 20th-century Francophone Martinique, or 21st-century America.
    And here we see that collapse of the binary between theory and practice--the idea that the adaptations themselves function as productive interpretations. And the ways that we then interpret those interpretations is not altogether separate from the interpretations themselves. As critics, we're a part of the adaptive process, not apart from it. And I guess adaptation studies needs to do more to account for that?

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